What is your relation to Jane Jacobs Walks?
Well I’m actually in IT for a living, and I do historical research as well. I started doing the walks around the neighborhood about 20 years ago through the International Buster Keaton Society. It was actually my son who introduced me to Jane Jacobs and her writings when he went off to college to study architecture and urban planning. So then I started reading her books, and when he showed me the Jane Jacobs Walk website, I started registering my walks.
Can you explain your walk a little more? Who is Buster Keaton, what is the Actor’s Colony?
Buster Keaton was a silent film comedian in the early 1900’s. He got his start in entertainment as a young kid in the family vaudeville act. Then his father discovered Muskegon and decided he would move his family during vaudeville’s off-season, but he also saw an opportunity for real estate in Muskegon. It was the first place where Buster was actually able to be a kid and enjoy his summers. The Actor’s Colony they created there was his community—a place for them to create and test out acts. They would have a bunch of fun in the summer at Muskegon, going out on the water, testing out acts at a theatre. Then when winter came they would go back on the road doing acts all over the U.S. When Buster started doing movies in Hollywood he would go back to Muskegon and show his family around because, even though he wasn’t born there, Muskegon was the place he always considered his home. So on the walk I show people sites related to Keaton and the Actor’s Colony, including a historical marker and a street named after Keaton. We usually spend about two hours pointing out where everything used to be and showing people something they might not have known about their neighborhood. The amusement park and the old theatre are long gone, as well as Buster Keaton’s family cottage, but there’s still a lot of history to show people. There’s a baseball field where Buster Keaton fell in love with the game. During his Hollywood days, if he couldn’t come up with some material for a film, he and the crew would go out and play a game of baseball.
Is that your goal for the participants of the walk, that they will see something new and learn something about their neighborhood that they never knew before?
Yeah, my goal is to point out something that someone doesn’t normally see in his or her familiar surroundings, and give them tidbits of local history that a lot of people might not know. Then when the convention on Keaton comes around in October I get to show people from all around the world the neighborhood that they’ve read about in history books on Keaton.
What is your interest in Buster Keaton, how did you come to know so much about his past?
Well when I was a kid I never really watched any silent films. I occasionally saw the Three Stooges or a Charlie Chaplin movie, but I had only seen one film of Keaton’s called The General. Then someone told me that a silent actor grew up in Muskegon, and it turned out to be Keaton. When I got older I thought that was interesting so I started doing research on him. I started to become the local history expert on Keaton, and I found out his third wife was still alive and living in California. I was working for a company that had a lot of phone books at the time, so I got in touch with her, and ended up visiting her in California where she gave me photos and lots of information on Keaton. I’m always a firm believer to never be afraid to call or ask, because you never know where it might lead you.
By this time I was known around town as the local historian on Keaton, which is why a woman from New Jersey called me to tell me she was starting a Buster Keaton fan club, and when it got big enough she would like to have a convention in Muskegon every year, and she asked me if I would like to join, and I said sure. That’s when she said, “congratulations, you are now our 7th member.” Since then we’ve had 21 conventions and I’ve hosted around 45 walks. The 22nd convention is scheduled for this October.
Anything else you would like to add?
Just that Keaton is an inspiration to a whole host of people from Johnny Depp and Jackie Chan, to many of the folks at Pixar, and even though he was born in Kansas, he called Muskegon his home. I just love sharing that information with people, as well as checking out cities that I visit, and sharing Jane’s mission. In the summer I host about one walk a month, and it’s so important to get people outside and show them the value of walkability.
We want to give a huge thanks to Ron for his continued interest in Jane Jacobs Walk, and the contribution he has made to her mission as well as his community for many years in Muskegon.