Stars of Vaudeville #182: Helen Keller
(originally posted June 27, 2010)
Yes, Helen Keller was in vaudeville, and, no, she didn’t do Helen Keller jokes. She and her teacher Annie Sullivan had done the Chautauqua lecture circuit for many years when a sudden crunch for cash made them finally accede to the vaudeville offers they’d been turning down since Keller had become famous. The act premiered at the New York Palace in February 1920 and was sufficiently successful to keep them on the road for a few years. Part of the act included fielding questions from the audience. Some of the questions were pre-prepared with equally canned answers, to wit:
Question: Can you feel moonshine?
Answer: No, but I can smell it.
The act sounds awfully close to a freak show routine, but then, isn’t it all a freak show? There’s an interesting article on the subject here.
AND! opening this Friday in Horse Trade’s Mini-Fridge Festival, is The Star of Happiness: Helen Keller on Vaudeville, a one woman show by Michelle-Leona Godin, Ph.D. The show looks very interesting although the author appears confused about her prepositions, Ph.D notwithstanding. Her use of “on” makes sense when you use it in the sense of “commenting on” (understood), i.e., “Helen Keller on the subject of vaudeville.” But in some of her written materials she seems to use “on” where “in” is the appropriate usage, i.e.” performing on (understood) vaudeville”. We only use “on” in broadcasting, as in “I was on The Love Boat” or “I was on Letterman. Otherwise, it’s “I was IN vaudeville”, or (when speaking about a specific house), “I was AT the Palace”. I can only think of two explanations for her use of “on”. 1) She is an academic, and she is doing some kind of Foucault-like word game to either make us think or drive us crazy or both; or 2) English is not her native language; or 3) both. At any rate, if you are as curious as I am, go see it. Details are here.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.