Research Gold by Matt Phelan

The Three Keatons

The Three Keatons

I would wager that all historical fiction writers could be categorized as Nerdy, at least in their chosen subject. Research is absolutely required and these authors are the sort who rub their hands together with glee at the prospect.

For Bluffton, my research involved watching all of Buster Keaton’s movies and reading about the history of vaudeville. This afforded me more laughs than I had during the research phase for The Storm in the Barn. I also decided that for this book I needed to pull out all the stops. I had to go to Bluffton and have a look around with my own eyes. My wife pointed out that this might have been a swell idea for my previous book Around the World, too. After a long silent pause, we were off to Muskegon, Michigan.

Anyone interested in the Actors’ Colony of Bluffton eventually discovers Ron Pesch, who’s website ( was immensely helpful. Ron agreed to meet me at Buster’s ball field for a guided walking tour. The neighborhood retains the quiet unassuming atmosphere that was annually disrupted by vacationing vaudevi

llians all those years ago. Ron pointed out where the elephants were kept, the location of the colony’s clubhouse Cobwebs & Rafters (long since taken down), and the the lot where Jingles’ Jungle, the Keaton cottage, had stood. I even met the current owner of the property and he showed me the concrete wall in back where Joe Keaton carved his named.

Most of my week in Bluffton was spent just milling about the place, soaking in the feeling, getting to know how long it takes to walk from Buster’s house to Pascoe’s for a fried perch sandwich (sadly no longer there).

On my final full day in Bluffton, I struck Research Gold. And like most Research Gold, it largely was due to dumb luck, being in the right place at the right time, and asking a question.

Joe and Myra Keaton parade down the streets of Bluffton.

Joe and Myra Keaton parade down the streets of Bluffton.

Walking along the lake, I saw a small cottage with a homemade estate sale sign. The elderly owners were selling the house and all of the contents. It had been the woman’s grandfather’s place. The time frame worked out, so I started poking around. I rummaged through a big box of promising old photos but no luck. I asked the owners if they had anything related to the Actors’ Colony and Buster Keaton in particular.

“Well… just a minute. Let me check something,” said the lady of the house. She walked into another room. I idly examined a cool 1960s James Bond board game and a busted fiddle.

She came back a few minutes later holding an old unframed 8×10 photograph. She pointed to a smiling teen and said, “I think that’s Buster.”

It was indeed. Also pictured were Joe Keaton, Big Joe Roberts, Ed Gray, and the woman’s grandfather who ran the general store. They were posed in front of Cobwebs & Rafters.

I asked tentatively if she might consider selling the photo.

She thought for a moment and then said in an almost apologetic tone, “I’d have to charge you ten dollars.”

As luck would have it, I had ten bucks in my pocket. I’d hate to think what would have happened to that old photo, that piece of history, if I hadn’t asked. Everything in that house was going to go, one way or another.

You can see the photograph at the end of B

luffton. The credit line says “from the collection of the author” which tickles me to no end. I am officially a Keaton Collector.

Pretty nerdy. Pretty cool.


Matt Phelan is the illustrator of many books for young readers, including Flora’s Very Windy Day by Jeanne Birdsall and The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, winner of the 2007 Newbery Medal. He is the author/illustrator of the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn, which won the 2010 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. His second graphic novel Around the World received the 2012 Carolyn W.Field Award from the Pennsylvania Library Association and two Eisner Award nominations. His third graphic novel, Bluffton, is about summertime, vaudeville, and the young Buster Keaton. His latest picture book, Xander’s Panda Party by Linda Sue Park, arrives this September.