Tuesday, June 19, 2018

June 16th Buster Keaton Day in LA!

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles for the dedication of a memorial plaque that was placed on the site where Buster's film studio in Hollywood had been and I'm still charged up by the experience.

This was such a lovely event and I am beyond grateful to those who made it happen! Because the great bulk of activities over the weekend were free or reasonably priced and open to all I brought my extended family along and we all enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

One of the highlights of the event was the amazing and tireless John Bengtson who gave free walking tours of the area just south of Hollywood Blvd where Keaton (as well as Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and others) filmed numerous pictures. I was blown away. But better praise might be that the family members who are not crazed Keaton fans were also amazed and enthralled by the walking tour and Bengtson's deep knowledge of Hollywood history. If anyone reading this doesn't know about Bengtson's work -- sleuthing out the locations where movies were filmed long before there was IMDB telling us ;) or commentary reels from directors -- they should check out his site: https://silentlocations.wordpress.com/about-john-bengtson/

Another thing we did -- and I've always felt a bit sheepish about my desire to do this, so have never been there before -- was to see Keaton's grave. In the spirit of the weekend it felt like the right time to make the pilgrimage. Keaton is laid to rest in a stunningly beautiful area at the base of some brown hills that are a weird mix of craggy and rolling near Griffith Park tucked away in a part of LA that is truly lovely. The Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills location is extensive! I would never have found Keaton's plot without the pdf location map provided by the International Buster Keaton Society which planned the weekend's festivities. The grave markers there are mostly small, flat and modest, like Keaton's. This gave the impression almost of a military cemetery, with its striking uniformity and rambling, impressive grounds. It felt sweet and appropriate to be there offering our respects. I took a bit of bark from a Eucalyptus tree that was growing next to it. Haven't decided what to do with that yet, but since it's been riding around in my wallet for the last several days, hopefully there is something left beyond dust to work with!

After the cemetery and a quick bite to eat, we were up for another tour! Again with Bengtson, who must have clocked 20 miles and 20 hours over Saturday and Sunday, mostly canvasing the same ground repeatedly (and well-deserving of accolades) we learned about the films that were shot in and around Keaton's former studio location in Hollywood on Elinor Ave and Lillian Way.

I'd been to this area before but that was back in 2012, which I am now stunned to realize was 6 years ago! ... the year I started this blog. OK. gotta pause and think about that. ... Man. Alright, I'm back. A lot has changed in the neighborhood from the last time we were there. There is now a fairly significant homeless presence in something of a tent city that wasn't there in 2012. Also, while back in 2012, this area had seemed a bit forgotten, with a light industrial feel but empty streets and easy parking, it was now crowded, bustling and garbage-infused. While it wasn't immediately clear how much of the parking crunch that we encountered was due to the Keaton event itself, we couldn't have been the only reason. It turns out there's simply a lot going on in this area now, including a night club that people were waiting in line outside of and many, apparently thriving, businesses.

I was sorry that we didn't get to go inside the lot where Keaton's studio had been, but we did walk all around the exterior with Bengtson pointing out the sites. We were directed to look at this house that appears in ... well, I'm sorry to say I don't remember which film(s)! ... but something of note.  I will review my video clips and see if I can find it. lol. Pretty cool to see some building, any building, still present that had been a part of the backdrop scenery when Keaton was filming nearly 100 years ago.

On the site of the former Keaton studio (whose buildings were demolished in the 1930s) now sits a large warehouse utilized by a company called Quixote that does production supplies for films. I love knowing that this magical plot of land -- infused with Hollywood film history -- is still being used for industry-related business. Given the way the bustling surrounding worlds was carrying on around us, I was feeling particularly grateful that the current owner/tenant of the Keaton studio space was indulgent -- willing to get invaded by a bunch of Keatonians and endure the ceremony and plaque. Then I learned that the manager in charge of that location is himself a Keaton fan! So cool. Just another random little fact that seemed to fall into place and feel right.

Of course, the chief highlight of the Buster Keaton LA Weekend has to be the actual plaque dedication ceremony.

To anyone who isn't familiar with the backstory, in fact there was already a Keaton commemorative plaque at this location. It was dedicated in 1988. But unfortunately it was placed on the wrong corner -- a situation that many people felt needed to be rectified. The plaque had other problems too, such as being difficult to read. So a fundraising campaign was begun, spearheaded by folks present at the ceremony (such as Alek Lev and Patricia Eliot Tobias), and a great deal of effort I'm sure, involving permits from the City of LA and other logistics, was undertaken as a labor of love for many. I myself followed the campaign's progress with rapt attention and planned to be present at the unveiling if there were any way possible. Luckily, there was every way possible. We simply drove to LA for the weekend. I feel lucky, and again grateful, to have been in position to do this!

The ceremony was extremely well done. Everyone who spoke told a compelling piece of the story (except for David Arquette who, in a brilliant performance, remained silent. I'm kicking myself for not getting this on video, because his pantomime and pratfalls were a perfect tribute.)

What I did get on video is the moment of the unveiling....

As if all of that weren't enough... we also were thrilled to have the opportunity to attend a screening of The Cameraman at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Bvld.

The weekend continued to fall into place with kismet. We found easy parking nearby then grabbed a quick bite to eat. We decided we didn't have enough time to seek out Keaton's stars -- both of which I'd already visited and photographed years ago. So I wasn't too troubled. But we did decide to cross the street and walk back to the theatre on the other side just to take in some new sights on the Walk of Fame. While doing so, we randomly stumbled upon Keaton's! And it was the movie one. My son had the idea for this great picture :)

And then The Cameraman. Seeing this on the big screen with other die-hard Keaton fans and an amazing live music accompaniment was a treat. This was only the second time ever that I've been able to see a Keaton film in an actual theater.

It is an experience which is palpably better in every way.

The laughs are bigger, Keaton's beautiful face is more present. The charm of the Yankee Stadium bit and the shots of Keaton running through the streets of New York hit their marks in a way that just can't be replicated on the computer screen. The Cameraman was a perfect choice and speaks to the obvious care and attention to detail poured into this event by its organizers.

We had a blast at Buster Keaton Weekend!
June 16, 2018
Buster Keaton Day in LA

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"Roscoe" vs "Fatty" : A Fan's Thoughts on What's in a Name

Roscoe Arbuckle must be an interesting figure to any serious Keaton fan.

How can one have an informed love of the later without a bit of respect for the former? Assuming that the modern fan does (respect Arbuckle, that is), the question is what to call the guy.

Here is the one who gave our hero his start, who mentored him, who offered him a connection, friendship, a sounding board, a job. Here is a fellow without whom we might not have ever been able to indulge in the cinematic talents of Keaton! Arbuckle is a grand figure in the story of Keaton.

The more I read about Keaton, the more I learn about Arbuckle, and the more I feel the need to talk about him  . . . leading inevitably to the crisis that comes when one must refer to him as something other than a last name or a pronoun.

For me, up till this point, the moniker has always been "Fatty."

How I got to that name was straightforward enough. After discovering Keaton, back in 2012, my interest became insatiable. It wasn't enough to watch Keaton's films; I had to learn about his life including his early work. I had to watch the early shorts. Of course that lead directly to Arbuckle.

When I first encountered the connection, I admit that Arbuckle's name held a certain cache. He was a shadowy figure. I do remember him from my childhood. No, I'm not THAT old! but back in the 70s and 80s, silent films did play on TV and I have vague memories of hearing about him and, of course, the scandal. It wasn't the kind of thing anyone learned in school, but I'm sure it came up through my viewings and readings about early cinema. In fact, I vaguely remember a childhood friend telling me that Arbuckle had killed a girl. In any case, the name "Fatty Arbuckle" existed in my memory banks and probably held more associations for me than the name "Buster Keaton" did when I encountered each a few years ago.

All of this is to say that I didn't really question thinking of Fatty Arbuckle as "Fatty," any more than I questioned thinking of Buster Keaton as "Buster." (Or, I don't know, Curly of Three Stooges fame as "Curly.") It was just what he was called.

When one does stop to question this, of course, there is an obvious distinction - "Fatty" is clearly derogatory in a way the other names aren't.

Now I am not so insensitive to have failed to notice that in 2012, but there was a reason I stuck with the name "Fatty" when I referred to him in my writings. I read somewhere that "Roscoe" is what his friends called him and that "Fatty" was what his fans called him. That was good enough for me. I was going to class myself with the fans (which is what I was). I was not so pretentious to think that Arbuckle was my friend. So I went with "Fatty," but noticed there were others who called him "Roscoe." To me, that felt false - as if these folks were broadcasting an entitlement to a certain level of intimacy with the man. So I stuck with my choice.

But then, time passed. And I learned more.

During this past year, I started to do more reading about Arbuckle as I turned full attention to the Centennial year of Keaton's entrance into film. Because Arbuckle was such an essential player in the Keaton story at that juncture, I explored more and more Arbuckle-based materials. And I now realize  that there's a good reason for modern writers to call him "Roscoe."

Its goes beyond the idea that "friends called him 'Roscoe' and fans called him 'Fatty'" to the important reason why this was.  Arbuckle's friends called him "Roscoe" because he didn't like the nickname "Fatty." According to biographical accounts, Arbuckle didn't choose the nickname; and when people -- fans and the press -- started to call him by it, he at first tried to distance himself from the name. When he was unable to do so, he tolerated it for his career but continued to disdain it.

This alone might have been enough of a reason for me to switch horses and start using Roscoe, but a further consideration weighed even more heavily (pardon the pun). A new research project I'm working on (stay tuned) has given me reason to read a lot of media accounts of Arbuckle's activities in 1917. I have now read dozens of archival newspaper articles about the man, and in doing so have gotten a taste for the condescending way the media treated him, while ostensibly professing great admiration. This was long before the scandal that ended his career, back at a time everyone was charmed by him. By today's standards, newspapers were unfathomably impudent -- freely speculating about how much he weighed, peppering their accounts with reference to his size, speculating about damages he could cause or special equipment he might need. It's rather surreal. And honestly pretty offensive.

I have a newfound appreciation for the way not just the moniker, but the cottage industry of treating his size as an exhibit, must have grated on the man. In honor of that, I will refrain from it's unnecessary further use and call Arbuckle ROSCOE.

There's only so much one blogger can do when a century of history has established this nickname. But I'm ready to do my part.

So sad how much history this man's memory needs to live down!