I first read Rudi Blesh’s biography Keaton in junior high, and was immediately hooked by Buster’s magic and the romance of early filmmaking. I grew up watching silent comedies on public television, and collecting 8mm prints of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy, fascinated by the world inhabited by the great silent-era comedians. Although they walked beside real buildings, and drove on public streets, their world seemed as alien and remote as if from another planet – silent, colorless, beyond reach.
I knew this world was once real, but the only tangible sense I had of it then was this image from Blesh’s book (left and above), of Buster and crew gazing proudly at the modest front office bungalow of his newly christened studio at the SW corner of Lillian Way and Eleanor. [Note: decades later we understand now Blesh miscaptioned the photo – the costumes confirm these are the cast members from Neighbors (1920), including Buster’s dad Joe standing left of Buster. That is not Myra, Buster’s mom, on the far left, that woman is too tall, and that’s cast member Big Joe Roberts, much taller than Roscoe Arbuckle, on Buster’s right].
The studio group photo was tantalizing. Buster walked up those simple front porch steps into his studio every day for eight years, but there was so little to see, so little explained. Without any context, the group photo was completely inaccessible. It seemed there was only so much we would ever know about how Buster made his movies.
Keaton’s centenary in 1995 changed everything. His entire oeuvre of silent films were suddenly made available on home video, and the newly formed International Buster Keaton Society (the Damfinos) began their joyful campaign promoting Buster around the world. In 1996, the Damfinos published a glossy magazine, The Great Stone Face, including a 1921 aerial photo of the Keaton Studio (a portion of which appears above).
Viewing that aerial photo for the first time was such a thrill, providing context missing from the Blesh photo, allowing us to “peek” over the studio fence for the first time. Incredibly, Buster’s lost world slowly re-emerged as I began to recognize certain bungalows and other landmarks from his films. I have since described dozens of scenes filmed at or beside Buster’s studio in my book Silent Echoes, and throughout posts on this blog.
But now, most gratifyingly, I have created a Silent Locations YouTube channel posting visual narratives showing (not telling) how silent-era Hollywood once looked a century ago. Please accept my invitation to take this visual tour of Buster’s studio, without spoken narration, accompanied only by silent film accompanist Frederick Hodges’ beautiful score.
So please – Take the Tour – and visit the Buster Keaton Studio
Download a fully annotated PDF walking tour of the Keaton Studio, with many more discoveries, click HERE.
Here too is a YouTube video of me leading this walking tour of the Keaton Studio site, filmed and hosted by my friend Ken Mitchroney – https://youtu.be/kr5mFWWXZjA