On June 28th, we received the sad news that Bart Williams, one of our earliest members, had died that morning at his home in Bullhead City, Arizona. Like Buster, like Eleanor, Bart lost a battle with lung cancer, although he was also diagnosed with liver cancer. Even though he was realistic about his chances, Bart, throughout his illness, remained remarkably upbeat and positive.
Bart’s close friend Tyler St. Mark said it on Bart’s Facebook page far better than I ever could: “Bart had courageously battled lung and liver cancer for almost a year, and it was his desire to bid farewell to family and intimate friends without fuss during these last few weeks and then to make his transition with simple grace and the utmost dignity. This last role Bart performed as impeccably as he did with all of his endeavors both in and outside the entertainment industry.”
I got to know Bart through his best friend and neighbor, Eleanor Keaton, Buster’s widow. Within days after the Damfinos was founded on Oct. 4, 1992, Eleanor gave Bart a gift membership, making him one of our initial eight members.
I first met Bart in person a few months later, in 1993, when I visited Los Angeles from my home in New Jersey. Before I even arrived on the West Coast, he and I worked together long distance to organize an invitation-only Keaton screening and social get-together at the Silent Movie Theater, an event planned so I could meet other early members of the group as well as Keaton fans Bart knew from a lifetime love of old movies. When the plans hit a snafu — it was accidentally announced as being open to the public — Bart patiently stood with me in the lobby of the theater for more than two hours, gently and kindly (as was his way) turning away people who were not on the RSVP list.
Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time with Bart and Eleanor. He arranged for me to meet a very frail Bartine Burkett, drove me around town in his car (which had belonged to Stan Laurel), or we just hung out at his place and at Eleanor’s. The man I met was funny, charming, ebullient and endlessly enthusiastic. I’ve seldom met anyone with as much energy — all of it positive — as Bart Williams.
My husband, Joe Adamson, who had known Bart since the 1960s, remembers him this way: “No matter who you were, Bart always treated you like you were the most special person on earth — and he did this not in a phoney, Hollywood way, but with the utmost sincerity.”
Mostly Keaton fans are aware of Bart as the little boy who rode his bike 10 miles to Buster and Eleanor’s house so he could meet his film idol; over the next few months, he made that bicycle ride a few more times and spent several Sunday afternoons with Buster, who found chores they could do together at the Keaton home in Woodland Hills.
What you might not know is that from that auspicious meeting, Bart grew up with a passion for old movies and television shows, particularly comedies. He was actively involved in the Laurel & Hardy group the Sons of the Desert, he attended the Hollywood film buffs’ convention Cinecon as often as he could, and he became friends with many older movie and TV stars.
Before he was even a teenager, Bart had become a performer; in fact, if you look very closely, you can find him as a small, towheaded child in the crowd of the 1963 hit musical film Bye, Bye Birdie. From there, he developed a career as a comedic character actor, a natural for someone as charismatic and devoted to the entertainment industry as he was.
According to Tyler St. Mark: “Bart spent most of his 66 years passionately dedicated to the performing arts; theatre, radio, film and television. He was a veteran actor whose film credits included The Doomsday Clock, Short Circuit 2, Hello, Dolly and An Enemy of the People. His TV credits included MAD-TV, Weird Science, Seinfeld, Totally Hidden Video and General Hospital.
“Bart also appeared in countless Equity musical productions nationwide, often in major character roles he performed repeatedly over the years and become particularly celebrated for, such as Cap'n Andy in Show Boat, Major General Stanley in The Pirates of the Penzance, and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz. The latter would be Bart's final acting role, which he brilliantly performed to stellar reviews and sold-out audiences at the Tuacahn Amphitheatre in St. George, Utah.
“Bart also was a successful writer, director and producer, having garnered numerous festival awards recently for his film documentary, The Last First Comic, which chronicles the history of burlesque comedy through the life and career of the only surviving burlesque comedy headliner.”
What I remember best about Bart as a performer is his generosity. When he was doing a show near me, either on the East Coast or the West, he always invited me to attend, and would allow me to tag along when he and other performers went out to dinner after the show. Even when the production wasn’t very good, Bart always was. From his comedic heroes like Buster, he’d learned timing and pacing, how to take a fall or deliver a line, how to build to a rip-roaring laugh. He was great fun to see on stage. I saw him play the Wizard in a major production of The Wizard of Oz in New York, and he was quite simply terrific, which may be why many of his friends are remembering him as “The Wizard of Ahhhs.”
I was fortunate enough to accompany him on the piano a couple of times when he performed — the first that fateful night at the Silent Movie Theater in 1993, and the second 20 years later at our 2013 convention in Muskegon, Michigan. Both times I was in awe of how much of a perfectionist he was in rehearsals and how hard he worked to make it look simple when he entertained an audience.
For a time, Bart was on the board of Actors’ Equity, and so was a voting member for the Tony Awards. When I lived in New Jersey, he would come to New York every year to see the Tony nominees, and he would often take me as his “date” to whichever show I most wanted to see, a real treat for a show business junkie who was then living hand to mouth. After moving to Los Angeles in 1998, I got together with him as often as I could. I even remember seeing him on stage during the 1999 Academy Awards as part of the ensemble that performed “Blame Canada.”
He had intended to come to our 20th convention last year, but got a long-term job in Utah that he felt he had to take, because it would cinch his ability to have health insurance for the rest of his life. Neither of us imagined how short a life that would turn out to be. Later, Bart told me that, shortly after filming a video greeting to be shown at the convention, he felt tired and rundown, so he went to a doctor who gave him the diagnosis that he had cancer. Possibly against what might have been better for his health, Bart insisted that the show must go on, and he finished out his run.
Like Will Rogers, Bart Williams never met a person he didn’t like. He was always enthusiastic, always open to new experiences and always sharing his time and his passions. He was one of the sweetest, most buoyant people it has ever been my pleasure to know. He never complained, and always saw the silver lining in any cloud.
He came to two of our Keaton conventions, and both times he surprised us by bringing some of his Keaton treasures for us to look at — Buster’s scepter from Once Upon a Mattress, two sets of Buster’s cufflinks and studs, magazines Buster had subscribed to. Bart just wanted to share his delight in these things with people he knew would appreciate them.
Bart and Eleanor’s friend Bob Borgen said today, “Bart was one of the very lucky kids who actually got to go to Buster’s house ‘to play.’ And then he became luckier still to develop a friendship with Eleanor. In the end, he was one of those shining stars who shone a spotlight on Buster and Eleanor, keeping their stories and memories alive. I’m sure there’s a Keaton film screening somewhere tonight; I hope there will be a spark — some youngster will make a discovery and begin to carry the torch that has been dropped.”
The last time I saw Bart in person was when the lights came up during a Cinecon screening at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, and we discovered we’d been sitting next to each other for the previous couple of hours! We laughed and chatted and promised each other we’d get together soon until the lights went down again. Now those lights are dimmed forever for him, and it’s too late to do the things we promised we’d do. A bittersweet, but treasured, moment.
Perhaps it’s best to leave you with this final wish from our own darling man. His friend Tyler St. Mark passes it along: “It was Barty's last request that I advise his cherished friends and colleagues to hold precious every hour, try something different and daring each day, and to remember that he will be watching us all from the ‘third balcony.’”
Farewell, dear friend.
Patricia Eliot Tobias
The International Buster Keaton Society Inc.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization
For those who haven’t seen it, here is the trailer for Bart’s documentary, The Last First Comic: