Friday, October 6, 2017

Celebrating the Celebration: Thoughts on the
final Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas

From the stage: attendees of the 24th and last-ever Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017.

They still called it a "Celebration," same as always.

But it was also the end of a tradition. So something else was at work—something unspoken, and on the edges, but definitely present.

That was the mood, I felt, at the final Buster Keaton Celebration, a long-running annual gathering held each September in Iola, Kansas, not far from Buster's birthplace.

It's been my privilege to attend several past editions of this festival. And for this final year, it was a special honor to be invited to accompany some of the films being shown.

But after a quarter-century of celebrating the most silent of the great silent clowns, this was it—as it says at the finish of nearly every movie: "The End."

So here's my own idiosyncratic wrap-up of a special annual gathering that for years materialized Brigadoon-like on the prairie on the last weekend of each September, but will do so no more.

And let me say right at the start: this post runs on for a bit, but there's simply no way to mention or do justice to so many people who are part of this event. I apologize in advance for not highlighting everyone's contributions in an appropriate manner.

* * *

This year's program.

Why no more Keaton Celebration?

A long-running festival closes up shop for many reasons. But to sum up: things change.

In this case, I understand a key factor was the future unavailability of the Bowlus Center, a marvelous arts venue that you wouldn't expect to find in a town the size of Iola, pop. 5,704.

But the Bowlus has served as a terrific host for the Keaton Celebration since the very first one in 1993, according to an online history by co-founder Clyde Toland.

The history, by the way, captures the upbeat spirit that got the Celebration going, and saw it quickly mushroom into an annual gathering that brought hundreds of people to Iola.

That still happens. But I gather financial considerations have taken their toll behind the scenes, especially lately. One sign: after long being free and open to all, in recent year a registration fee has been charged for some of the programming.

It's not my place to draw any conclusions in this area, other than to observe that such events take a lot of resources to pull off. And, alas, we are not in an age of generous financial support for arts-related activities.

* * *

Even with the final curtain ready to fall, this year's Celebration was full of good cheer and fun right from the beginning.

I wasn't sure what to expect, as a big part of the attraction and charm of this event, in my eyes, is its reliable predictability. Once a year, no matter what else happens, it's great to see old friends, make new ones, and know we'll see each other again next year.

Curiously, that dynamic still seemed to be active, even without the promise of another actual Celebration. From the time I arrived, it was great to see everyone, and to make new friends such as well-known writers Scott Eyman and Lynn Kalber, with whom I had pizza the first night.

I arrived on Thursday, in time to take in a pre-Celebration screening that evening of 'Bender,' a film about the notorious family of serial killers in 1870s Kansas.

Shot on location in Kansas and shown at the Bowlus, the film featured actor James Karen in the lead role of John "Pa" Bender. (Celebration organizer Bill Shaffer also appeared as an extra!)

Karen, who as a young man worked with Keaton, is a long-time friend of the Celebration, frequently attending and sharing recollections and good cheer.

Alas, he's now 93, and couldn't be on hand this year.

But seeing him on screen, not in person, prompted thoughts of how few people are around now with any direct connection to Buster, who died in 1966.

That's more than a half-century ago. And that's another factor in the arc of this Celebration's life.

At the start, I don't think anyone imagined it would evolve into such a major deal, attracting fans and scholars from all around the country and, indeed, the globe.

But it grew to where actual Keaton friends and family members began attending, lending the gatherings a richness and closeness to Buster that was truly unique in its spirit and scope.

Now, time was inevitably fraying those threads.

Yes, this year's attendees included Keaton's granddaughter Melissa, her mother (and Keaton's daughter-in-law) Barbara Talmadge, and nephew Harry Keaton, all of whom generously shared recollection of Buster and the family.

But the ranks of the Buster's direct acquaintances are thinning, thus dimming a unique aspect of the Keaton Celebration. Increasingly, it was a reunion that people weren't able to attend.

Maybe this is how things work, I thought. New generations of fans need to find their own way to celebrate—but I'm getting ahead of myself.

* * *

On Friday morning, I had to work (the curse of remote access) and so wasn't able to join the annual pilgrimage to Buster's actual birthplace: in Piqua (pronounced "Pick-way"), a rural crossroads a few miles west of Iola on Route 54.

The house Buster where Buster made his first appearance (in 1895) is no longer standing. But the community boasts a Keaton museum, and each year it's been a tradition to open the Celebration with a visit and group picture.

I joined attendees back at the Bowlus for a thank you lunch organized by executive director Susan Raines and her staff. (No, thank you!)

In terms of programming, past Celebrations often paired Keaton with other film stars as a jumping off point: Chaplin or Fatty Arbuckle, and sometimes less obvious choices such as television pioneer Ernie Kovacs.

But this year's event, subtitled "Celebrating 100 Years of Laughter," was all Keaton. Programming was light on the on-stage forums and panels, and heavy on the movies.
Consider: four full-length features, a half-dozen shorts, and other material that needed live music. Hence the need for three accompanists: me, the accomplished Ben Model of New York, and local stalwart Marvin Faulwell of Kansas City, a regular at silent film events in this part of the country.

Three musicians: Ben Model, Marvin Faulwell, and me.

It's funny: some people seem to think there's some kind of rivalry among accompanists, but that's not my experience at all. Rather, we seem to go out of our way to support one another.

And I love events where more than one musician or group is on the program, as it provides a chance to hear how other people practice the craft and also to enjoy some film just like any other audience member. So for me, that was one of the best elements of the weekend: to hear music done by others live in a darkened theater.

Let me take a moment now to tip my metaphorical hat to the crew at the Bowlus, who could not have been more helpful to me and the other musicians.

When I arrived on Thursday, a beautifully maintained Henry F. Miller grand piano was already in position after being freshly tuned that day. (Nice, but won't last long with me banging away, I thought.)

And the tech crew were happy to let me in early to position the instrument, set up lights, position the lid, and run through some exercises to check volume levels and get a feel for the piano.

At the Celebration's Friday afternoon opening, I had drawn the first film: 'The Butcher Boy' (1917), a Fatty Arbuckle two-reeler in which Keaton makes his very first screen appearance.

So I was sitting at the keyboard during an opening video (done by Celebration organizer Keith Goering) welcoming everyone, and was surprised to find the recorded music used for it was an orchestral version of Chopin's well-known "Military Polonaise" for piano.

Weird! It's exactly the piece I happen to be working on right now, and which I had been running though earlier just for practice. What are the odds?

So I tried a few chords and the recording was in the same key, and the piano's tuning matched the orchestral pitch. So I was able to help kick things off with a little keyboard obbligato, playing along with the Chopin, which might have made me seem a much more competent musician than I really am. Well, a good start, anyway.

After welcoming remarks, we went right into 'The Butcher Boy,' which I tried not to butcher. With a slapstick short like this, I tend to treat the piano like the percussion instrument that it is.

For this film, as with the others, I used a couple of pre-planned themes to draw upon and improvise my way through the action.

Buster's first appearance and his "molasses" routine with Arbuckle get all the attention, and deservedly so. But I think the second half, in which both Fatty and Al St. John impersonate young girls, is the best stuff in the picture.

* * *

Stone Age Buster takes a bath in 'Three Ages.'

This was followed by 'Cops,' which Marvin accompanied on a digital keyboard he'd brought and which was hooked into the Bowlus sound system.

Marvin did an inspired job with this familiar classic, and his keyboard settings often reminded me of the sound of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, for years a mainstay of the Keaton Celebration but not on the program this year.

I don't know if Marvin intended this as a tribute to the group, but it came off as an elegant one to me.

And there the program rocketed right along. And maybe that's one reason why the Celebration was as much fun as always: there simply wasn't time to ponder the end.

Soon Ben Model was at the keyboard, bringing to life the first feature of the weekend (and Keaton's first as well), 'Three Ages' (1923).

Ben doesn't often use recognizable tunes in his scoring, as it can be argued that they take the audience out of the movie. I tend to agree with him.

So when a Roman-era Keaton looks at his team of tired horses and imagines them in blankets labeled "Sparkplug," I was surprised, and very much delighted, when Ben launched into a spirited snippet of the old "Barney Google" novelty song.

I'm not sure how many people would make the connection of Barney Google and Sparkplug, his hapless steed, but it really served to underline the joke effectively and make it pop.

To me, it was great example of an accompanist knowing when to break his own self-imposed rules if the film and the circumstances of the joke, merited it. Nice!

Ben's 'Three Ages' music earned a well-deserved ovation.

But I thought he then topped it with improv music for a selection of rare Keaton clips that followed.

Provided by archivist Rob Arkus, the collection started with silent-era materials that Ben brought to life quite effectively.

It then transitioned into some later television-era clips. This part started with a sequence with an aging Keaton dancing the tango, and came with recorded sound, so Ben turned off the piano light.

But the sound didn't come. So after a few moments of silence, Ben clicked the light back on and started tango-ing it up.

And it worked really well—the audience, me included, roared at the sight of Keaton playing Valentino on the dance floor.

Before long, the screen went dark as the tech crew attempted to access a different file that did have the soundtrack. And during this time, Ben had to do what all accompanists are fated to do, I think: entertain the crowd during "Please Stand By" technical difficulties.

Prior to this weekend in Iola, the best example I'd ever witnessed of this was some years back at Cinefest in Syracuse (another festival now gone, alas), when accompanist Andrew E. Simpson filled in during a projection booth mishap by channeling his inner Chico Marx, pistol-shooting finger technique and all. (That's Chico, not Andrew, in the photo.)

Talk about knowing your audience—there's probably no better way to endear one's self to a room of classic film buffs!

But on Friday afternoon in Iola, Ben at least equaled that with ragtime that quickly evolved into a full-scale rendition of a tune some know as Gershwin's "Rialto Ripples," but which Keaton Celebration attendees immediately recognized as the Ernie Kovacs theme music.

True Keaton fanatics, such as those those filled the Bowlus, appreciated with Kovacs connection and Ben's ties to his wife Edie Adams, so well-deserved cheers rang out. Nice!

Funny thing was, when we got the tango-dancing Keaton with recorded sound, I found it not nearly as compelling as it was the first time around, with just acoustic music. And this wasn't because I'd already seen it—I genuinely sense it didn't work as well.

Well, maybe there's something to the idea that Keaton's way of performing was so grounded in the silent era technique, that there really was something different about synchronized sound that diluted his effectiveness.

So even what's regarded as "lesser" silent Keaton, such as 'Spite Marriage' (1929), is a different species (and perhaps on a different plane) than anything he did with synchronized sound, brilliant or otherwise. The silent medium just suited his comedy much better.

More on 'Spite Marriage' below, as it was shown later in the Celebration.

Dinner break found a big group of us crowding into El Charro, a Mexican place a few blocks up the street that's been a Keaton Celebration mainstay for many years.

And it's worth mentioning here the important role that lunch and dinner breaks played at the Keaton Celebration. Chance encounters at the hotel, also—these are where you got to meet and chat with people who were likely to become lifetime friends.

In Kurt Vonnegut's book 'Cat's Cradle' (1963), one of the tenets of a made-up religion is: "Peculiar traveling suggestions are dancing lessons from God." Well, in Iola, going out to eat with total strangers was the catalyst for discovering friends you didn't know you had.

And it was, as we all tried the limited venues that Iola had to accommodate visitors: the B & B Cafe for breakfast (way too much food for $6); the vintage A&W restaurant (what, is it 1963 again?); Rookie's Sports Bar (how many of you?); Dudley's Done-Right BBQ (again, way too much food), and so many other familiar gathering places.

I never thought life would get me to the point where I could made informed restaurant recommendations for Iola, Kansas. But if you're going through town, give me a call.

* * *

Original promotional art for 'The Cameraman.'

Back at the Bowlus, Friday night was my big time at bat: doing music for Keaton's feature 'The Cameraman' (1928).

This was a special assignment, I felt, for 'The Cameraman' was the film that got me back into silent film some years ago after a long absence.

How? Because in the last days of winter in the year 2000, I made my way out to the Kansas Silent Film Festival (held each year in Topeka), primarily to hear the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra perform live.

And the first film they played for was Keaton's 'Cameraman.' And that Saturday morning, all at once it seemed to triggered infinity and reignite something that had been dormant within me.

What a film! Made right at the end of the silent era, to me it was proof that the medium was still ripe for creative approaches that filmmakers were only just beginning to realize. What a celebration of possibility and creativity and so much else!

And then the whole medium was gone. But what way to go out! And for me, Rodney Sauer and Mont Alto were a part of that.

So here I was at the Bowlus, 17 years later, preparing to do 'The Cameraman.' And this seemed odd to me, as the Mont Alto group were a Keaton Celebration mainstay until recent years, when (I guess) tight budgets and other factors prevented them from attending.

Well, off I went, and it all came together pretty well, I thought. It's hard to judge from the keyboard, but audience reaction was strong, and I felt the thematic material I was using made for some nice moments.

At the film's ending, response was generous. Photographer Steve Friedman tried to engineer a shot from the stage with people applauding (presumably) behind me, but after the film the lights never came up in the Bowlus, so it'll be interesting to see what Friedman's blinding flash captured.

* * *

Dorothy Sebastian and Buster in 'Spite Marriage.'

Saturday brought a full day of Keaton films and forums. But musically, my heavy lifting was done. Ben and Marvin would do the features ('College' in the morning for Marvin, and 'Spite Marriage' for Ben that night). All I had was afternoon improv for more rare Keaton materials, these contributed by archivist Paul Gierucki.

One surprise was to find that Ben wasn't too sure about 'Spite Marriage,' the Celebration's final Keaton feature. MGM released the film (Keaton's last silent) to theaters in 1929 with what's widely regarded as an annoying recorded score. So it's always had a reputation as "lesser" Keaton.

In my efforts to work through the entire Keaton output, I had programmed 'Spite' some years ago with a "let's get this over with" attitude. To my surprise, the film killed! The audience, not aware they were seeing "lesser" anything, laughed uproariously at one comic set piece after another. My respect for the film increased.

I related this to Ben, who seemed surprised. In his 30-plus years of doing film music, he'd never had a chance to accompany 'Spite Marriage,' and really wasn't sure how it would go over. Well, I hope I gave him at least some encouragement for that night's performance.

For me, the big deal of Saturday was the first-ever screening of 'To Be Funny' (2017), a new documentary exploring the phenomenon of Keaton's continued popularity 100 years after his 'Butcher Boy' walk-on.

Filmmakers Jess Roseboom and Gavin Rosenberg approached me several years ago about filming some of my New Hampshire performances and talking with audience members. So they came up, sat me down before a camera, and got me yakking.

They then pursued the project at Keaton screenings and gatherings all across the nation, including a visit to Iola. They also came back to New Hampshire to film me presenting a Keaton program to students of Great Brook Middle School in Antrim, N.H.

After a Kickstarter campaign and a lot of other work, they'd finished the film. And now it was time to enter it into festivals and do all the things you can do with a documentary of this type.

And as it turned out, the very first screening of the film would be here, at the very last Keaton Celebration at the Bowlus Center in Iola.

I thought it was kind of poetic, in a way, that this final event would host the premiere of a documentary highlighting Keaton's enduring—indeed, growing—popularity.

Because the filmmakers couldn't be there, they asked me to introduce it and say a few words.

Introducing 'To Be Funny' onstage at the Bowlus. Photo by Carol Yoho.

So I took the occasion to say it was an honor to present this film, as to me it showed that although the Keaton Celebration may be winding down, it was part of a larger continuity that would continue on, in part because of what had taken place in Iola.

Everything has a season, and we should all take heart that the love for Keaton which brought so many people to Iola and to each other would continue to do so far into the future.

Or something like that. And then I sat down to watch the film.

And you know, you couldn't have asked for a better venue or occasion to screen this film. It looked great on the big Bowlus screen—razor sharp with vibrant colors, making the lingering landscape shots appear just gorgeous.

And yes, everything in it seemed to validate all the energy and affection that had gone into staging the Keaton Celebration for lo these many years. It was a great summing up, with a hard spin to a hopeful future.

Of course it was a kick to see the scenes they shot in Iola—the annual trip to Piqua, the group photo, and also the Mont Alto group playing for 'Battling Butler' back at the Bowlus.

It was, frankly, mortifying to see my face 15 feet high on a screen and hear myself drone on. But they had questions, and I tried to answer them. I hope my appearance at least had the effect of making the other interviewees look smarter as a result.

But any bumbling on my part was more than made up for, I felt, by the moments of community and shared passion that the filmmakers captured around the nation. I never thought watching shots of people who themselves were watching movies would be so—well, moving.

But they were, and more than once I was honestly choked up by how it all came together for me—there, at the Bowlus, at the Keaton Celebration, immersed in an on-screen celebration of something that was so important to so many people all around me. What a great way to celebration the Celebration.


* * *

Iola's huge town square, billed as "America's largest."

There was another meal after this (surprise!)—a wonderful impromptu gathering at Rookie's Sports Bar, on Iola's enormous town square. (Equal to four full blocks!)

What kind of people attend the Keaton Celebration? The kind of people who, when they find out it happens to be your 22nd wedding anniversary, insist on calling your wife back in New Hampshire to inform her that you're having a Chicago-style hotdog in honor of her hometown.

(For the record, she couldn't attend because she had to work, and we had already celebrated. Also, Iola's version of a "Chicago" hot dog, heavy on grilled peppers, was something I don't think you'd find in the Windy City. But it was good!)

Carol Yoho and I sample Porubsky's hot pickles fresh from the cardboard box. Photo by Jane Bartholomew.

These are the same people, by the way, who went all the way to Porubsky's Deli in Topeka (about two hours away) to bring me an order of their famous hot pickles, which I really enjoy. Thanks, Jane and Karl!

And then the final evening program featuring 'Spite Marriage' with Ben at the keyboard.

People roared at the movie. You could tell this rarely screened title was a discovery for many. What a great choice to end with!

The final final film was a curiously truncated version of 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' (1966), which was Buster's last big-screen appearance.

The sprawling musical was edited down to 50 minutes (from 1½ hours) to highlight Buster's sporadic appearances as 'Erronius.'

But it worked, and we all laughed a lot.

And then the lights went up, and then back down, and we were then treated to another wonderful montage (again created by Keith Goering) of Keaton Celebration imagery, this time set to the old tune 'We'll Meet Again.'

Then it was off the afterglow and more food and drinks and laughter, as always.

And then I blinked, and suddenly it was Sunday morning. And it was over.

Very clever of those Keaton Celebration folks—to pack the schedule with so much good stuff that there wasn't time to give in to feelings of sadness that were lurking just at the edges of this year's events.

That potential sadness was the unspoken part. And how fitting, at this celebration honoring a silent film clown, for it to never get a chance to raise its voice at all.

Thanks to everyone who over the years made it possible for so many people to come to Iola, Kansas and share our appreciate for Buster and his world.

That world includes Iola, and in my mind it always will, Celebration or not.

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