By Jim Rees
They say that stars are born, not made. In Buster Keaton’s case, it might be said that he was thrown into stardom by his less than lovable father.
Joseph Keaton was born on 4 October 1895 to a vaudeville family whose travelling company were passing through Piqua, Kansas. By the age of two, he was one of the Three Keatons act, the others being his father, Joseph senior and his mother Myra.
Joe junior’s role was simple enough; no lines to learn or acting skill required. All he had to do was learn how to fall when his father threw him into scenery, the orchestra pit, and sometimes even into the audience.
The idea for this ‘entertainment’ struck Joe senior when junior was just eighteen months old. A fellow vaudevillian and family friend, Harry Houdini, was in the Keaton home one evening when the child fell awkwardly down the stairs.
Using slang for a potentially damaging fall, Houdini said: ‘What a buster!’ The child was unhurt and his father recognised Buster’s natural ability to protect himself from impact. Buster Keaton began a career that spanned seven decades.
The excuse for using Buster as a human frizbee on stage was his role as a disobedient child, making his father lose his temper with what most people thought hilarious results. Not everyone was amused. Sometimes the local sheriff would be alerted by worried audience members who were shocked by this child abuse.