Vaudeville is largely unknown by most people in the world today. 120 years ago, vaudeville was the major form of entertainment in most small towns. Films were in their infancy, and they had yet to make an impact in the American psyche.
Vaudeville acts would tour the country, and, if you lived in a certain town, you might see a different act every week at your local theater. The act would contain everything from musical numbers to small dramatic works, magic acts or even trained animals.
A baby named Joseph was born to a vaudeville family in 1996 in a small town in Kansas. Joe was born there simply because that’s where the family happened to be performing that night. So, it is entirely fair to say that Joe was born to the stage. His dad partnered with a magician who would later go on to great fame, a guy named Harry Houdini. Joe’s dad would perform with his wife and, after Houdini did his magic act, Dad would also sell elixirs and patent medicines to make a few extra bucks.
Joe got in on the act within a few months of being born. As his mom would play the saxophone on the side of the stage, Joe’s dad would toss his young son around the stage, and the baby would giggle. This delighted audiences after they recovered from their initial shock of seeing a child being thrown around so casually. But Joe learned early how to land like a cat; he later said that the secret was to go limp and then catch yourself with an arm or a foot. “Most people don’t last long in this business because they don’t know how to do that,” he explained.
Early on, Joe realized that the laughs from the audience would be greater if he did not giggle so much when his dad tossed him around so cavalierly. So Joe learned to show no emotion during the act. His deadpan face caused the audience to roar even louder. That meant more money for the family.
Years passed , and Houdini left the act to go on to bigger and better things. Joe’s dad began drinking heavily. The family tried to improve their fortunes by going to the UK on tour, but that venture failed miserably and put the family in debt. Joe’s mom eventually took her son and came back to the US. More years passed, and Joe served in France in the army during World War 1.
In New York City, Joe met a guy who worked in the burgeoning new film industry. On a tour of a New York studio, Joe expressed his fascination with the medium, and he asked if he could take one of the cameras home with him. There, he took the contraption apart and looked at it carefully. The next day, he came back and asked for a job and was hired as a bit player and “gag man.“
By 1920, Joe earned his first starring role in a full-length motion picture. Soon, he was one of the biggest stars in the genre, writing, starring in, and even directing his own films.
In an interview, he talked about his early days in vaudeville and how he got the nickname by which he became known around the world. “As a baby, I fell down some stairs and landed at the bottom without being hurt. Harry Houdini laughed at that and said, ‘That boy’s a real buster!’”
Thats why you know him as Buster Keaton.