Billy Armstrong: Karno, Keystone, and Beyond


Today is the birthday of Billy Armstrong (1891-1924). An alum of Fred Karno’s company, he was hired to support Chaplin at Essanay in 1915, appearing in small roles in many films that are now considered classics, such as The Tramp and The Bank. When Chaplin moved to Mutual, Armstrong went to Keystone and from thence to most of the other major comedy studios of the era, including Roach, L-KO, Fox, et al. Never a star, he was usually a valuable part of the ensemble, often playing “dudes” and noblemen, supporting comedians like Stan Laurel, Harry Langdon, Ford Sterling or Charlie Murray. He died of TB at age 33 (hints of it behind the make-up in the photo above; he looks like a much older man).

Here he is in Chaplin’s By the Sea; he’s the man in the straw hat. It’s fun to watch them work together; with their Karno training, they work variations on many of the same moves:

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 



  1. How do I see the main listings under Stars of ”Slapstick” or “Vaudeville” or Stars of “whatever” !?

    Also: How can I see various silent or early talkies cast’s listings and/or of unlisted actors, walk-in/on, etc.?


    • The blog has a search function. If you type in “stars of vaudeville” or “stars of slapstick” it will pull up all the entries. Also if you look on the right column of the blog. Stars of Slapstick is one of the categories there; so is “vaudeville”. Just click on them.

      The web’s best resource for cast listings is the Internet Movie Database:


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