Helen Keller Plays the Palace: A Vaudeville Story

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Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

– Helen Keller, 1940
Helen Keller at a theatre entrance, carrying a bouquet of roses

Helen Keller (1880-1968) was a remarkable woman. After complications from a childhood illness rendered her deaf-blind at the age of 19 months, she struggled to communicate until her teacher, Anne Sullivan (1866-1936) arrived at her home when she was seven years old. Together, Anne and Helen worked out a way for Helen not only to connect with the outside world, but to speak, as well. Their work was a pioneering achievement in accessibility.

Helen Keller's accomplishments went beyond disability activism. She was a writer. She campaigned for women's rights and civil rights. She gave lectures in 25 countries. She starred in a silent film about her life1. As the internet knows, she once flew an airplane. But one of Helen Keller's most daring feats was surely the time she went on the vaudeville circuit.

What Was Vaudeville?

From the 1880s through the 1920s, vaudeville was an extremely popular form of live entertainment across the United States. It had many things in common with British music hall, especially the fact that it catered to non-elite, often raucous audiences. Vaudeville was a cross between variety entertainment, with its singing, dancing, and joke-telling, and an indoor circus. Acrobats and animal acts of dubious merit shared the bill with mentalists and minstrels in blackface. The entertainment could be pretty lowbrow.

If you had a 'party piece' you could do, and the audience (which was rather critical) would stand for it and not throw vegetables (which they often did), you could make a modest (very modest) living. Vaudevillians travelled in 'circuits' from one theatre to another, crisscrossing the country and staying in hotels which ranged from decent to those of the 'fleabag' variety.

Vaudeville was not prestigious employment. It offered a living of a sort to immigrants like Charles Chaplin and immigrants' children like Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns) or the Marx Brothers, as well as home-grown but impoverished talents like Cherokee rope-trick expert and homespun philosopher Will Rogers. Although the vaudeville circuits were home to some remarkable individuals, and formed their own welcoming communities, vaudeville was definitely not the sort of place you'd expect to find two respectable ladies. Unless one of them was the outgoing and fearless Helen Keller.

Helen Keller's 'Act'

Advertisement for Helen Keller on the vaudeville stage

Why would Helen Keller think of doing a vaudeville act? For one reason, she needed the money. It wasn't as if there were a lot of disability-accessible forms of employment available in the 1920s, especially to women. For another, she saw it as her mission to educate the public about disability issues and to get audiences to see disabled people as fellow humans who used workarounds rather than the subjects of what 21st-century activists accurately term 'inspiration porn2'.

Helen Keller's idea was to explain, with the help of Anne Sullivan, how it was she could learn to speak. After all, it was as difficult an accomplishment as learning to walk a high wire or whistle a hundred different birdsongs. There is video evidence, and it fascinated audiences, who were quiet, for once. Then the ladies would take questions: Anne and Helen would use finger spelling for the Q & A session.

The Perkins Institute for the Blind has the original 'crib sheet' the two performers made – a list of questions and answers for their 'act'. They aren't quite what you'd expect, at least if you were expecting high-flown rhetoric and virtue-signalling:

Answers to Questions

Politicians

How to make people believe the moon is made of green cheese and that they prefer it to any other kind of cheese.

Newspapers

I think they would be wonderful sources of information if only there were some way of verifying their statements.

When my country wants me to fight and I want to live in peace what shall I do?

Compromise by going to jail.

The fact that you are willing to die for an idea does not mean it is a right idea.

Helen Keller also answered questions about how she managed to do this or that, whether she'd ever been in love, what she thought heaven was like (she was a Swedenborgian3, and whether she'd ever used a Ouija board. In regard to the Ouija board, no answer is recorded on the Perkins School list, but there is a checkmark beside the question.

Anne Sullivan didn't like doing vaudeville. She could see and hear, which meant she had to deal with the bright lights and noise. She was less adventurous than Helen Keller, and also more conservative. She wasn't completely comfortable with some of the answers her friend and pupil gave to provocative questions. All that talking was hard on her, too. When she got bronchitis in 1922, Helen Keller's companion Polly Thomson took over the speaking role in the performance.

Show Biz, 1920 Style

The ladies toured on the BF Keith vaudeville circuit. Benjamin Franklin Keith (1846-1914) had come up in the circus world and worked at one time for PT Barnum. Keith was influential in creating the vaudeville show, with its continuous all-day showings. At the time Helen Keller toured with the circuit, it was managed by Keith's partner Edward Franklin Albee (1857-1930), another Barnum alumnus.

Many vaudevillians considered Albee to be tyrannical and unfair to performers. In order to avoid unionisation, Albee created his own 'union' organisation and required performers to join it. His United Bookings Office controlled the artists' schedules and charged a 5% commission. Julius 'Groucho' Marx compared Albee at one time to a slaveholder (and the artists to plantation workers) and at another time to the head of a 'gestapo'.

How did Helen Keller get along with Albee and his agents? We know that she felt the dressing rooms were luxurious – she noted in her letters that she even had a 'shower-bath'. It would seem Albee, too, was happy with his prestigious performer. The magazine Outlook for the Blind had this to say in its Winter 1920 issue:

Those who have followed Miss Keller’s career since childhood probably would say that her chief function in life is to convince the world that physical handicaps are not a bar to success. If Mrs. Macy [Anne Sullivan by her married name] and Miss Keller are able to make the deliverance of this message a financial as well as an educational success, surely there are none who will begrudge them the opportunity. The New York World reports: "Miss Keller receives as high a salary as anyone in vaudeville. The attitude of E. F. Albee and others in the Keith vaudeville firm on this point was that at various times persons of no worth had received large sums to enter vaudeville on the strength of mere notoriety and that Miss Keller was entitled to as much, whether her appearance was a success as vaudeville entertainment or not. It was a success, and everybody is happy." Workers for the blind who have seen the young ladies in their vaudeville act report that it is a great success.

The Sun and New York Herald (quoted above) also reported on Sunday, 29 February, 1920, that Helen Keller seemed 'supremely happy' as she talked to the audience. The reporter admired Miss Keller's 'large, bright blue eyes', but managed to wax even more lyrical about the meaning of it all.

For exemplification of the power of the human mind over material obstacles the incidents cited and theories expressed by Sir Oliver Lodge and other scientists and psychics seem to be mere piquant farce compared with the demonstration of Miss Helen Keller last week at the Palace Theatre.

A Word About a Word

In her presentation, which was about deaf-blind people and speech, Helen Keller advertised herself as 'Blind, Deaf and Formerly Dumb.' The word 'dumb' may strike the 21st Century as 'problematic', so here is a quick explanation that also needs to take into account historical developments in American English.

In the 1920s, 'dumb' was commonly used to mean 'unable or unwilling to speak'. This is not widely done in the US today. The reason is that the other meaning of 'dumb' – 'foolish' – is both common and irradicable in everyday usage. To avoid giving offence, the term 'deaf and dumb' has been retired from public vocabulary.

There's a bit of background to this change. In 1920, public fora such as lecture stages, commercial radio (introduced that year), and even newspapers recognised a sharp difference between 'proper' speech – meaning 'elite speech' – and 'common' speech. 'Proper' speakers would not use the word 'dumb' at that time to mean anything but 'mute, not speaking', because the other meaning of 'dumb', which came from German, America's second language, was considered second-cousin to slang.

But 'dumb' wouldn't die out, and in this century, even educated people will admit that locking oneself out of the house is a 'dumb thing to do.' Also: deaf and deaf-blind people can talk, partly thanks to a science pioneered by women like Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, and Polly Thomson, although they may choose not to. But Helen Keller used the word 'dumb4' when demonstrating that she could, indeed, speak, although never as well as she wanted to.

Another thing to notice about these film clips we have of Helen Keller and her helpers: Anne Sullivan was from Massachusetts. Polly Thomson was born in Glasgow. You may have trouble distinguishing much of a difference in their accents. Before the end of the Second World War, British and American accents among elites were much closer than they are now5. Compare Eleanor Roosevelt (American) and Vivien Leigh (British) from the same period. This will also give you an idea of the kind of speech Helen Keller was trying for, which was far from the speech of her native Alabama. Not having managed perfect articulation by the standards of her time might have been a disappointment to her, but the far more impressive achievement – the group effort of working out methodologies for deaf-blind people to learn speech – is something we can appreciate along with the vaudeville audiences and long-time friend Mark Twain, who wrote this:

You are a wonderful creature, the most wonderful in the world – you and your other half together – Miss Sullivan, I mean, for it took the pair of you to make complete and perfect whole.

– Mark Twain to Helen Keller, St Patrick's Day 1903
1The film was called Deliverance. It is better than the other film with that title, and because it is silent, there are no banjos.2'Inspiration porn' objectifies people with disabilities by using them as motivational examples, as if disabled people overcame hurdles in life in order to inspire the abled to greater achievement. It is regarded by many observers, both abled and disabled, as a pernicious practice.3Emmanuel Swedenborg ((1688-1772) was a Swedish Lutheran theologian and mystic who had unusual visions and was also a scientist.4And would therefore have offended modern dictionary makers, according to the website Grammarphobia, who write, 'By the way, most standard dictionaries consider it offensive to use the term "dumb" for some someone unable to speak.'5Which means that many British actors on your favourite streaming services are doing it wrong.

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