The Navigator (1924)


“We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.” —Bob Ross, painter

Buster’s full name was Joseph Frank Keaton VI. Like me, he was born in Kansas. Piqua, Kansas, to be exact. According to Wikipedia, the Piqua population was a whopping 107 in their 2010 consensus. This made me wonder how it came to pass that Buster Keaton — in many ways the inventor of the comedy genre — made his grand entrance into the world in the middle of nowhere.

I planned on writing a post for The Navigator the way I usually do: start out with a relevant quote, insert a summary of the movie, and give my two cents for a couple more paragraphs. However, after I discovered that a Buster Keaton Museum is hidden away in the tiny town of Piqua, I knew I needed to adjust the sails of my own research and steer this ship in a different direction…

It didn’t take me long to get ahold of some local phone numbers. Why not make a few inquiry calls? I mean, how busy could they possibly be in Piqua, Kansas? But to get some good interviews, I needed a story. My cover was that I was from out of state thinking about taking a road trip to Kansas, so I wanted to learn as much as I could about Piqua and the Buster Keaton Museum before heading out.

I decided to start by calling the local Farmer’s Coop to see if residents were friendly and knowledgable about local culture. When a farmer answered the phone, I made some small talk about possibly needing an oil change on my road trip. Then I moved into Buster Keaton territory. All of the following are real transcriptions.

KEITH: I’m interested in films and stuff, and I noticed Piqua is where Buster Keaton was born. I was trying to figure out…someone said there was a Buster Keaton Museum in Piqua. Do you know anything about that?
FARMER (sounding slightly irritated): Yeeeah, there’s a little one down here in the Water District Office.
KEITH: Oh, have you ever been there?
FARMER: No, I haven’t.

This might be harder than I thought. So far, residents of Piqua seemed more interested in oil changes than Hollywood legends. Since this farmer had not been to his own town’s Buster Keaton Museum, I decided to try talking with someone in a different line of work and made a call to Saint Martin’s Church, the religious establishment of Piqua. Someone named Carla answered the phone.

KEITH: Peek-a, is that how you pronounce the name of your town?
CARLA: Pick-way.
KEITH: Peek-way?
CARLA: No, Pick-way.
KEITH: Pick-way! I’m so sorry, I’m from out of town. How big is the population?
CARLA: Probably around 80. [Never using Wikipedia again.]
KEITH: And the Buster Keaton Museum. Have you ever been there? What kind of stuff can you see in there?
CARLA: It’s been a long time since I’ve been in there. Um… (three seconds of silence) I’m sorry, I can’t remember.

My second conversation made me wonder if anyone in Piqua had actually been to the Buster Keaton Museum, or if it was just folklore invented to lure Keaton fans into the town. Carla recommended I call the local Farmer Coop and talk about about Piqua’s history with farmer Don, who also happened to be the sexton for Saint Martin’s Church. I decided against making that call because it was probably the same guy from my first interview. Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.

The investigation was quickly approaching a dead end, because the so-called Buster Keaton Museum was not answering my calls. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they were busy preserving and dusting their Keaton relics. I decided to compromise by calling the Bowlus Fine Arts Center in nearby Iola, which organizes the annual Buster Keaton Celebration, in hopes that whoever was on the other end of the line could help me get to the bottom of this. Fortunately, sweetheart Tracy was very helpful in helping me understand why all the locals seemed clueless.

KEITH: Would you say the locals get really into [the Buster Keaton Museum and Celebration] as well, or is it more outsiders?
TRACY: Not so much. There are more people from outside the community that come. I mean, we do have a few, but it’s really a more eclectic group that are just into silent film history. A lot of college professors, people who have written books, and film historians are more the type of people that are attracted to come.
KEITH: There’s probably not as many film historians in rural Kansas as there are in other places, I guess.

Now that one mystery was solved, I still wondered why Buster Keaton was born in Piqua. Fortunately, Tracy had some insight on that one as well:

TRACY: That was an accident. His parents were vaudeville actors, and they were touring with Harry Houdini doing their vaudeville shows. They were taking the train through Kansas, and his mother went into labor. They stopped at Piqua and it was time, and she got off the train and found a boarding house. Actually, it was a family that lived really close to the railroad tracks. But [Keaton] had no other connections to this area. They were just passing through when it was time for him to arrive.

Buster Keaton’s birthplace may have been an accident, but I’m happy that’s where his story starts; this investigation navigated me to three new friends today: Farmer Don, Carla, and Tracy. Honestly, I would enjoy paying a visit to the Buster Keaton Museum and Celebration if I ever find myself in rural Kansas. Who knows…maybe some likeminded comedy buffs in overalls will be waiting for me.