Buster Keaton said his first appearance on-stage was inspired by a desire to take part in the fun his parents seemed to be having. Keaton was just nine-months-old when he crawled on from the wings, and encouraged by the audience’s laughter, planted himself between his father’s legs, where he played peek-a-boo with the smiling faces.
His parents, Joe and Myra Keaton were part of traveling medicine show. For a time they were partners with a magician and escapologist called Harry Houdini. Joe told jokes, sang songs, Harry astonished the audience with his tricks, while Myra played the saxophone and acted out roles in the short plays they produced. Houdini was a witness to Buster’s first dramatic entrance.
Aged six-months, Buster fell head-over-heels down a steep flight of stairs in an hotel. Thinking the infant hurt (or worse dead), Houdini rushed to the child and was shocked to find the baby gurgling with laughter. Houdini told Joe and Myra, “That’s some buster your baby took!” Buster was the term for a theatrical prat-fall or stunt. Thereafter, the name “Buster” stuck with the young Joseph Frank Keaton.
Whether the story’s true or not it was repeated so often and printed in so many newspapers that it became “true.” When Buster was three, he was carried-off by a cyclone, which deposited him, unharmed, several blocks away.
Buster’s father was an able PR man, who recognized in his son the opportunity to create an act and garner considerable column inches. The stories about Buster and his misadventures appeared all over America. These were clipped and kept by his mother in the family scrapbook. Buster’s addition relaunched the family act as The Three Keatons.
“Keep your eye on the kid,” ran their tag-line. The act was a variation on the infant Buster’s desire to join his parents on stage, only this time Joe would throw the child across the stage, kick-him like a football into the audience, and swing him like a toy over his head—just like the cartoon antics of Homer and Bart Simpson. In front of the audience this may have all seemed like one happy act, but backstage Joe was equally abusive and violent, but this time for real, to his bread-winning son.
Because of his age, Buster was banned from performing certain States. This led to Joe duping the authorities by having Buster dressed as an adult, given a false beard, and described in the billing as “a midget.” It worked. This was Buster Keaton’s entry into his life of show business.
In 1965, Keaton made The Railrodder a two-reeler film in the style of his classic silent movies, for the National Film Board of Canada (in conjunction with Canadian National Railways). The making of this film was in turn documented in a short film called Buster Keaton Rides Again, in which Keaton gave incredible insight into filmmaking and comedy and discussed his career as an actor, writer and director.
Buster Keaton in The Railrodder. You’ll note that it’s about half the length of the “behind-the scenes” production documentary.