The Play World: Helen Keller Writes About Vaudeville

[“The Play World” is Chapter 13 of Midstream: My Later Life, 1929, in which Keller describes her experience of vaudeville and the circumstances that led her to it. I lightly edited and hyperlinked it from a scan of the original.]

Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920. Helen is seated before a table, facing left. Behind her is a row of many robes and gowns. On the table appears to be makeup, and her left hand, resting on the edge of the table holds a brush. Her right hand is holding a powder puff to her right cheek. Her head is tossed back slightly and she is smiling broadly as though enjoying playing to the camera.
Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920

THE picture was not a financial success. My sense of pride mutinies against my confession; but we are the kind of people who come out of an enterprise poorer than we went into it, and I am sorry to say, this condition is not always confined to ourselves.

 

We returned to our home in Forest Hills and for two years lived quietly. But we were faced with the necessity of earning more money. The funds my friends had provided for my support would cease with my death, and if I died before my teacher, she would be left almost destitute. The income I had I could live on, but I could not save anything.

 

In the winter of 1920 we went into vaudeville and remained until the spring of 1924. That does not mean that we worked continually during all four years. We appeared for short periods in and around New York, in New England, and in Canada. In 1921 and 1922 we went from coast to coast on the Orpheum Circuit.

 

It had always been said that we went into public life only to attract attention, and I had letters from friends in Europe remonstrating with me about ”the deplorable theatrical exhibition” into which I had allowed myself to be dragged. Now the truth is, I went of my own free will and persuaded my teacher to go with me. Vaudeville offered us better pay than either literary work or lecturing. Besides, the work was easier in an essential respect-we usually stayed in one place a week, instead of having to travel constantly from town to town and speak so soon after our arrival that we had no time for rest or preparation. We were on the stage only twenty minutes in the afternoon and evening, and the rules of the theatre usually protected us against the friendly invasion of the crowds who used to swarm around to shake hands with us at the lectures.

In the nature of things a lecture tour exposes one to many unpleasant experiences. Our lecture contract required that we collect the money before we went on the platform, but that was seldom possible and we disliked to imply distrust by demanding payment. In Seattle we gave two lectures to appreciative Audiences, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. The local manager told us he would not be able to pay us our share, which was a thousand dollars, until after the evening performance. He did not appear in the theatre after the evening lecture, and we had no way of getting our money from him. Our manager was not interested in a lawsuit so far away, and we were obliged to pay him a percentage whether we were paid or not; so he suffered no loss on our account.

This happened many times-in Dunkirk, New York; Meadville, Pennsylvania; Ashtabula, Ohio; and San Diego and Santa Rosa, California. In no case was the town responsible; it was the fault of the local manager. Once when we did demand payment and refused to appear when it was not made, the audience became indignant, and the next morning the newspapers came out with a great headline, ”Helen Keller refused to speak unless she held the money in her hand.” We decided never to put ourselves in that position again. Once when we spoke at Allerton, Iowa, a crowd came to hear us, and our share of the proceeds-we were to go fifty-fifty with the manager-was over seven hundred dollars. It was amusing to see how reluctant the men in charge were to pay it. In Vancouver we had so much larger audience than the local manager expected that he paid us twice as much as the contract called for.

My teacher was not happy in vaudeville. She could never get used to the rush, glare, and noise of the theatre; but I enjoyed it keenly. At first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same ”bill” with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots; but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it.

I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in, and I liked it. I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me. I liked to weep at its sorrows, to be annoyed at its foibles, to laugh at its absurdities, to be set athrill by its flashes of unexpected goodness and courage. I enjoyed watching the actors in the workshop of faces and costumes. If I should relate ”the strength and riches of their state”-the powder, the patches and masks, the ribbons, jewels, and livery[]Abraham Cowley]; and if I should describe the charming bits of acts which were performed for me off stage I should be more voluminous than Who’s Who in America. I must be content to say I was often admitted to the dressing rooms of the other actors, and that many of them let me feel their costumes and even went through their acts for me. The thought often occurred to me that the parts the actors played, was their real life, and all the rest was make-believe. I still think so, and hope it is true, for the sake of many to whom fate is unkind in the real world.

I can conceive that in time the spectacle might have grown stale. I might have come to hear the personal confessions of my fellow actors without emotion, and to regard the details of wild parties and excursions with impatience. But I shall always be glad I went into vaudeville, not only for the excitement of it, but also for the opportunities it gave me to study life.

Some of the theatres where we went were beautiful, and most of them comfortable. Mr. Albee, who is at the head of the organization,   is a man of singular   ability   and   kindness   of   heart,   and he concerns himself earnestly with everything that promotes the welfare of the actors and the efficiency of their work. Very few of them are permitted to come into his presence, but his good will radiates through his staff from one end of the system to the other. We found most of our managers courteous, and some of them were beloved. I shall always be grateful to my personal manager, Mr. Harry Weber, who never failed us in service and loyalty. Mr. Albee is interested not only in the functioning of his mammoth machine, but also in the human cogs and wheels that make it go. Not one of these small ceaselessly moving parts gets out of order but he knows it, and makes every effort to repair it, whatever the cause or the cost. He has kept individuals in shows who are blind or deaf or crippled, but whose handicap is cleverly concealed from the public. An important branch   of   his   humanitarian   work   is the National Vaudeville Association [National Vaudeville Artists], which has ten thousand members. Each membership carries with it a paid-up insurance policy of a thousand dollars, and in Cases of illness, idleness, or other misfortune, everyone is sure to receive financial aid, no matter in what Part of the world he may be. The Association, maintains a sanitarium for tubercular members, and there are health camps in California, Arizona, Colorado and other places.

The audiences always made us feel their interest and friendliness. Sometimes many of them were foreigners, and could not understand what we said, but their applause and sympathy were gratifying. After my teacher had explained how I was taught, I made my entrance and gave a brief talk, at the end of which the audience was allowed to ask questions. Some of them were very funny. Can you tell the time of day without a watch? Have you ever thought of getting married? Have you ever used a Ouija board? Do you think business is looking up? Am I going on a trip? Why has a cow two stomachs? How much is too many? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you think it is a blessing to be poor? Do you dream? There were hundreds of them.

I am always intensely conscious of my audience. Before I say a word I feel its breath as it comes in little pulsations to my face. I sense its appreciation or indifference. I found vaudeville audiences especially easy to speak before. They were much more demonstrative than most others, and showed instantly when they were pleased. One of the queerest experiences I ever had was the first time I spoke from a pulpit. The audience seemed so quiet and the reading desk was so high I felt as if I were speaking to them over a wall. A similar experience came when I spoke over the radio. I felt as if I were speaking to ghosts. There were no life vibrations-no shuffling feet, no sound of applause, no odour of tobacco or cosmetics, only a blankness into which my words floated. I never had that bewildered feeling before a vaudeville audience.

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