Monday, October 11, 2021

All this and root beer, too! A report from the revived Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas

Proof I made it to Iola, Kansas—taken not at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, but at a long-closed movie theater just off the town's main square.

There's nothing more American than a second act. Buster Keaton certainly enjoyed one, reinventing himself as a TV performer after falling from movie stardom.

So it's only fitting that an annual gathering bearing his name should have a second act as well.

I'm referring to the Buster Keaton Celebration, held each year in late September in the small town of Iola, Kansas, not far from Keaton's rural birthplace.

The annual gathering ground to a halt in 2017 after 24 years. It was good run—but nothing goes on forever, right?

However, this year saw the reemergence of the Keaton Celebration. What's more, organizers intend to resume holding the event on an annual basis.

They also plan to remake the event's format to involve the local community and create more interest among Keaton fans.

Can this be done? That remains to be seen. But for now, here's a report on this year's Celebration, which I attended on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 24 & 25.

As a silent film accompanist, I had been to several past Keaton Celebrations, including what everyone thought was the final one in 2017, where the mood was one of rueful acceptance. 

In 2018, a one-off Keaton program was held in Kansas City. But it really wasn't a continuation of the Iola event. And after that, all was quiet on the Kansas Keaton front, at least publicly.

But behind the scenes, talks were underway to resume Iola's Keaton Celebration. The relaunch might have taken place in 2020 if not for the Covid-19 pandemic.

I didn't know about this until about a year ago (word travels slow from Kansas to New Hampshire), when I learned the event was being revived for 2021. Later, I was thrilled to be invited to accompany some of films, with the prestigious Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra also appearing. 

Along the way, the lingering pandemic nearly torpedoed the 2021 gathering. For a time, organizers considered an all-virtual model. 

But in the end, a hybrid approach was taken, with the Celebration going ahead as scheduled on Friday, Sept. 24 and Saturday, Sept. 25.

The program unfolded at its longtime Iola home, the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. At the same time, all events were streamed and available online for virtual attendees. 

The theme? "Buster Keaton in Changing Times," with a classy logo done as always by the talented Carol Yoho, who has attended every Keaton Celebration since the very first one back in 1993.

What was it like? Here's a brief and idiosyncratic report from the perspective of a piano player invited to accompany some of the silent films on the program. 

First, it was nice to be back. After the "last" Keaton Celebration in 2017, I thought I'd never see Iola again. But here I was, among landmarks such as the town square ("biggest west of the Mississippi River!") and the A&W Restaurant. 

Iola, by the way, is home to an enormous facility that produces Russell Stover candies for shipment all over the nation. So if you've ever wondered where all those boxes of Whitman's Samplers at your local CVS come from, it's likely Iola. 

Iola: Proud origin of Russell Stover candies!

I was eager to meet Dan Kays, director of the Bowlus Center, whose hiring in 2018 was an important step on the road to reviving the Keaton Celebration. Working with many long-time Celebration supporters, Dan has proposed a 10-year plan to help the event thrive and take it in new directions.

When I arrived at the Bowlus late Thursday afternoon, I didn't find Dan, but I did find my way (via an unlocked back door) into the darkened main auditorium, where the Celebration would take place. So I sat down and got reacquainted with the Henry Miller grand piano that lives in the "pit" area. 

I'm glad I did. The Miller is a fine instrument, but its touch is really heavy, or at least heavier than I'm used to, and without the graceful action of a Steinway. So just working with it for a half-hour can go a long way toward calibrating one's playing, of which I would do a lot over the next two days.

Friday morning I arrived before the 9 a.m. start to find Dan up on the podium testing the sound system. Throughout the two days, Dan was a whirlwind of activity, dealing with all aspects of the Keaton program plus the whole online version, which turned out to be a real challenge. 

In the small world department, turns out Dan's wife was recently an administrator at Mary Magdalen College, a small Catholic liberal arts school in Warner, N.H., where I've played for several silent film programs!

I was engaged primarily as the "day" pianist, brought in to provide live music for a grab bag of short comedies on Friday and Saturday. Rodney Sauer and Mont Alto handled the evening programs, although Rodney and I did swap around a bit.

Besides accompanying the movies, I also contributed occasional fill-in music for the program, such as playing "Hail to the Chief" when Iola's mayor took the podium.

Me at the Henry Miller. Photo by Jim Reid.

First up was Keaton's short 'The Playhouse' (1921), in celebration of the 100th anniversary of its release. You never quite know how things will go until a film starts, but I had good material ready and the music came together nicely, I thought. 

What was really interesting, though, was a presentation after by Prof. Frank Scheide, longtime Keaton Celebration participant and chairman of the committee, who walked us all through the actual vaudeville acts that Buster was sending up in 'The Playhouse.'

'The Playhouse,' which I first became acquainted with via a Super-8mm print from Blackhawk Films in the 1970s, is funny on its own terms. But there's so much more to it when you learn about the well-known acts that Buster was parodying in his comedy, and which audiences of the day would have recognized.

Take the "Zouaves" precision marching act that appears in 'The Playhouse.' Totally unknown today, in the 1920s they were a popular vaudeville touring act, descended from a U.S. Civil War regiment that itself was based on French military units in Algeria during the 19th century.

Frank, who is on the University of Arkansas faculty, dug up a film of the original Zouave troupe going through its routines—and astonishingly, they were almost exactly as depicted in Keaton's comedy. (Although in 'The Playhouse,' things soon go disastrously wrong.) 

The film was silent promotional footage, and after it started running, Frank beckoned to me from the stage: "Jeff, do you know any Zouave music?" So I hopped over to the piano and rattled off what I hoped was convincing Zouave music for the rest of the footage. 

Later that morning, I jumped in again when the sound system failed to function for a live on-stage rendition of the famous "Nairobi Trio" routine of Ernie Kovacs. Involving three performers dressed as apes, the pantomime routine is always done to "Solfeggio," a bizarre Robert Maxwell 1950s recording for harp, singers, orchestra, and bongo drums. 

A vintage video clip of the 'Nairobi Trio.'

The performers (wearing ape masks and heavy coats) entered and assumed their positions. But the music didn't happen. It wasn't clear at first what was going on, but after much confused gesturing, the troupe got up and left the stage.

As a lifelong Kovacs fan, I knew the routine well enough, and felt I could find my way on the piano, even without having ever played it before. So I volunteered to do it live, and Dan (who was at the podium) said okay, so off we went.

It didn't quite come out totally right, but was enough to get the players through most of the routine. I can't imagine how it came across to the online audience, but those at the Bowlus seemed to enjoy it.

The other short that morning was 'Backstage' (1919), one of the better Fatty Arbuckle comedies with Keaton in a supporting role. This one is full of dance, all of it played for pure comedy, so on the spur of the moment I started out with the famous 'Swan Lake' theme from Tchaikovsky's well-known ballet score.

I felt it provided a nice ironic introduction to all the wildness to come. And eventually, when thing did get wild, 'Swan Lake' returned in a rag-timey version with jacked-up tempo that I thought was pretty effective.  

Another unexpected task came that afternoon. Rodney Sauer of Mont Alto gave a presentation on silent film scoring, and he asked me to demonstrate an improvised score to a short passage from King Vidor's 'The Patsy' (1928). So I did!

Rodney then ran the same sequence with Mont Alto's compiled score, and then again with a full orchestra taking a very different approach, underlining all the action with musical outbursts that's sometimes called "Mickey Mousing" in the accompaniment world.

Buster, best friend (at left) and mortal enemy in 'Our Hospitality.'

The evening's program was 'Our Hospitality' (1923) with music by Mont Alto. I was surprised to learn many attendees had never seen the film before! I think I've accompanied it four times this year so far, and seen it several other times with other music. It's as familiar to me as my back yard, but it's important to remember how this is definitely not the case for 99.9% of people.

The next day saw two more Keaton shorts in the morning: 'Convict 13' and 'Neighbors,' both from 1920. Both were a lot of fun, with a jazzy underscoring working well for Buster's prison scenes in 'Convict 13.'

A Saturday highlight was lunch with Rodney Sauer and well-known film collector Jim Reid, who came up from Dallas to attend the Celebration. We drove to, yes, the Iola A&W Restaurant, where we enjoyed root beer served in frosted glass mugs.

That evening, I got to do music for the Keaton short 'Cops' (1922), which I felt went okay. I really tried hard to take a "less is more" approach, using the simplest possible texture to start and then build gradually as Buster's misadventures spiral wider and wider. 

Playing for 'Cops' (1922). The sheet music belongs to Rodney Sauer, who would lead Mont Alto in a compiled score for Keaton's 'Three Ages.'

Mont Alto then delivered a crackerjack score for Buster's feature 'Three Ages' (1923), and that was it. The 26th annual Keaton Celebration was in the books—thanks to the pandemic, not exactly what organizers had envisioned, but still revived and back in business. 

But for how long? Dan Kays has spoken of a ten-year plan, and that's probably a good thing, because it takes time for a long-running event to evolve to reflect different needs and changing times. 

So, in an effort to be helpful, here are some uninvited observations.

It's my observation that a lot of what drove the Keaton Celebration for its first 20 years was the special opportunity for attendees, both fans and scholars, to interact with major figures from the entertainment world who knew or worked with Keaton, who died in 1966.

Such folks were still around in quantity when the festival started in 1993. But time has passed, and almost anyone who knew or worked with Buster has now joined him in the great Green Room in the Sky. That direction connection has faded.

Keaton family members also made regular appearances, which was always a special element of the Iola event. This continues: this year was attended in person by Keaton's nephew Harry Keaton Jr., while Buster's daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge and granddaughter Melissa Talmadge Cox attended virtually.

Still, time is passing. Keaton's widow Eleanor attended the event twice in the 1990s before she passed away in 1998. Harry is now past 80. Barbara is 96. It would be great if Keaton family members continue to be involved, but the Celebration can't rely too heavily on that element year after year without it getting to seem a little repetitive.

On screen: Keaton's daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge and her daughter Melissa Talmadge Cox, committee member Hooman Mehran, and emcee Bruce Symes; on stage, from left: Lisa Geisler, daughter of Keaton's nephew Harry Keaton Jr., and Frank Scheide.

At the same time: just as I have to remember that most people have never seen 'Our Hospitality' (1923), most people interested in Keaton have not had a chance to meet any members of his family. It's a rare treat (I remember how thrilled I was to take Melissa out to lunch one day about 10 years ago) and their tradition of being part of the Iola event is a strong card in the Celebration's hand.

So I think here it's really a question of striking the right balance.

One curious element of the Keaton Celebration is that for many years, it was supported financially by the Kansas Humanities Council. This meant it was always been heavy on lectures and talks from visiting academics, and panel discussions among experts—all worthwhile, but not as entertaining as a Keaton comedy on the screen.

As a relative newcomer to the event (first attending in 2012), I felt this need to structure it as  something of a scholarly symposium, or at least to conform to an academic view of the humanities, was a curious way to put together a Buster Keaton Celebration.

Why? Because academic conferences are fine, but they're not ever going to draw or satisfying large general audiences. They really can't be the basis of a popular, well-attended event of this type. In this instance, less could be more.  

However, the presentation by Frank Scheide on the vaudeville routines in 'The Playhouse' was lively and informative and really added value to the event. So there's a balance to be struck here too, it seems.

I was given an unexpected chance to speak during this year's Celebration, and the one point I tried to make was that the event has a future. 

Me yakking from the piano bench. Another photo by Jim Reid. I didn't get a chance to take many photos, other than of the Russell Stover candy plant, so apologies for the lack of images.

Why? Because of Buster. His audience isn't shrinking or fading out. Rather, a century after what's recognized as his best work, his audience seems to be growing.

Really. I accompany more than 100 silent film programs each year, and the Keaton titles are the most frequently requested and the most well-attended.  

Young people (who generally believe any film before 'Star Wars' is pre-history) love Keaton and respond readily to his work. 

In this sense, it was great to see some high school students attend for a brief period on Friday afternoon. I think it would have been much better for them to see one of the Keaton features with live music, which is what young people really respond to, I've found. But it's a start.

So the Keaton Celebration holds another crucial card in its hand: Buster himself. If it can evolve to continue to showcase his work to new generations of fans, the event will thrive and prosper for a long time to come. 

The proximity to his birthplace is great, and can always be used to keep a sense of "pilgrimage" associated with the event. It's a claim that no other event or place can make. 

But more important are the basics: show Buster's films as they were intended to be shown: on a big screen, in the best restored prints, with live music, and—most importantly—an audience. 

When I talked with him, Dan Kays spoke of future Keaton programs that involve the local community more, in keeping with the original mission of the Bowlus to serve as a cultural resource for the region.

So ideas for future Buster Keaton Celebrations include showcasing the work of local filmmakers, involving students from local high schools, and just finding ways for the Iola community to become engaged. 

More of that, and the Keaton Celebration will not just be revived, but reinvented. 

After all, Keaton's motion picture artistry is timeless. Why can't this annual event possess the same quality?

And let's finish off with some A&W root beer served in a frosty cold mug. Wonder if they get this in Pordenone?

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