Celebrating Buster Keaton, 1993-2007
Welsh, Jim, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
Two of the most distinctive creations of American culture would have to be American music (jazz, ragtime, and blues) and American silent comedy. Both are delightfully combined and celebrated in Eastern Kansas every autumn. The fans of Buster Keaton gathered once again in Iola, KS, at the end of September 2007 to "celebrate" the achievements of a local son made good. Well, at least the nearest thing to a "local" son. This most American of silent film comedians (more "American" than Chaplin, who was born in Britain), was actually born in Piqua, KS, 7.5 miles down the road from Iola, when a medicine show came to town by rail. But you will not find much of interest in Piqua these days, beyond a closed-down gas station, a three-legged dog, and, of course, the Keaton Museum. Hence, the fans of Buster migrate these days to Iola, a larger, thriving town, that features a wonderful auditorium in the Thomas H. Bowlus Fine Arts Center, where silent films can be shown, along with music provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra from Colorado, who have become regulars at the Keaton Celebration.
Originally, the "Celebration" was called a "Symposium," in order to get funding from the Kansas Humanities Council, a group that did not want anything to do with a "Festival" (those of us who have attended year after year continue to think of it as a Festival none the less, but what a good excuse, by any name, to "celebrate" some really great classic silent movies). Over the years this Celebration has developed from a one-day event, tied to the screening of a classic Keaton film (with appropriate introductions and serious discussions), to a weekend outing, drawing more and more people year after year, from all across the Midwest, from New York City, and even from London, England. For some years Buster Keaton's widow, Eleanor, attended; and this year Keaton's grand daughter, Melissa Talmadge Cox, came all the way from California to join the celebrants. The Iola Keaton event takes place a week before the meeting of the "Damfinos" (as the American fans of Buster Keaton prefer to call themselves) in Muskegon, Michigan. I hesitate to say that the Iola group is more "serious," but it is certainly more "academic," and less keyed to a fanzine crowd. Aside from a few pork-pies and flat hats, most attendees in Iola do not dress up and are not in costume.
The original steering committee consisted of Iola lawyer Clyde Toland, Mary Martin, director of the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, Fred Krebs, a faculty member from Johnson County Community College in Kansas City, and John Carter Tibbetts, Associate Professor of Theatre and Film at the University of Kansas. Tibbetts was very instrumental in getting some high-profile guests to attend the Celebration in years past, such as the world-famous film archivist Kevin Brownlow and comedian-composer Steve Alien, who, along with Jack Paar, just about invented what later became "The Tonight Show," (later still) with Johnny Carson. Tibbetts enabled that to happen by persuading the University of Kansas to schedule Mr. Alien for a performance at the lied Arts Center in Lawrence, on his way to Iola, where he spoke about comedy and was given the "Buster" Award, which became an inducement for well-known speakers to attend. (Currently, the fate of the "Buster" Award is apparently uncertain; I hope the current committee is clever enough to recognize its importance and somehow to maintain and continue the award.)
Spearheading the enterprise this year was Dr. Frank Scheid of the University of Arkansas and Susan Raines, who recently replaced the retired (but never retiring!) Mary Martin as Executive Director of the Bowlus. John Tibbetts and Fred Krebs are still on board, as they must be. For example, Tibbetts is simply too valuable to lose, since he has played piano accompaniment for the films (such as the early 1917 Fairbanks feature Down to Earth this year) and has additional talents as an announcer (one of the best; he has produced syndicated radio programs for classical stations, syndicated out of Chicago) and as posterboy and sign-painter. …