As one of MGM’s biggest stars, Buster Keaton once had a private bungalow dressing room on the studio lot, jokingly dubbed “Keaton’s Kennel.” A reader correctly wrote long ago that the Kennel stood along the north side of the lot, but the precise location remained a mystery. So when noted biographer James Curtis (who’s busy now working on Keaton) asked me to look into the Kennel, I eagerly jumped in. As we’ll see, part of the challenge is that Keaton himself conflated facts and descriptions of the place.
To begin, what did the Kennel look like? These publicity photos of Buster with his sons Bobby and Jimmy show the Kennel was quite narrow, with only a double window and a single door facing a covered porch, with a sidewalk path to the right, leading to the front steps, and a large building looming very close on the left side. At right, an inside view with grandpa Joe Keaton, taken the same day (notice the matching clothes).
Keaton writes at page 214 of My Wonderful World of Slapstick that his bungalow was located where the Irving Thalberg Memorial Building now stands, and that it was named the “Kennel” because Keaton’s 170 pound St. Bernard dog Elmer was a fixture sunning himself on the front porch. But as shown in vintage aerial views and the Sanborn fire insurance maps, the bungalows along what was then Grant Ave. (later replaced by the Thalberg Building) were more than twice as wide as the Kennel.
Keaton joined MGM in 1928, yet the Kennel does not appear on the 1929 Sanborn fire insurance map, nor in early 1930 aerial photographs of the studio. So perhaps it was built late in 1930. The Kennel photo at right, taken during the same publicity photo session as the other shots (notice the matching clothes), shows Buster and his sons hanging up to dry the distinctive pajama costume Keaton wore during Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath, released February 28, 1931, suggesting the Kennel was built prior to that date. Other accounts explain that Keaton began his MGM tenure renting a bungalow near, but off-site from, the MGM campus, infuriating studio head Louis B. Mayer, as Keaton was the only star to rent space off of the lot. Since Keaton worked at MGM for more than two years before the Kennel was built, the likely scenario is that Keaton indeed first began renting a place off campus on Grant Ave., as he remembers in his book, and then later moved on campus once the Kennel was built. (You can read about Keaton’s Grant Ave. bungalow HERE). For some reason Keaton conflates the Grant Ave. bungalow and the MGM Kennel in his account. [Update – Johnny Weissmuller gives Buster an aerial swimming lesson, revealing the east side of the Kennel behind them.]
So where was the Kennel? At left, it stands in the center of this 1934 aerial view looking north. Notice how it is long and skinny, with a sidewalk path along the right to the front porch. The broad view above shows it stood along Washington Blvd. directly across from the terminus of Motor Ave, immediately to the right of Rehearsal Hall A (A). Further east of the Kennel stood the Short Subject Department (B), originally John Gilbert’s Spanish bungalow, the First Aid Department (C), the Little Red Schoolhouse (D), and more dressing rooms (E), all as reported by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan in their wonderful book M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot. The red arrow above points east along the “New York” backlot appearing in The Cameraman and The Sidewalks of New York (1931).
As shown here, the Kennel stood just yards to the east of the “New York” backlot set where Keaton filmed The Cameraman in 1928 (before the Kennel was built), and later scenes for The Sidewalks of New York in 1931 (after the Kennel was built). Given the proximity, I like to imagine Keaton walking from the Kennel to film his 1931 scenes on the “New York” backlot.
Above, three views looking east along the “New York” backlot, The Cameraman, upper left, The Sidewalks of New York, lower left, and a matching 1933 aerial view.
UPDATE: from reader Robert Mouton – Wallace Berry took over Keaton’s Kennel inside MGM, August 1933 The New Movie Magazine.
Keaton was abruptly fired early in 1933, following completion of What No Beer? (Keaton staged the beer barrel avalanche from that film on Court Street – read about it HERE.) The Kennel remained long enough following Keaton’s departure in 1933 to appear in a 1934 aerial view, but a later aerial view shows it was demolished by 1947.
You can read all about Keaton’s prior Grant Ave. bungalow just outside of MGM at THIS POST.
Below, the MGM gate today, where Keaton stood (see top of post) during Free and Easy.
Good research on a little known subject. I seem to remember that someone else had a bungalow dressing room out on the Keystone lot, which had a triple purpose. As well as serving as film backdrop, it was also the incubator where the genius of a certain Charlie Chaplin developed. Full marks for your work.
Thanks KG – I don’t know the history, but this little bungalow beside the Keystone front gate appears in 6 Chaplin films alone – https://silentlocations.com/2014/06/13/chaplins-first-scene-a-very-busy-place-to-film/
Another great read John. Thanks for the efforts.
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Hi John, Great work as always. I did some researches of my own a couple of years back and concluded the same location. Good to have it confirmed. I sent my findings to the Damfinos at the time and I’d love to think that they in some way, this set you off on this avenue of discovery. I love your sister article about the Grant Ave location as well, this is where I believe, the smashed bookcases incident happened. Sal Nicholson UK
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Great detective work. It must have stung Keaton to return to MGM in 1938 and see his bungalow still there, but in use by Beery. His wife Eleanor would have spent a lot of time just next door in Rehearsal Hall A, which was the main dance studio.
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Thanks Kevin – I didn’t stop to think about Eleanor’s time on the lot, right next door
Great blog you hhave here