Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to vaudeville and whether they are true or false.
VAUDEVILLE URBAN LEGEND: Buster Keaton received his nickname from Harry Houdini.
Joseph Frank Keaton broke into the vaudeville business in 1899 as a member of his family’s vaudeville act, The Three Keatons when the young Keaton was only 3 years old.
He went by the nickname Buster, which is what he would go by for the rest of his life.
The act was based around a lot of slapstick, mostly involving Joe Keaton (the father) abusing his son, in a similar fashion to the antics of Homer and Bart Simpson on The Simpsons.
A major gag in the show would involve Joe picking up Buster and throwing him against the scenery, or into props or, occasionally, even into the audience!
There’s a famous story about how Buster got his nickname. As the story goes, legendary magician Harry Houdini was visiting the Keatons while they were all on tour (Houdini did, in fact, tour with the Keatons at the time) when he saw the young Keaton (still an infant at the time, so maybe around a year old) fall down a flight of stairs without injury or, in fact, any real reaction.
Houdini remarked, “That was a real buster!” (the term at the time was used to denote falls that looked like they could hurt/cause injury) and the name stuck.
That story was repeated for years and Keaton even told it in interviews for years.
But is it true?
I’m going with no.
The first thing you need to know is that Joe Keaton was a master publicist. He was well-known for planting stories with newspapers, designed to get the group into the news. Stuff like, “The Three Keatons were almost killed today by a train!” or “Buster Keaton was almost kidnapped today.” So a story about how a famous magician gave Buster Keaton his nickname? And in a story that happened to involve the young Keaton doing a pratfall, which happened to be what he was most known for at the time?
Sounds awfully suspicious, doesn’t it?
But really, even if a story might have been manipulated for good publicity, it does not mean that it is not mostly true.
However, here is the real kicker for me.
The story changed over the years!
At the very turn of the century, right before Houdini hit it big, it was comedian George Pardey who was the fellow who named Buster.
Then, in another newspaper, it was Joe Keaton himself who named Buster, in reference to the child’s propensity for falling down.
THEN, once Houdini became suitably famous for such a story to really work in the media, THEN Houdini became the person who was there, and that’s how it stayed for good (because Houdini never actually stopped being famous – heck, he’s still famous NOW, a hundred years later).
So while it is not absolutely impossible that the story happened as it has been told, I just don’t believe it for those reasons.
Buster Keaton, by the way, in case you did not know, grew up to become one of the biggest film stars of his day, and one of the greatest film directors in film history.
The legend is…
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Thanks to Robert Knopf’s The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton for the information!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is email@example.com