Buster Keaton, a creative giant in the history of motion pictures, has ties to Michigan—something celebrated every October at a gathering in Muskegon near the honoree’s birthdate, where vaudevillians vacationed in a lakefront community Buster’s father developed in the early 1900s.
I was vaguely aware of the connection but had not investigated until a few years ago when I attended the annual gathering of Damfinos, the nickname for the International Buster Keaton Society. The program always includes talks by Keaton experts—including family members—social events and film screenings.
Joseph Frank Keaton was born October 4, 1895 to Joe, a comedic acrobat whose main aid was a table, and Myra, one of the first female saxophone performers to take the stage.
By the age of three Buster (so nicknamed by his godfather Harry Houdini) had toddled on stage during his parents’ act, and within months was stealing the show. The Three Keatons traveled to perform most of the year, but because theaters were too hot for audiences in the summer, the troupe was idle during those months.
In 1908 Buster’s father, with two show biz associates, purchased the Muskegon area property in Bluffton, on the shores of Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake.
The partners sold parcels of land to some 200 fellow performers who built summer cottages and retreated to the beach area for relaxation and to work on their acts for the following season.
The cottage the Keatons built was the only home they’d known as a family, and years later Buster wrote, “The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had built on Lake Muskegon in 1908.”
For about a decade Bluffton was known as the Actors’ Colony for the number of stage performers who summered there, but by 1918 motion pictures began to replace live vaudeville shows; even Buster left the family touring act for Hollywood. The Actors’ Colony community dissolved, although many of the homes remain.
You can take a self-guided walking tour of Bluffton at anytime with a brochure produced by local historian and Keaton expert Ron Pesch; check it out at his website on the Actors’ Colony.
Ron was instrumental in convincing the Community Foundation for Muskegon County to purchase the statue of Buster that originally stood outside of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum in Los Angeles.
The sculpture is now at home in front of the Frauenthal Theater in downtown Muskegon. Buster’s daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge and granddaughter Melissa Talmadge Cox were on hand for the Damfinos convention and unveiling of the plaque to accompany the statue.
“What are Damfinos?” I can tell you from my brief encounter during that Buster Keaton weekend that they are a fun bunch of musicians, accountants, students, performers, writers and others from across the U.S. and other lands who share a passion for the genius who was equally talented in front of and behind the camera.
I gained a greater appreciation for the comedic timing and physical ability of Keaton, who was nicknamed “Great Stone Face” for his deadpan delivery.
Check out the website of the official International Buster Keaton Society, aka Damfinos, for more about the organization and the annual convention.
If you’re wondering how to pronounce Damfino, imagine the answer to the question, “What will be this week’s winning lottery numbers?”
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