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 'Wacky Waiter' channels spirit of Keaton

  Royalty passes on titles. Olympic relay runners pass a torch. Silent comedian Pete Geist believes Buster Keaton passed him a waiter's towel and tray.

Geist, who produced and appears in the Lancaster Cleft Palate Clinic's "Smiling Faces" benefit today at the Fulton Opera House, recently performed his Keaton-inspired Wacky Waiter routine before hundreds of members of the International Buster Keaton Society.

Members of that group call themselves "Damfinos." The name came from Keaton's 1921 silent movie, "The Boat," Geist said. His boat in that film is called Damfino. When someone asks Keaton what the name means, he replies, "Damned if I know."

Geist, 36, was still a toddler when Buster Keaton died in 1966. The budding young Lancaster magician discovered the sad sack comic with the porkpie hat while watching a TV documentary.

"Keaton was the son of vaudevillians," Geist said, "and as I watched him, I thought, 'That's what I do!'"

Keaton's best films ("The General," "Cops," "The Cameraman" and "Sherlock Junior") were all shot in the 1920s, before the advent of talkies. He is remembered along with Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin as a pioneer in the art of cinema slapstick.

A group of fans founded the Keaton Society in 1992. Last month they held a $250-per-ticket fund-raiser at the Italian villa built in 1926 by Keaton and subsequently owned by Cary Grant and James Mason.

Recently sold to a developer and in the process of being restored, the $20-million mansion was donated to the Damfinos for one night of partying in 1920s-vintage costumes, including a showing of Keaton's "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath," which was filmed at the villa. The 10,000-square-foot villa, with its own private screening room, six marble fireplaces, living room fountain, two guest houses, swimming pool and tennis court, provided the perfect setting for an act Geist began working on 12 years ago.

"I was doing strolling magic and mime at a corporate dinner in Washington, D.C.,

so I was formally dressed in a white jacket and dark pants," Geist recalled. "In fact, my suit had a water-ish kind of feel to it, and I ended up watching the waiters and imitating them. Pretty soon I was serving hors d'oeuvres, one at a time, from a tray, getting lots of laughs. It just gradually grew from there."

Last year, Geist made his own silent movie debut. With the help of students from the York Performing Arts Institute, he shot a 10-minute silent film called "The Wacky Waiter." It premiered last November, complete with authentic, live organ music, at the Strand-Capitol in York.

Geist himself suggested that the Damfinos hire him for their banquet.

The disappointment of being put up at Hollywood's The Farmer's Daughter Hotel across the street from a big farmers market and the CBS studios, instead of in luxurious Beverly Hills, was more than offset by the "review" Geist's Wacky Waiter performance got from film critic Leonard Maltin.

"We were taking a walking tour of Keaton's landmarks the day after the party and Leonard (a fellow Damfino) recognized me

as the guy in the waiter's uniform and said how much he enjoyed my work," Geist said. "So I said, 'Hey, can I use that as a quote?' and he said, 'You want a quote? OK. Use stupendous!'" "Stupendous!'-Leonard Maltin," now leads off the Reviews page on Geist's Web site:

Geist, who lives with his wife, Mary, in East Lampeter Township, also earned raves from the folks at the Lancaster Cleft Palate Clinic. He's been a volunteer producing their "Smiling Faces" benefit for the past six years, helping to raise $20,000 annually to treat kids born with oral or facial defects. This year's show includes Geist's silent comedy; local magician/optometrist Jay Stoltzfus' sleight-of-hand; and additional magic from a Maryland group called Cohl & Company.

It's a special show for Geist. But it's a reminder that he will never acheive Keaton-style fame, despite doing an estimated 200 dates a year all over the country.

"I'm a silent actor," he said with a sad sack grin. "If I'd lived back then, before talkies, I could have gotten away with being a movie star. But now? No way!"

Oops! Lancaster comic Pete Geist livens up a posh party at the Buster Keaton mansion in Hollywood with his Wacky Waiter bit.

The all new Wacky Waiter promo video is now available! Call (717) 396-7886 today for your free copy!
Sunday News, Lancaster, PA. · Local Arts/Airwaves Column · March 4, 2001
By Marty Crisp · Sunday News Writer ·