Festival: A fine time for Buster

Iola's Buster Keaton Celebration reintroduced locals to the comic genius of the silent film star over the weekend. The celebration returned to the Bowlus Fine Arts Center this year after a four-year absence.


Local News

September 27, 2021 - 9:41 AM

Harry Keaton Jr., nephew of Buster Keaton, talks about how famiy members have reunited at various Keaton festivals during a panel discussion featuring Keaton family members in person and appearing virtually on a screen. From left is Harry Keaton Jr.’s daughter, Lisa Geisler, and Keaton celebration committee chairman Frank Scheide. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

It’s a scene we’ve all seen: The hero floats down a raging river toward a waterfall and certain doom.

Imagine watching something like that for the first time, in a movie on a big screen, nearly 100 years ago.

“Our Hospitality,” a feature-length silent film made by Buster Keaton in 1923, includes just such  a dramatic scene. Both Keaton and his co-star and then-wife, Natalie Talmadge, survive near-death experiences in thrilling style and some acrobatic action on the edge of a waterfall.

Keaton committee member Bruce Symes addresses the crowd Saturday during the celebration, “Buster Keaton In Changing Times.”Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

The Buster Keaton Celebration, “In Changing Times,” offered that movie for their Friday night feature presentation.

Along with the edge-of-your-seat, heart-pounding action, a six-piece orchestra added to the adventure with exhilarating music. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra performed a film score for both “Our Hospitality” and Saturday’s feature, “The Three Ages.”

Piano players performed during other short films shown throughout the festival.

The Keaton celebration returned to the Bowlus Fine Arts Center in Iola Friday and Saturday after a four-year absence, bringing back a traditional format of lectures, panel discussions and move showings.

To accommodate guests who may not have been able to travel because of COVID-19 concerns or restrictions, the Bowlus offered live-stream online access. That hit a bit of a hiccup on Saturday afternoon with a region-wide internet and cellular outage. Online viewers were later sent recordings of the events they missed.

THE CELEBRATION offered a varied look at key moments and developments in Keaton’s life, starting with an introduction to his early years and his relationship with notable silent film figures like Roscoe “Fatty”Arbuckle. 

To kick off the short movies on Friday morning, the audience was treated to a 100th anniversary showing of “The Playhouse,” which debuted on Oct. 6, 1921. In a dream sequence at the start of the film, Keaton plays dozens of characters at once, including an entire orchestra and nine actors sharing the stage. It’s an impressive achievement, considering Keaton used in-camera effects rather than the computer-generated imagery such scenes would utilize today.

Later on Friday, music students from Iola and Thayer high schools attended a lecture on “Silent Film and Movie Music,” presented by Rodney Sauer, who played piano to accompany two of the short films.

The festival then transitioned to sound, as lectures covered those topics Friday afternoon.

On Saturday, members of the Keaton family appeared both in person and virtually to discuss memories of Keaton. Keaton’s granddaughter, Melissa Talmadge Cox and daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge appeared virtually, while nephew Harry Keaton Jr. and his daughter, Lisa Geisler, appeared in person.

They noted few of the family members seemed to inherit Keaton’s acting gene. Talmadge Cox said her father was quite shy when it came to performing, even though he appeared as an infant in “Our Hospitality” and later on a television show, “This is Your Life.” 

They also talked about how the Keaton celebrations in Iola and Muskegon, Mich., brought family members together. They discovered relatives and reunited with each other after decades apart.

They discussed a decision by Keaton’s wife, Eleanor, to keep him in the dark about his diagnosis of lung cancer at the end of his life.

Not long before he died, Keaton’s movies enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in Europe. He traveled through Europe for special screenings and film festivals, and was honored at those events.