The way Ron Pesch got into Buster Keaton was that someone close to him told him that Charlie Chaplin lived just outside of Muskegon.
Pesch was about 12, and the parent was wrong. It wasn’t Chaplin who called Lake Muskegon his favorite place on Earth, it was Keaton.
Close enough. Better, even. Here we are almost five decades later, and Pesch, a local historian, is about to welcome a new wave of invaders from the International Buster Keaton Society.
“What continues to impress me,” he says, “is that people of all ages come from all over the world because Buster Keaton loved it here. They come from New Zealand. We had young girls, twins, from France.We had a wife from Germany whose husband stayed home because he doesn’t speak English – he would understand the movies, but nothing else.
The convention isn’t until October 7-8, but official hotels will soon stop taking discounted reservations, and…
Expect. What? You don’t know who Buster Keaton was?
OK. That clip you saw of the confused man in the waterwheel, scampering around like a hamster? Keton. The one where the whole front of a house falls forward onto the street, and the man standing in front doesn’t get run over because he’s where the open window lands? Keaton again.
He was huge before the movies got sound, he remained relevant as an actor and director throughout the beach movies of the 1960s, and the faithful have found their way every pandemic-free year since 1995 to kiss the cheek of his statue in the old Muskegon Railway Station.
The statue is life-size, approximately 5 feet 6 inches, and it is made of Bondo. Yes, Bondo, the all-purpose putty your uncle applied to the dents in his 1989 Taurus.
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It’s funny in itself, which is fair.
Either way, it was Buster Keaton, who survived his own outrageous stunts and died of lung cancer in 1966 at the age of 70. , which is rather funny and rather not.
Muskegon: a showbiz paradise
Further south, along Lake Michigan, logging companies have deforested the land so much that the city of Singapore has simply closed its doors. A few buildings were dragged to Saugatuck and the rest were submerged by sand dunes.
Muskegon was even busier and more distraught. In the 1880s, the city had 47 sawmills and was called the lumber queen of the world. By 1900, the industry had been reduced to sawdust.
The good news was that the lakeside land was cleared and cheap by the time Joe Keaton drove through town on a vaudeville tour. He and his wife, Myra, were reasonably sized stars, with an act that largely consisted of Joe throwing his son Buster through walls or even into audiences.
Buster learned to fall out of necessity, and his father realized that if he could attract a group of his showbiz friends, they could have an acting colony. That’s what they called it: the Actor’s Colony, with various other residents, including an elephant and a zebra from an “Oddities of the Jungle” number.
The most successful vaudevillians were able to take summers, says Pesch, a nice bonus when theaters weren’t yet air-conditioned.
“These guys bought the hottest boats on Lake Michigan,” he says. “They fished, they partied, they worked their numbers for the next season.”
Buster remembered it fondly and came back as an adult – and now people remember Buster.
Typically, there are 100 to 125 conventioneers, united in their devotion to the deadpan actor known as Great Stone Face.
Pesch, 60, leads tours of relevant landmarks or places where landmarks used to be. There’s screenings, of course, and an auction, and a guy from Chicago named Dennis Scott comes to play a theater organ.
A table reading will feature a new piece about Keaton and his third and last wife, Eleanor, who attended early gatherings and donated some of his family photos. Keaton’s granddaughter, Melissa Talmadge Cox, will give a presentation. Highlighting the togetherness and specialness of it all, there’s also a family-style Thanksgiving dinner.
The headquarters hotel is the Shoreline Inn, and don’t underestimate the party power of a Keaton fan.
“These people are here, and they’re going strong until 3 a.m.,” Pesch says, “sharing pictures and stories and becoming friends.”
Pesch has been to all the gatherings of fans who call themselves Damfinos, pronounced Dam-FIE-nose and referencing how Keaton slipped in “Damn if I know” in a movie called “The Boat.”
In terms of perfect attendance, however, Jack Dragga of Bedford, Ohio says “we don’t count Ron, because all he has to do is walk down the street.”
Dragga, who is somewhere north of 65, and an Englishman named David Macleod have been on every call. He skips tours, he says, because the buildings haven’t changed. Movies either, but sometimes there’s a cleaner feel and he’ll notice something new.
“People can relate to him,” Dragga says. He means Keaton, not Pesch, although Pesch gets involved too. “He’s downtrodden, but he always gets up.”
Think of him as the strong, quiet type. Completely silent. In a cacophonous world, maybe that’s part of the attraction.
Neal Rubin also prefers Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin. Contact him at @[email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @nealrubin_fp.