Commemorating the First World War Centennial in Kansas

Kansans of the Great War Era: Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton was born October 4, 1895 in Piqua, Kansas, to Vaudevillian parents who happened to be making a stop there.  His short stay was long enough for Buster to be embraced as a Kansan.  A festival in his honor is held at Iola each September.

We could talk about his movie career, but there are enough websites and other sources to do that.  Instead we’ll briefly discuss his career as a soldier in the Great War.  Much of the following comes from Buster Keaton Remembered, co-authored by his widow, Eleanor, and Jeffrey Vance.

Buster was inducted into the army in June, 1918, and assigned to Company C of the 159th Infantry, 40th Division.  His unit left for France in August, and most of the time he worked as a cryptographer.  But he also entertained his fellow soldiers, even remaining in France longer than it was necessary, performing acts for the troops waiting to go home.

His most popular act was the “Princess Rajah” snake-dance, based on one of his Vaudeville routines.  He wore a skirt assembled from mess kit utensils, a brassiere made of dog tags, and used a hot dog as a snake!

His service did come at a mild cost.  He contracted a chronic ear infection that resulted in a gradual loss of hearing after the war.  When he returned to the states in April 1919, the army sent Buster to Johns Hopkins for observation.

His experiences in France would serve him well professionally.  His second talking film in 1930, Doughboys, was based in part on Buster’s time in the army, and included some of the routines he performed for the troops.

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For information about the annual Buster Keaton Celebration at Iola:  http://iolakeatoncelebration.org/

 

 

Blair Tarr is the Museum Curator of the Kansas State Historical Society. He oversees the three-dimensional collections of the Society, but has special interests in the Civil War, Wichita-made Valentine diners, and Leavenworth's Abernathy Furniture. In the last few years he has also done a lot of cramming on The Great War. He is a past president of the Kansas Museums Association and the Civil War Round Tables of both Kansas City and Eastern Kansas. He is currently a board member of the Heritage League of Greater Kansas City.

1 Comment

  1. Blair Tarr

    For those that are interested, the Keaton celebration in Iola has come to an end, and this past September 15 (2018), the celebration was held at the Music Hall in Kansas City, Missouri. See the link: https://www.facebook.com/Buster-Keaton-in-KC-265925989299/

    Hopefully this event will continue, but it will need assistance which will be gratefully accepted!

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