Recently, the International Buster Keaton Society announced a “Buster Keaton Weekend” in Los Angeles, which will be held from June 15 to 17. The schedule of events is a dream come true for fans of silent comedy, with movie screenings, a visit to Keaton’s grave, and walking tours of filming locations all on the agenda.
Silent Film Quarterly plans on spending the entire weekend with the Damfinos, but we’re so excited for the event that in the meantime we spoke to Keaton Society Vice President Alek Lev. Lev’s impressive resume runs the gamut from acting and directing to serving as a sign language interpreter for three US presidents. He is also the co-host of Talking Buster Keaton, one of the best classic film-related podcasts.
From the way Alek describes it, this certainly sounds like an event you will not want to miss if you’re a fan of Buster. Stay tuned for more coverage of the Buster Keaton Weekend both here and in the magazine!
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SFQ: This is the first time in the history of the International Buster Keaton Society that an event has been held in Los Angeles, which is obviously a natural fit. Where did the idea for a Keaton Weekend in Hollywood come from?
Lev: It all started with the plaque. Replacing the old (misplaced, poorly made, incomplete) plaque has been a goal of the International Buster Keaton Society for many years. I just found the first email that Society president Patricia Elliot Tobias sent me about the plaque, and it’s dated November 3, 2014. So this had been going on for quite a while. Last year, we launched an online fundraising campaign for the plaque, and raised $18,107 in thirty days. Amazing. Prior to that, I had already been working with the city of Los Angeles, and the plaque designers to understand how all of this happens. How DO you put a four-foot by four-foot plaque in the sidewalk? Finally, after the money was raised and the Society decided they would cover the balance (this stuff is expensive!), we finally had everything set to go for an event on June 16th, 2018. But after three-and-a-half years of working on this, I think we just didn’t want it to all be over in an hour. Moreover, if people were coming to town to see the plaque dedication, we thought that they would appreciate a little more Keaton-ing. From there, we just started building the weekend. We now have visits to Buster’s grave and to his first wife Natalie’s grave, we’ve got tours of filming locations given by historian John Bengtson, and we’ve got a few very exciting screenings. Thus was Buster Keaton Weekend in Los Angeles born.
It’s well-known amongst silent film fans that the current plaque for the Keaton Studios is actually on the wrong side of the street. Will the new plaque that is being dedicated rectify that error?
Oh my, how we hope so. I have nightmares that thirty years from now, someone is going to discover that it was neither the northwest nor southwest corner, but was in fact the southeast, and they will hold another fundraiser—in flying cars, one assumes–to correct this latest mistake. Maybe we can get one on all four corners and make a baseball field. Buster would like that.
But yes, the new plaque will rectify several errors. The first one is, as you say, the location. The studio was, in fact, on the southwest corner of Lillian Way and Eleanor Ave. (“Eleanor,” of course, being the name of Buster’s third wife, whom he met years after working in this studio. Eerie.) The plaque placed in 1988 was set on the northwest corner for, we assume, purposes of comedy. Actually, no one I’ve spoken with knows how the error came about. Or if they do know…they ain’t talkin’. The second problem is the old plaque itself. If you look at photos from 30 years ago and compare them to the plaque today, you’ll see how faded it has become. It’s barely legible in direct sunlight. This new plaque will outlive us all. In addition, the old plaque just isn’t very nice. It’s got a few words, but not much. Ours lists every film that Keaton made while this studio was his home base. It has a photo of Keaton and his team in front of the studio, and it’s got a fantastic Buster silhouette designed by artist Nicole Bajorek. Finally, film fans probably know that before Buster used this studio, it was home to Charlie Chaplin and his team. The old plaque makes no mention of Chaplin, whereas the new one recognizes his time at the studio, lists the films produced there, and has a classic silhouette provided to us by Associate Chaplin. If anyone discovers that the studio was actually at another location, please, um, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
It can be argued that few actors from the silent era warrant a weekend-long celebration in 2018. What do you think it is about Buster that makes him so relevant and timeless when compared to his contemporaries?
Certainly, he was a great actor, an innovative director, and a brilliant stuntman. But why is his work so timeless? Everyone has their own reason for loving Buster Keaton. It’s amazing to be in a room full of fans and hear the stories about how they found Buster’s work and what it is about his work that speaks to them. So it’s hard to generalize. But I do think it’s commonly felt that of all the film comedians from the silent era, Keaton today seems the most “modern.” And that’s not just a sense we have now. I think that was true even in the 1920’s when he was creating his great silent shorts and features. When you look at films made in the 20’s by the men considered to be “The Big Three” in silent comedy—Charlie Chaplin films seemed (even then) to be looking back toward the Victorian Era, while Harold Lloyd appeared to be a man of his day. But then there’s Keaton—who seemed even back then to be from the future—cool and detached and in certain ways not really a part of what was going on around him. Professor Jeanine Basinger from Wesleyan University’s film department once said, “The first thing you have to understand about Buster Keaton is that he’s not from the planet earth.” And maybe it’s that otherworldliness that allows his work to feel fresh to every generation.
Los Angeles is declaring June 16, 2018 “Buster Keaton Day.” Can you talk a little bit about how this came about?
For more information or to register for the Buster Keaton Weekend, visit the International Buster Keaton Society here!