Vaudeville was a revolutionary genre of theater that combined all three of its predecessors, minstrelsy, burlesque, and variety. Although it may seem surprising when you first hear it, Helen Keller, had her time on the Vaudeville stage accompanied by her teacher/tutor, Annie Sullivan. Primarily, Keller resisted the urges for her to express her special skills on the stage but when she finally agreed, she became a sensation. Moving her career from that of a sophisticated writer and public speaker of her political opinions to that of a performer was not easy but Keller managed. It was her opportunity to silence rumors of her abilities and to show the audiences that she could think for herself.
To begin, Helen Keller was a woman born June of 1880 with disabilities such as blindness, deafness, and muteness affecting her (at the time). From an early age, she wasn’t able to communicate in any way and her parents considered admitting her to an asylum. However, she was later brought to the famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell who was apparently attempting to find a cure to deafness.
He wasn’t able to help Keller and her family at the moment, but, he did refer them to the Perkins School for the Blind. That is how Keller eventually began to study under the tutelage of Anne Sullivan at her own home. Keller was under the constant supervision of Sullivan who was partially blind and a graduate of the school herself. The two were able to find ways of communicating despite the obvious barriers and as a child still, an article was written about her which skyrocketed her popularity.
During her teenage years, she got numerous calls from Vaudeville urging her to turn her skills into an act for their shows. However, having made a substantial earning and fame through her writing, she didn’t see a need. Keller wanted to be respected as an activist, sophisticated writer, and a political speaker rather than just some act. She didn’t feel she fit in with the singers, dancers, and other performers.
Despite Sullivan attempting to convince her, she refused. Later on in 1919, Keller spent her time traveling to numerous locations every day for lectures but Sullivan’s health was declining and the daily trips to different lecture halls became far too exhausting for the both of them. Additionally, they were low on money since Keller’s previous books had not sparked in popularity and the jobs they had weren’t enough to sustain them.
This triggered their collective decision to involve themselves in Vaudeville because not only would it pay better, but it would also allow the duo to stay in town longer to perform rather than travel back home every day. Keller saw this as an opportunity to educate the general public and release some of the stigma and misconceptions on people with disabilities. In 1920, Keller and Sullivan had been signed onto the Orpheum vaudeville circuit and their 20 minute act entitled, “The Star of Happiness” baffled the audiences who believed she had absolutely no means of communication. Their touring act began with Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” being played in the background as Sullivan sat alone in a drawing room, retelling the true story of Helen Keller from her childhood,how she developed the skills she had, and her various achievements. After the audience had been caught up, Sullivan would walk Keller onto the stage and she would sit at a piano exclaiming, “It is very beautiful!” People were confused because no one had knowledge that she was able to speak. The rest of their act consisted of Sullivan’s fingerspelling where she would write letters with her finger on Keller’s hand to communicate certain phrases. Another interesting part of their act was how by putting her hand over Sullivan’s face, placing the first finger on the mouth, the second on her nose, and the thumb on the throat, Keller could feel the vibrations when she spoke and used those to understand what she was saying.
Towards the end of the 20 minutes, there was a portion set aside for the audience to ask questions. The inclusion of this section was to silence false rumors. It was motivated by the recent release of a silent film in the form of Helen Keller’s biography which she found inaccurate and patronizing. Keller did not aim to make her act boring or sad at all. She was actually a very comedic woman who used her quick wit to amuse the audiences. She also made sure to express her left-wing and socialist political views because those were constantly shut down in her previous work in the Chautauqua lecture circuit. This specific show became a hit and all of America adored Helen Keller.
Their captivating act had earned them a place on the highest level of stardom in Vaudeville – big time – where they would be paid at least 2,000 dollars a week!Despite the success, the duo was forced to quit the circuit in 1924 when Sullivan’s health declined massively, rendering her unable to care for Keller herself. The five years that the two spent on the Vaudeville stage were very impactful on Vaudeville itself. It showed that the possibility for an act was not limited to dancers, singers, or basic comedians but rather that it was a place where any person could be successful. Most may hear that Helen Keller was once a Vaudeville star and scoff in disbelief but it really is true that this original genre that combined its predecessors was open for everyone. I found it mostly interesting that Helen Keller, even though she had already written books and biographies and even had Hollywood films made about her, she still felt misrepresented and took another step to ensure she was being portrayed accurately.
Although she was deaf, blind, and partially mute, she fought fiercely to use her political voice in speaking out against World War I and on other issues. That is why I believe Helen Keller was a perfect example of how any person could arrive on the Vaudeville stage and succeed.