Sometimes the most interesting stars of the silent era are the ones who are the most elusive—the ones who seemed to just fall off the planet at some point, with not much information to be had on them.
One such actor was a child actor named Roswell Buster Johnson. He was extremely popular for about a year or so, and what an amazing thing, for he was only 3 1/2 years old!
Census and article information tells us that he was born in New York on July 12th, 1908, and died October of 1969. His parents were Roswell Joshua Johnson (1884-1946) and Florence S. Johnson (1884-1971) according to findagrave.com.
He had a sister who was named Ormi Hawley Johnson. That shows how close Ormi Hawley was to the family! A census taken for his father in 1910 says that Mr. Johnson was born in New York about 1885, making him 25 at the time. His home in 1910, which was also where Buster lived, was on Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn Ward 3, Kings, New York. He is listed as a moving picture photographer.
Here is a little playful snippet about Buster’s sister in the April 5, 1913 issue of The Moving Picture World.
Buster was a cute fellow, an adorable little boy that seemed always to be squinting into the sun in his pictures. Lubin really played him up in 1912 and 1913, making it sound like he was the be-all and end-all in child acting. Here is a short article from Motion Picture News, April 27, 1912….
….and here he is in a group picture of Lubin child actors from Moving Picture News, July 1912.
The fans seemed to really love him, too, asking all kinds of questions about the child. He was most famous for being in a series all his own, called the Buster series. In all, he was in 14 films, and that was it! 1913 is his last credit. I don’t think anything that he acted in exists anymore. Such a shame, because all the hype in the magazines makes me want to see for myself what they were talking about! They seem really cute.
Before I took an interest in making a post about Buster, I tried in vain to look up one in particular named Buster in Dreamland. It had been mentioned in Motion Picture Story Magazine multiple times in the questions and answers section, and it seemed right up my alley. Needless to say, it was not to be found.
In 1914, the Lubin Company had a fire that resulted in financial problems. It’s possible that because of this, they couldn’t afford all the actors they had on the roster, and naturally the children would be cut first. Perhaps they had to drop him. In fact, that would put the timing just right. It makes sense!
Further research of census records by a wonderful member of The Silent Film Group on Facebook revealed a few interesting details about Buster Cutie Pants Johnson (yes, I went there!). His birth name was Hoyt Roswell Johnson. A 1930 census shows us that he was living with family and was a bookkeeper at a bank. On November 24th, 1934 he was married to Vivien Isabel Mehrhof at Neighborhood Reformed Church in Ridgefield, New Jersey. In the image below, it states that she was 23 and he was 26.
Vivien Isabel was the daughter of Eugene Clifford Mehrhof and Isabell Patterson. (Census puts 2 l’s for her mother’s name). It states that she was born around 1911. In fact, she was born January 26th, 1911 and died October 21, 2003.
Another census in 1940 still shows Buster working at a bank and married.
So here we are, talking about a little boy who only acted for about a year, over 100 years ago. Why wasn’t he picked up by another company if he was such a popular little tyke? It seems that more and more information keeps surfacing with a little digging! Maybe we will learn more soon!
Here’s to you, kid! This photo is from the January 1913 edition of Motion Picture Story Magazine.
Extra special and BIG thank you to the amazing people at The Silent Film Group on Facebook for helping gather the resources for this post. You guys are awesome!