Bringing Buster to the small screen

The Buster Keaton Celebration will be offered both in-person at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center and online. It takes place Friday and Saturday, with the theme "Buster Keaton in Changing Times." The pandemic forced organizers to adapt to challenging logistics.

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September 17, 2021 - 4:30 PM

The Buster Keaton Celebration returns next week, with options to watch it in person at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, and online. The virtual format is being offered as a safe alternative for those concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic. ILLUSTRATION BY VICKIE MOSS Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

The return of the 26th Buster Keaton Celebration to Iola after a four-year hiatus was supposed to be an opportunity to offer something new and innovative. 

Something that would entice the community to attend and introduce Keaton to a new generation of fans.

Then came the COVID pandemic, and everything changed.

The festival’s return after several years — honoring movie icon Buster Keaton, who was born in Piqua in 1895 — was canceled in 2020. 

When it finally happens on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 24 and 25, it will indeed be new and innovative — but not exactly what organizers had in mind.

Instead of reinventing the festival, the Keaton festival board is reinventing how it is delivered.

The festival will return in a hybrid format, meaning it will be offered both live and in-person at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center as well as in a virtual, online setting.

Making that happen has been a logistical challenge, Dan Kays, Bowlus director, said. 

“We’ve been doing live events at the Bowlus, but this festival brings people from all over the world. We needed to find a way those people could take part in a safe way,” Kays said. 

“For me, it’s been an internal conflict. I want people back, seeing the arts live. The Bowlus is about bringing people together. This will be the only time we do the virtual part of it.”

Instead, Kays hopes future Keaton celebrations will have more of a “film festival” feel, presenting movies that incorporate Keaton-esque elements like unusual camera angles and creative storytelling. 

He envisions opportunities for youth, such as film-making contests where students can earn scholarships. 

Or, Kays said, maybe they’ll think of other ways to involve the community. 

But that’s for another day, still to come.

For now, the Keaton Festival will bring back a familiar format but present it in a new way.

THE FESTIVAL will offer two days of movies and discussion at the Bowlus, along with tours at Piqua on Sept. 24 and 25. Feature films will be presented each night, accompanied by a live orchestra. 

Short film presentations will be accompanied by a pianist. 

The festival also includes panel discussions, including a panel with members of Keaton’s family.

That format is similar to past festivals. 

The festival began in 1993 and grew to international recognition. Keaton’s widow, Eleanor, attended for a couple of years. 

When a grant that funded the program ended in 2017, the festival moved to Kansas City for a year. This will be the festival’s return to Iola.

A two-day pass to the festival will cost $40, or a one-day pass for $25. The cost to watch one of the feature films is $5. There is no charge to those age 16 and under.

A virtual experience is available for $40. That gives someone digital access to the festival through an individual portal.

THIS year’s theme, “Buster Keaton in Changing Times,” will look at the ways Keaton reinvented himself and the movie industry, a parallel to the way COVID has forced people to reinvent how they interact.

After organizers canceled the 2020 event, they took more time to plan for this year’s festival. 

That planning took place about 10 months ago, during the height of the pandemic.

At that time, Zoom meetings, online conferences and virtual events became commonplace. The technology needed to present those things quickly evolved.

Organizers examined several online programs to determine what would best fit their needs. They wanted something that couldn’t be easily shared or duplicated, such as through a link or YouTube video. 

They wanted a “chat” feature, so viewers could discuss what they saw.

They also wanted to give online viewers an experience as similar as possible to the live show. The camera will be stationed as if viewed from a seat in the Bowlus, showing both the movie on screen and the orchestra playing nearby. 

“We want to present it as if that virtual person was a person in the seat, and give that person at home a unique experience,” Kays said. 

Ultimately, they chose PheedLoop, a program Kays said fell somewhat in the middle of the pack as far as cost and features. 

The Bowlus will work with Paul Porter of Big Square Media to set up the technology at the site, allowing Bowlus staff to focus on the in-person activities.

BUT just as COVID upset the initial plans for the festival, something Kays called “COVID fatigue” interfered in their efforts for this new format.

“We’ve all been doing Zoom meetings and virtual events for a year and a half. People are sick of it,” Kays said. “We’re tired. We want to go back to the way things were, with live events.”

As a result, the virtual format has not been popular, he said. Not many people have signed on.

True, those who have purchased a virtual ticket probably would not have been able to take part otherwise. One is from Germany. Others come from various states, such as California. Some of the presenters, such as Scott Eyman, and panel members, including Keaton family members Barbara Talmadge, Keaton’s daughter-in-law, and Melissa Talmadge-Cox, his granddaughter, also will attend virtually. Harry Keaton, Buster’s grandson, will attend in person.

Costs associated with the festival are mostly covered by grants and foundations, Kays said. Ticket prices also will help offset the costs of the virtual program.

THE festival begins at 9 a.m. Friday, with an introduction and discussion on Keaton’s early years.

The day’s activities include discussions covering vaudeville, silent film and movie music, and the transition to sound.

Short films that day include The Playhouse (1921), Back Stage (1919), The Hayseed (1919) and Mixed Magic (1936).

At 7 p.m., the short film One Week (1920) will be followed by the feature presentation of Our Hospitality. 

 Saturday’s events kick off at 9 a.m. with opening remarks by Iola Mayor Jon Wells and a discussion on the 25 years of the Keaton celebration. Other discussions include discussions with the family members, a look at how Keaton became a pioneer in the early movie industry, and his final films.

Short films to be shown on Saturday include “Convict 13” (1920), “Neighbors” (1920), “Love Nest on Wheels” (1937 sound short), “Silent Partner” (1955 TV program), and a collage of television commercials.

At 7 p.m., the short film, “Cops” (1922) will be followed by the feature presentation of “The Three Ages” (1923).

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