MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Virtually every West Michigan community has an interesting story to tell. Grand Rapids is “Furniture City” and “Beer City, USA.” But plenty of smaller cities have things that make them unique as well — perhaps none more than Muskegon.
The city has given birth to professional athletes and Olympians, a punk rock icon and two Miss Americas. The snowboard? One of the first prototypes was developed in Muskegon. The pins at the end of your bowling alley? They were likely manufactured in Muskegon. The illustrator who drew Coca-Cola’s iconic Santa Claus and the Quaker Oats mascot? He grew up in Muskegon.
But perhaps its greatest claim to fame is that it once served as the home to dozens and dozens of some of the country’s most popular entertainers, including one of America’s finest silent film stars: Buster Keaton.
The story starts at the turn of the 20th century. Before TV and radio, the theater was one of the few outlets for entertainment and vaudeville performers drew some major crowds. It was a way to make a living, but not necessarily a lucrative one. Many performers were forced to travel and perform year-round to make ends meet, and Muskegon became a go-to summer destination because of its lake breeze and its outdoor pavilion, which beat the swampy pre-air-conditioned theaters down south.
Local historian Ron Pesch says the city’s waterfront pavilion started it all.
“What we know today as Pere Marquette Park was then called Lake Michigan Park. It was really owned by the folks that owned the streetcar line in town,” Pesch told News 8. “It was another source of revenue for them. At the end of the streetcar line was an amusement park. It was based on the beach, and it had all forms of entertainment. … You could ride a roller coaster, play games of chance, have a picnic and you could watch vaudeville shows at the pavilion that they had built there.”
One of the first vaudeville stars to fall in love with Muskegon was Joseph Keaton, Buster’s father.
“The Keatons happened to come to Muskegon in 1902 and again in 1905,” Pesch explained. “Coincidentally, the property down in the area of town known as Bluffton, just on the other side of Pigeon Hill, was for sale. There was something like 47 active sawmills on Muskegon Lake back in the lumber era. But the lumber era had ended, and they were clearing those properties. Joe Keaton learned there was some property for sale right there next to Lake Michigan Park.”
He eventually bought some and returned to the road, telling his fellow vaudevillians that he had found a summer paradise, convincing more and more people to make the move alongside him and his family.
“He talked to a lot of his friends about this ‘little slice of heaven’ that he had found in Muskegon, Michigan,” Pesch said.
By 1908, Joe Keaton and some friends had founded the Actors’ Colony. At one point, more than 200 vaudeville performers were visiting Muskegon for the summer. Many bought land and built cottages. The colony gave them a place to relax and work on their shows for the upcoming season.
“The idea was, as these guys got more successful, they could take their summers off, sit back and relax, and that’s exactly what they did,” Pesch explained. “Some of the bigger names in vaudeville spent their summers in Muskegon along with the Keatons. And these guys had an absolute blast. They swam, they bought some of the hottest boats going at the time, they started a regatta, they had parties, and they invited other performers to join them.”
The Keatons, including young Buster, weren’t the only big name. Max Gruber was well known for his “Oddities of the Jungle” show, which featured all sorts of animals including an elephant that was a common sight around the neighborhood.
“The Millards, the Grubers, the Gardners came to town. I mean, some of these people had their face on the cover of Variety Magazine,” Pesch said, highlighting just how famous these now-forgotten acts once were.
But none of them were ever as widely acclaimed as Buster Keaton.
KEATON’S ONE TRUE HOME
Buster Keaton was born in Piqua, Kansas, in 1895, but the tiny town wasn’t home. It was simply the stop on the road where his mother happened to go into labor. Keaton was born into vaudeville and grew up on the road. His time in Muskegon, which he cherished, was his only true time to be a child.
“When Joe Keaton built the cottage in 1908, that was the first true home that the Keatons had. Buster and his two siblings got to play like everybody else in the summer, and then Buster worked with his parents the rest of the year. That’s why he always called (Muskegon) home,” Pesch said.
But it wouldn’t stay that way forever. The vaudeville era eventually came to an end, the family act dissolved, and the Actors’ Colony along with it. The vaudeville scene faded away and the entertainment industry transitioned to Los Angeles and New York. Some from the colony made the switch. Others decided to give it up and settle down in West Michigan.
Buster Keaton, not yet a household name, was able to make the move from the stage to the screen.
He got his start working alongside Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, appearing in more than a dozen of his short films and working as a director on some of them. He spent the 1920s making feature films, becoming well-known not only for his wit and daring stunts, but for his stoic expression. His refusal to smile earned him the nickname “The Great Stone Face.”
“I learned that from the stage,” Keaton said in a 1960 interview. “If I laughed at what I did, the audience didn’t. So, but the time I went into pictures, not smiling was mechanical with me.”
Keaton’s career had ebbs and flows. His popularity and overall happiness sank after he joined MGM Studios and was forced to change the way he went about developing his films. Keaton spent roughly 20 years seeking work in the “talkies” and moving between small film projects, all while grabbing radio and TV gigs whenever he could.
He eventually returned to prominence in the early 1950s, thanks in part to a LIFE Magazine essay that looked back on his comedy classics from the silent era. In 1952’s “Limelight,” he finally got a chance to act opposite a fellow silent film icon — Keaton’s close friend Charlie Chaplin. That film led to more TV appearances that carried Keaton’s career throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
But despite all of his time spent living in Hollywood and around the world, Keaton always considered Muskegon home and remembered it fondly.
Pesch recalled acting on a whim and placing a call to Keaton’s widow to learn more about his love of the city.
“Back in 1995, we started this Buster Keaton gathering here in Muskegon. At that time, I had learned that he had been married three times, and it turned out that his third wife was still around,” Pesch said with an audible smile. “Long story short, I found Eleanor’s phone number in the phone book. I got on the phone. A gal on the other end answered. I said, ‘My name is Ron Pesch. I live in Muskegon, Michigan. Are you the Eleanor Keaton who was married to Buster?’ And she goes, ‘I am. And did you say Muskegon?’”
He continued: “I said yes, and she goes, ‘That was his favorite place on Earth. It was a place where he could take off his hat, take off his tie and relax and have a good time. He wasn’t this Hollywood name. He was back home. He loved it there.’”
Eleanor Keaton made the trip to Muskegon for the convention in 1995 and each year after that until her death in 1998.
The legacy of Keaton and the Actors’ Colony can still be seen around Muskegon. The Bluffton neighborhood sign includes a caricature of Keaton’s “Great Stone Face.” Keaton Court is a small, quiet cul-de-sac about a mile away from his childhood home on Edgewater Street. And a statue capturing the silent film star stands proudly outside of the Frauenthal Center.
CAPTURING KEATON’S LEGACY
Ever the historian, Pesch manages a website dedicated to the history of the Actors’ Colony and is a former board member of the International Buster Keaton Society. He still helps organize the annual convention. It’s a weekend for Keaton superfans from all across the world to come to Muskegon and relish in the actor’s work.
“They come literally from all over the globe. We’ve got people coast to coast,” Pesch said before listing off the home countries of convention attendees, including Canada, Germany, France, Portugal and New Zealand.
Aside from Pesch’s walking tour of the historic neighborhood, guests can attend lectures on Keaton and his journey through the entertainment world. The second night is always reserved to watch Keaton’s work, taking in films as a group in the Frauenthal’s main theater, complete with a theatre organ and organist.
“It’s a chance for the public to see these things as they were shown,” Pesch said. “Yeah, you can watch some Keaton films at home on your couch with your wife or your girlfriend or whoever. But until you see a Keaton film with a live audience, you are going to be blown away.”
This year’s convention runs Oct. 6 and 7 and will include two newly restored short films, along with Keaton’s first independent feature film, “Three Ages.” Different ticket packages are available, including access to the full two-day convention or just Saturday evening’s showings and banquet.
Pesch is also part of the team wrapping up a new documentary on the star called “Buster Keaton: Home.” It is currently being submitted to film festivals for viewing. Pesch said it goes beyond the typical Buster Keaton story and focuses on Muskegon.
“The world doesn’t need another Keaton documentary. There are a ton of them out there. But in general, what happens is the story of Buster and vaudeville, that all occurs with the first seven minutes or less. Then, the next hour, two hours are spent telling the rest of his career,” Pesch said. “What we have done is flipped that on its head. We sum up the rest of his career in seven minutes and spend the other 80 minutes telling the vaudeville story and the Muskegon story.”