Buster Keaton fans come to Muskegon from all over to binge on The Great Stone Face for two days


By Cynthia Price

Last Friday and Saturday, Buster Keaton lovers of the world gathered in Muskegon, where he spent his boyhood summers,  for a convention crammed so full of all things Keaton that it would warm the heart of any Damfino.

The unofficial name of the Buster Keaton International Fan Club, “Damfinos” (pronounced dam-FIE-noes), is derived from the name of the boat in Keaton’s film The Boat. When the Great Stone Face and his family get into trouble out at sea, they radio for help, but when asked who it is, he sends back the Morse Code for d-a-m-f-i-n-o and the Coast Guard thinks he has replied “damn if I know” (and regards it as a prank).
That was pretty daring for its time, and it is also typical of the type of ageless humor that makes Keaton famous.

A highlight of the 24th annual convention was the screening of a just-released documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration, which had only opened the night before in New York, and was shown in Muskegon before other major cities. Before its start, the emcee noted that the word “Keatonesque” was just added, at the beginning of October, to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Great Buster, by well-known filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, is an affectionate homage, and makes clear his comic genius in a series of clips and commentaries. It is also biographical, and for a number of viewers it may be the first time that they realize Keaton was for a long time underappreciated and deprived of the ability to do what he does best.

He created a memorable series of what were called two-reelers, or shorts, followed by ten wonderful feature films from 1920 to 1929; but then an affiliation with MGM, who did not seem to understand how to use his talents, resulted in a decline in his reputation. Divorce and alcoholism added to a rough period.

Keaton, ever humble, had his reputation restored in later years. The film, and many Damfinos, credit in part the unswerving belief in Buster exhibited by his (third) wife Eleanor, who was in attendance at at least one early Damfino convention prior to her death in 1998. She also helped Keaton stop drinking.

As far as his early years, many Muskegonites are familiar with the fact that Buster (whose real name is Joseph) spent his summers in the Beachwood-Bluffton neighborhood. That history is well-known at least partly because of the tours of the area given by local afficionado Ron Pesch. Pesch, who with Jim Schaub has made a documentary about  Keaton’s youth, said he has attended every one of the 24 Damfinos conventions.

As a? child, Buster quickly became part of his family’s vaudeville act – as a “human projectile.” That may be one explanation for his ability to pull off so many amazing physical gags – it cannot be said often enough how astonishing Keaton was in both setting up shots and in the strength and discipline necessary to pull off his humorous vision. The Great Buster even notes that Keaton broke his neck at one point, and only became aware of it decades later.

Prior to screening The Great Buster, festivalgoers were treated to Keaton’s final silent short, The Love Nest. Renowned organist Dennis Scott accompanied on the pipe orga, and it was all a great hit with the couple of hundred people in the audience. The film also featured Big Joe Roberts, whom Keaton met in Muskegon; Big Joe’s granddaughter Nina Roberts was in attendance.

Among many other well-known Keaton lovers present at the convention were Gerald Potterton, who wrote and directed Keaton’s later film The Railrodder, and David de Volpik who was the cameraman on Buster Keaton Rides Again (a documentary about the filming of The Railrodder). The two shared their experiences Friday evening. In addition, a previous Keaton documentarian and Academy Award winner, Kevin Brownlow, was shown in a taped interview.

Guests stayed at the Shoreline Inn and the weather was not too chilly for walking to the Muskegon Museum of Art and Frauenthal Center for events. Attendees are always impressed by the bronze statue of Keaton on Western Avenue, which is on their way.

The next convention will be the twenty-fifth annual, and though planning is just now underway, it promises to be a unique and exciting Keatonesque experience.