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May 31, 2002

The other day we were talking about the $30 million asking price for the former home of the late Buster Keaton in Beverly Hills, California. Things that concern the old stone-faced comic are of interest here because he spent some of his growing-up years in Perry. His parents were nomadic vaudeville performers who lived here in the late 1890s and the early 1900s when Buster was just a tot. He learned about show business with his parents as they tried out some of their slapstick material on audiences at the old Grand Opera House on the east side of the Perry square. In 1995, the centennial year of Busterís birth in Piqua, Kansas, there was a renewal of interest in his life story. He continues to have a fascination for young people as well as old-timers who remember some of the classic Keaton movies.

Because of that revival of curiosity about Mr. Keatonís life, several books are now available in paperback or cloth covers. Some friend has kindly sent me copies of two of them and I am grateful to that thoughtful, anonymous benefactor. Despite some of the inevitable typographical errors, they make good reading. One is titled simply Keaton with the sub-title, The Man Who Wouldnít Lie Down, a reference to his ability to bounce back from lifeís adversities as well as he survived physical problems in the movies. The author is Tom Dardis and the publisher of the revised edition is Limelight Editions of New York. Scribner published the original version in 1979. Limited Editions brought out the paperback in 1996. It has 278 pages plus appendices and a filmography and listing of notes and sources. A real bonus is the great collection of photographs throughout the book. Itís worth your time, if you can find a copy.

The other paperback is Buster Keaton: My Wonderful World of Slapstick. This one was written by Buster Keaton himself with the aid of Charles Samuels. It is a Da Capo paperback originally published in 1960 by Doubleday. The new edition was reprinted by arrangement with Charles Samuels and the estate of Buster Keaton. The paperback has 282 pages and an exhaustive filmography plus several great photos. Two of the pictures show Buster as a baby and later at about the age of five. Both may have been taken in Perry, but they are credited to the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) Library. Another interesting sidelight is provided by a new introduction by Dwight Macdonald of the New York Review of Books. He writes: ďI think that during the seventies Buster Keaton replaced (Charlie) Chaplin as the master of movie comedy most admired by Americans seriously interested in cinemaÖ. This is the age of Keaton.Ē That is high praise from a respected observer. This book, Busterís autobiography, contains many thoughts related by the star himself. Unfortunately, the years he and his family spent in this little prairie city are shunted to the background. Thatís too bad because they could have provided at least an additional chapter that would have been of great general interest.

Iíll have more on the new Buster Keaton books in a subsequent column.