I’ve managed to transcribe the first of Joe Keaton’s letters to Harry Houdini. What an amazing snapshot of Vaudeville and Keaton history!!! Like most research, I’ve now got more questions to add to my list – but first read the letter:
My old Friend Harry.
Your letter came to hand. Through the clipper office. I called personally for it.
And you could imagine my surprise to hear from a trouper in far away Germany.
Well Boots old fellow, you deserve great credit for your perseverance and progress, which happens to only a few in our profession. But you are an exception. You persisted that you had the goods and did not allow yourself to meet defeat. You have fought nobly. And you are certainly entitled to the laurels.
I have noticed larger one sheets of your Billing (material?) in Beck’s office in Chicago. Also at Bill Morris’s office here in New York. And have heard your act commented on by Managers and performers – (over)
And no doubt you will get the same when you return to America.
I am introducing my new (3) act at present, and I can truthfully say I never had an act before. This one is the real thing. I played Pastors last week and was re-engaged for two shows per day. And I don’t intend to play another (3) a day engagement. I am getting the European fever myself and should I be lucky enough to land about a 12 week run, I am the lad to take a chance.
By the way Harry (Boots) just see Tom Shaw for me as I have had some correspondence and he has recently asked me for my lowest (cost/price?) In fact I am very anxious to get over there in Oct or later and I want you to be my assistant manager. You can’t talk too much on the ability of my little comedian Buster and our comedy table work. There isn’t another act like it and my sal. is $225 for 12 weeks or more. The Kid is 11 years old and hasn’t growed hardly any since you last saw him. He weighs 40 pounds and he is a corker. The ushers quit work when he troupes. If possible, get The Mirror of the wk. of Mar. 25th and read the Pleasure Palace notes which gives an accurate description of the set. Also a two column photo.
I open at the New York Theater Sunday and at Proctor’s 23rd St. wk. of April 29th. Then will play Parks. How do you like it over there? And is Bessie with you?
The White Rats are about to strike a finish here according to public sentiment. But of course I don’t pretend to know their real situation. But I do know there’s lots of suffering among the little Rats. Never before have I seen as many actors out of work owing to the fact that the ones that walked out during the strike was easily replaced by a number of good acts. But the majority were very bad and has caused Mr. Keith and Proctor to engage several stock companies of the legit opera and now the once prosperous Vaudeville man is in his (sippers?). At least a great many are but I am a sympathizer. I wish The Rats success, but I don’t believe they will win out.
Well Harry, write me a long letter telling all about your doings and what your advice would be. Best wishes to you and Bessie.
From Jo. Myra & Buster, 138 E. 15th St., New York (our standing ad appears each week in Mirror)
OH, the letterhead! And this was one HUGE piece of paper, only folded once so the envelope must have been enormous! They obviously didn’t have the 8.5x11 standard back then! The vignettes show scenes from their stage act – probably as close as we’ll ever come to seeing the actual Three Keatons perform.
I love Joe’s comments about persistence and perseverance. I imagine he passed those traits onto his son. Say what they will about Papa Joe, he was a determined man with no compunction about speaking his mind. I’ll be transcribing a second letter later (it’s in REALLY faded blue ink) that gives insight into the reason he’s buttering up Harry Houdini. Joe was a promoter, and he knew Houdini could get him places. Obviously, his “European fever” didn’t turn out the way they expected, but that’s history!
Buster is 40 lbs. at 11 years old??? Good gosh, please feed that boy! The letter is dated April 17th, but no year, so this would have been written in 1906 (if Buster really WAS 11 – they lied about his age a LOT). I’ll have to check the performance records and Houdini’s European trip dates to verify the year, but that should be pretty easy. BTW, on most of BK’s baby pictures we saw, someone had hand-lettered them ‘Buster Keaton, age 18 mos.’ Problem is, the pics were taken over a period of several years – like from 6 months to around 4 years old! Buster obviously figured out how to stop time, as he was 18 mos. old for years! Other pics from his childhood had his age erased or obscured, showing the lengths they had to go to to fool the Gerries!
Can you imagine how The Three Keatons career would have evolved if Harry Houdini had actually signed on as their assistant manager? Holy Cow!
I love Joe’s descriptions of the labor disputes and their effect on the performing arts. America was a poverty-stricken hotbed of conflict over labor vs. capital in those days, and it seems that everyone got caught up in the melee.
And finally – an address! I checked the NY property records, and 138 E. 15th St. still stands! It was built in 1901, so here’s the Google Map Street pic of where Buster (the 40 lb. perpetual 18 month old “corker” lived when The Three Keatons ruled the boards of New York!)
More to come! Stay tuned!
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