Edward Le Veque — The Last Keystone Kop (1970) 🇺🇸

Edward Le Veque — The Last Keystone Kop (1970) | www.vintoz.com

August 18, 2023

It seems fitting that LeVeque should revive the name made famous so long ago and start a new campaign to introduce millions of fresh fans to the timeless art of the zany Keystone gang. For the remarkable story of an interesting man, see the feature story “The Last Keystone Kop" in this issue.

by Eddie Le Veque

My maternal grand uncle, Rito Armendariz, was one of the greatest clowns and pantomimists in the Spanish world. He was also actor musician, puppeteer and impresario of his different types of shows. As a stage actor, producer and director, he was against the artificiality of the traditional Spanish stage and, like El Gran Neron (the Great Nero), a Gypsy, who in the 1700’s, taught his band of Gypsy performers, to act naturally and with inner feeling, to imagine that they were the characters they were portraying.

Since I was the only young male in the family, and my mother his favorite niece, I acted in some of his stage plays at the age of four if a child was needed, playing boy or girl. After I was seven, my parents permitted me to travel with him and his wife and his troop. In the United States, we traveled thru Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, with incursions into Mexico taking the main cities, as well as small towns. My uncle then, must have been in his sixties or seventies, but he was full of vim and activity, he died pushing 90.

There was an old Gypsy, somewhere near 90 that I think was the son or grandson of El Gran Neron, and there was much talk from the actors about this great Gypsy who used to train his troop of players in some clearing in the woods completely naked, while fellow actors pelted them with rotten fruit and eggs if they performed badly.

These actors staged their plays in patios and town squares where they were subject to all kinds of indignities by rowdies. But in spite of their tauntings they kept on acting. Because El Gran Neron’s theories were contrary to Spain’s Royal theater, he was charged with heresy and condemned to torture and death. When I read about “Method Acting,” I found its teachings quite familiar. It was what my uncle had been voicing and arguing with actors who still remained tied to the artificiality of the Spanish stage. Perhaps El Gran Neron was really the initiator of Method Acting, but he called it “Naturalism” with FEELING. One anecdote about Neron was that he told a young actor to react as if he had been sleeping with the wife of his master and was not afraid to face him since he loved her. The actor answered, I’m not afraid to face you. I have been sleeping with your wife and we love each other.

About 1904 my uncle bought an Edison projector and combined live shows with movies. Since electricity was not always available in some places, he used gas light in which either was part of the formula. It gave a remarkable white light. He ran mostly French films, Pathé Frères, Gaumont, Èclair, etc. They were short films. Some of these were about French Gendarmes chasing a crook up and down hilly, narrow streets, overturning push carts, people and tables at outdoor cafes, and as the chase progressed more cops and civilians joined the chase until the thief was caught. These short Gendarme chases were the forerunners of the Keystone Kops.

My uncle was a movie fan, and whenever I would go home from my run-away trips, we used to go together to movie houses in El Paso where we saw nothing but American pictures. I used to love to travel and would run away from home and beat my way on freight and passenger trains. I rode the SP, the GH, the Rock Island, the Texas and Pacific, the Santa Fe and other rails without paying a cent. We used to love to watch Biograph comedies and the early Keystones, and my uncle would point out to me the technique of actors like Chester Conklin, Fred Mace, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Mack Swain as well as other comics like John Bunny.

In 1913 I worked for the American Film Company playing boy parts and in the lab in Chicago. This company was known as the Flying A Mutual. In June 1915 I went to work as a prop boy, bit actor and Keystone Kop. In those days everybody played Keystone Kop at one time or another, even the big star comics such as Fatty Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, who usually played the Chief, Harry McCoy, Bobby Dunn, and others. It was just as hard to get into pictures then, as it was later. I had 3 or 4 “8 X 10 stills” of myself in some of the American Film Co. pictures which, by the way, consisted of brief stories of about a half reel, the other half reel usually was about how sardines were canned, or bottles made, etc. I approached Harry Atkinson at the casting window, and showed him my stills. He was not impressed. It was about 8 A.M. and there must have been about 20 people, including children, standing on the sidewalk hoping for a call. Along with my stills, I had some postcards of the Mexican Revolution with me standing along side Pancho Villa and men of his band. That caught Harry Atkinson’s eye and interest. Charlie Avery, actor and director, was just going out on location. Charlie needed an extra prop boy to assist the cameraman, and whatever else might turn up. Harry told Charlie that I was not only an actor but had been assistant cameraman to a Pathé newsman taking pictures of the Mexican Revolution. Although World War One was several months old, the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa had caught the imagination of the American people.

In early Spring of 1911, when I was fourteen, I met a Pathé cameraman at the El Paso YMCA. He needed someone who spoke Spanish and was willing to act as an interpreter for $7 a week. I told him that I was an orphan and for the second time I ran away from home. Pancho Villa was not even a Colonel then, he was Chief of some 200 men, among whom was an American Doctor and 18 or 20 other Americans, mostly Socialists from Los Angeles who believed that Mexican peons (farm labor) should be freed from working from sun up to sun down for 18 cents a day, and from paying the debts incurred by their fathers and grandfathers in the commissaries of the rich land and cattle owners. They belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World and were derided as the “I Wouldn’t Work” or Wobblies. In those days hardly any Mexican spoke English and vice versa. Thus, I became a sort of unofficial interpreter for Pancho Villa, Jose de La Blanco and other rebel chiefs with Americans in their bands.

Lewis, the cameraman, soon learned the truth that I was a runaway kid. Nevertheless, he gave me a letter of introduction to some man with the Selig Film Company in Chicago, and in June 1913 I hopped a freight out of El Paso and some three weeks later landed in Chicago. At Selig I was told that things were quiet, but to try the Essanay Studios or the American Film Company. The American Film needed a helper in the lab, soon I was playing messenger or office or delivery boy. Jack Warren Kerrigan [J. Warren Kerrigan] and Vivian Lester were the stars and Richardson the Heavy. The company opened a Studio in California to make Westerns, but I returned home. Villa was now a Generalissimo of the Northern Division, I often rode in his auto with the Chauffeur, a redheaded boy of 15-years-old and old school friend. As Villa sat with other officers in the back, he used to point to me as his blonde son and to the chauffeur as his redheaded son.

I wanted to travel in comfort, so I became a news butch (news agent) in passenger trains selling postcards, magazines, souvenirs, etc. Again in June 1915 I landed in Los Angeles and Keystone, where Eddie Gribbon took me under his wing and helped correct my English and we became intimate pals until he died in 1965. Jack Dillon, Eddie Cline, Charlie Avery, Harry Atkinson and others took a liking to me, since I used to show them the best places to eat good Mexican or Spanish food, as well as helping them meet handsome Mexican Senoritas of the upper class, refugees from the revolution.

The fellows at Keystone used to kid my English, and the more they kidded me the more mistakes I purposely made. It had been the same at the American Film Company. But I had learned that by pretending I made glaring speech mistakes, besides being overly polite, was a humorous attraction to older fellows who would take me places just to show me to their girls. Some of these fellows were directors and big actors, and it was the same at Keystone.

I first ran into Fatty Arbuckle about 1909 or 1910, he was doing a vaudeville act at the Happy Hour Theater in El Paso, a high class vaudeville theatre and movie house. It was late afternoon and he was standing in front of the theater talking to the owner. I asked for a job as a projection assistant, and Fatty said that I could have the job if I went to the Unique Theater and borrowed their left hand key to raise the curtain. The manager at Unique told me to try the Wigwam theater, but the owner, Mr. Lynch, who had been my father’s friend, told me that they were fooling me. I pointed to Fatty as the one who sent me on the errand. Mr. Lynch told me to tell that Fat guy that he was a bum and to run. Returning, I called Fatty that and I ran, he pretended to chase me. When I looked back, he was laughing his head off. At Keystone, Fatty didn’t recognize me, and he used to hand me a dollar bill with instructions to get a whale sandwich, or elephant sandwich, or some other crazy thing. One time he gave me five dollars, told me to keep the change, and to go from store to store downtown to buy some ridiculous merchandise that didn’t exist. I did go downtown to the Pantages instead. Later I told him that I went from store to store and the lady clerks had been shocked. He, Slim Summerville and others got a big kick out of my story.

Fatty told me to keep the five bucks, which I knew he would. A couple of days later I asked him if he wanted me to go on another errand. He looked at me with a quizzing eye and said, “Who has been kidding who? Have I been the sucker all the time?” Then I reminded him of our first encounter in El Paso. He laughed and shook his head. He was a great and generous sport. We used to work for $3 a day, and $5 if you furnished your own tuxedo. But room and board with breakfast and dinner and lunch and your clothes washed was only $5 a week. For amusement, there was Solomon’s Penny Dance on Grand Avenue, carfare was only five cents and ice cream sodas were a nickel. Excellent Italian or French restaurants served meals for 25 cents, you could have a glorious Sunday till late with a girl friend for $1.50.

I left Keystone to make a trip to San Francisco in April 1917. I joined the Army shortly after arriving on May 1st, as war had been declared a few weeks before. After my discharge, I returned to Hollywood and went to the Metro Studios (later MGM) on Cahuenga and Romaine.

Valentino and Alice Terry were there with Rex Ingram, the director, shooting “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. I became an assistant director with him, and good friends. We had both been fliers, but he was in the British Army and I was a cadet in this country. Since there was no sound, Mexicans could play French or Latin soldiers and character parts of all kinds.

When I left Metro, I joined up with a Pathé cameraman who was out of work but had a movie camera of his own. We started making short advertising films for theatres, the fore runners of TV commercials. We branched out into travelogues and later more ambitious two-reel Western comedies. These were shot around Bakersfield, and we sold them state by state.

Some of the actors we found in this way later became featured players in bigger films. One of these was Skitter Bill who became a star in his own westerns. I never went back to Keystone, not even for a visit. My apprentice days were over. My friends from that period, were scattered throughout the industry as stars and directors for other companies. Keystone had been an important training ground for Eddie Sutherland, Earl Kenton, Bob Kerr, Charlie Avery, and Jack Dillon, became directors.

Eddie Gribbon, Chester Conklin and his brother Heinie [Transcriber’s note: Heinie Conklin was actually not related to Chester], Ford Sterling, Louise Fazenda, Polly Morgan, Mabel Norman, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin were all discovered at Keystone and later became big stars elsewhere.

Some of the former Keystone people still around are Charlie Diltz, Chester Conklin, Bill Williams, Eddie Sutherland, Earl Kenton, Billie Bletcher, Hank Mann, Bernard Harris, Harold R. May and perhaps six others. Of the hundreds of people who worked for Mack Sennett, only a handful are left.

I own the world-wide rights to the name Keystone Kops and on my first TV appearances I used the original Kops, but since 1966 they have been younger actors. Not many people know this, but Mack Sennett never named his zany policemen Keystone Kops. In fact, he had no name for them when he launched “funny cops.” It was the public who named them Keystone.

The kops were never mentioned in the titles nor on the theatre lobby posters put out by Sennett. However, the Keystone Comedies name was always mentioned in the movie titles as well as printed matter. In promotion posters, the Keystone Kops were usually shown, with the hero, heroine and villain, but were not named. Since the trade-mark Keystone Comedies was prominent and printed in big letters, the public began watching for them as Keystone Kops.”

No sooner had the Keystone police caught the imagination of the public making a fortune for Sennett, than other Studios copied the idea and threw funny cops into their comedies. All the cops wore sloppy uniforms which by 1915 had become an anachronism. Most police forces had stopped using these uniforms about 1912.

In fact the origin of these uniforms came from England where the British Bobbies wore a similar style. Later it was adopted in the U.S. with certain modifications. Some of the hats and uniforms were grey, especially in the South. In the northern parts of the country, they tended to be blue and grey. Keystone used dark blue uniforms with tall bowler style hats.

Hoping to identify their comic law officers, other studios adopted names like Christy Cops, and Stern Brothers Cops, but the public didn’t care. There was only one name for millions of fans and that was Keystone. Even Sennett preferred to call his creations Mack Sennett Cops. He started this in 1916, and he was always insistant with newsmen on his prefered name when Keystone popped up.

He had recently started Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties and the idea was growing in popularity and he wanted the fame of his zany police transfered to them, but the name stuck. It was too late to change. In Mack Sennett’s last will and testament there is no mention of the Keystone Kops or the name Keystone, nor when the will was probated shortly after he died. In fact, there is no paper or document in existence stating Mack Sennett retained an interest in Keystone.

Sennett sold all his interest in Keystone to the Triangle-Keystone people in June of 1917. He started producing movies under his own name, Mack Sennett Comedies, which were first released by Paramount. The most famous of all “graduates” of the Keystone Police force was Charlie Chaplin. After leaving the employ of Sennett, Chaplin played a Keystone type kop in a two-reel film, Easy Street, in 1917.

When Triangle-Keystone went out of business, the name was all but forgotten until I re-copyrighted the name with the idea of keeping it active. In fact I have more than complied with the requirements which the law demands. Thus it is now assured, the Keystone Kops will never die.

Edward Le Veque — The Last Keystone Kop (1970) | www.vintoz.com

Edward Le Veque — The Last Keystone Kop (1970) | www.vintoz.com

Edward Le Veque — The Last Keystone Kop (1970) | www.vintoz.com

Edward Le Veque — The Last Keystone Kop (1970) | www.vintoz.com

Collection: Hollywood Studio Magazine, April 1970


see also Keystone Kops Reunion (1970)