Bartine Burkett, The Girl Who Just Had To Work
by Mark Jungheim
While her name may not be familiar, her face certainly should be. In the seventies and early eighties Bartine Zane could be seen on many TV shows and commercials as the kindly Grandmother. From Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill Wine on the back of a motorcycle or as the would-be baker of Grandma’s Cookies, Bartine had a way of showing that age did not have to diminish the qualities of spunk and vitality. What many did not know is that she had worked over a period of ten years in silent films with many of that generations biggest stars. I had the great pleasure of knowing and being friends with Bartine for over twelve years until her death in 1994. I hope that this web site could serve as a tribute to her and the unique spirit that she shared with everyone that she met.
It was 1980 when a friend of mine and fellow Buster Keaton enthusiast pointed out a small advertisement that was being included with our Pacific Telephone bills. The ad gave a brief biography of the actress in their new series of commercials. It stated that she had been Buster’s first leading lady. There was no way in my mind that this could be true until I realized that Buster’s first solo effort “The High Sign” did not credit the actress who had played lead, nor did any filmography that I could find. It was then that I set out to either prove this actress was wrong or be overjoyed by the possibility of meeting a survivor of Keaton’s early days. Eventually I found out the name of Bartine’s agent and gave him a call stating that I was interested in interviewing her. He told me that if she was willing to talk to me, she would call me at her convenience. No more than ten minutes went by when I received a call from Bartine. As we chatted, we discovered that she lived less than a mile away from me. She said that she didn’t remember what the title of the film that she made with Buster was, but would be happy to talk to me about those days.
Since “The High Sign” was the most probable choice, I arranged to screen a print of the film for her. Arriving at her home, I was greeted by a woman not terribly interested in the past. She was much more interested in entertaining me with a selection on the piano, offering me some homemade cookies, and oh by the way , “do you like to play Scrabble ?”. I was to discover that Bartine’s memories of her silent film career were not very clear. Not so much from the passing of years I suspect, but rather an attitude that she had maintained throughout her career. She was just there to work.
“No Sir, I just have to work”
Bartine: I came out here [to Hollywood], from Shreveport, Louisiana when I was sixteen years old and it was 1914. My family had met some young girls who were in the picture business. I wanted to go into the picture business because frankly, I didn’t know what else to do. I had been traveling with a little stock company that was from my home town, and I thought that since I was coming to California it might be nice to give the movies a trial. They told that I would have to go to the studio late in the afternoon around five or five thirty and that the casting directors always sat in their office and you went up and they told you whether you had a job or not, or gave you an interview. I went to Lasky studio because that where Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks and a few other big names were and I didn’t want to go to just any old studio, you know. I didn’t like being in line though. I was about a block and a half away when I started. When I got up to the window almost, I heard this man saying “No, nothing tomorrow, no sorry, not anything now”. When I got up to the window, I really hadn’t figured out what I was going to say, but I said “may I come and see you sometime?”. He said, “Why yes, when you would like to come?”, I said “At your convenience”, he said “How about noon tomorrow?”. I was very surprised. I found out later that the reason that he was so nice to me was because he was from Virginia and had a very southern accent and I was from Louisiana, and he just thought poor little southern gal. Bartine was to find out later that the kind casting director’s name was Lou Goodstadt. The next day she went to see him and told him how nice she thought it was of him to see her so soon. He said “I suppose you want to be a big star”, and I said “No sir, I just have to work, and that’s all I’m really interested in right now.” He said that was very different from anything that he had heard. About that time a man passed the door and Mr. Goodstadt went to the door and said “Doug, come here a minute”, and he introduced me, “This is Mr. Douglas Fairbanks. Doug, this young lady, I want you to meet her because she is not interested in becoming a big star, she just has to work”. They both laughed.
Bartine was offered a three day guarantee at five dollars a day. She worked at Lasky Studios about three months until one day Mr. Goodstadt called Bartine in to tell here that L-KO (pronounced by Bartine as ELCO) studios needed somebody for a comedy series.
To be continued…