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Betzwood Actors

John Keenan: the Ubiquitous Extra

Literally hundreds of people appeared in the films made by the Lubin Manufacturing Company, the Lubin Film Company and the Betzwood Film Company during the years those early film enterprises were in business. But one face appeared in more films than any other. It was not the face of a famous star, however, but that of an unknown and uncredited extra from Philadelphia. His name was John Keenan, and his story is an interesting example of the many “ordinary people” who were drawn into the early movie industry.

Born December 20th, 1881, in North Philadelphia, John Keenan was one of six children of working class parents. When John married in 1905, he went to live with his wife’s family and worked with his father-in-law at a terra cotta factory. However, when Siegmund Lubin opened his huge motion picture studio at 20th and Indiana in 1910—just around the corner and across the railroad tracks from the old Keenan family home on Allegheny Avenue—John headed to “Lubinville” to seek employment. Though the year he started is unknown, he can be seen stacking films in a photograph taken in the shipping department around 1912. A group photo taken on Lubin’s birthday in 1912 shows him in a cowboy costume, making it apparent that he had begun appearing in films as an extra by that time as well. A man of average height and slender build, John had a distinctive and expressive face that served him well as an extra. Unselfconscious and casual on camera, he frequently found himself called upon to take up minor roles.

When Lubin purchased the Betzwood property in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1912, and began building his new flagship studio there, John Keenan took advantage of the new opportunity. He moved his young family out to the country and took a job as one of the farm hands needed to run the two farms that made up most of the Betzwood studio grounds. As he had in Philadelphia, he continued to work as an extra in the films made at the Betzwood studio.

John Keenan, left, and his brother, Charles, right,  pose with their buddy,  Joe Riley, one of the several rodeo riders hired to play cowboys at the Betzwood studio.

John Keenan, left, and his brother, Charles, right, pose with their buddy, Joe Riley, one of the several rodeo riders hired to play cowboys at the Betzwood studio.

Considering how many films he appears in, and how many production stills show him in the shot, he must have been one of the first choices of any director needing an instant cowboy, Civil War soldier, or anonymous man-on-the-street. John’s enthusiasm for his movie work encouraged his brother, Charles Keenan, to come to Betzwood and join the posse as a cowboy, but his appearances appear to have been sporadic.

When Lubin went bankrupt in 1916, Keenan continued to work on the Betzwood studio grounds as a caretaker. When the newly-formed Betzwood Film Company took over the studio in 1917/1918, the inveterate extra also resumed appearing in films. His 1918 draft registration card lists him as both a “farmer” and a “movie actor.” Though he was not drafted to participate in the First World War, John Keenan played a soldier in the 1917 war film, For the Freedom of the World. He can also be seen in the Louis Bennison westerns (1918/1919) and was a regular in the Toonerville Trolley comedies made in the early twenties.

When the Betzwood Film Company ended production in 1921, the forty-year-old extra’s movie career came to an end. He moved his wife and two daughters to Jeffersonville, on the outskirts of the Montgomery County seat of Norristown, a short distance north of the studio. The 1930 census finds him working as a chauffeur for both the local fire department and the school district. One wonders how many times he regaled his passengers with colorful tales of his days of movie making.

John Keenan’s 1942 World War Two draft card—the last public record that mentions him—finds him living alone and unemployed in Norristown, though the reasons for these circumstances are unknown. No date for his death has been discovered. Since Keenan had two daughters who married, it is possible that he has grandchildren or great-grandchildren who survive him. We would love to meet them and share our stories of this inveterate movie extra, if anyone knows this family.