Today in History: Helen Keller Visits Syracuse

Helen Keller in a dressing room during her vaudeville tour. Courtesy of the American Federation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archives

Overcoming her inability to hear or see, Helen Keller’s accomplishments by 1920 as a college graduate, author and even lecturer, had brought her national notoriety.  But, they had not brought financial stability. Despite her personal achievements, decent employment opportunities in that era were almost non-existent for individuals with such disabilities.

With some reluctance, Keller and her close companion and teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, agreed to an offer by B. F. Keith, owner of a major vaudeville theater chain, to begin a tour.  The act was professionally staged and Keller did not mind promoting her accomplishments as potential inspiration for others.  But part of the attraction to audiences was clearly the controversial novelty of seeing this deaf and blind person speak and respond intelligently to the world around her.

Beginning on Sunday, June 13th, 1920, Keller and Sullivan appeared for a week at B. F. Keith’s theater in Syracuse, with two performances each day (2:15pm and 8:15pm). Keller wrote her mother later that month and briefly mentioned the experience.  Her initial comment on Syracuse may have related to the soot generated by the locomotives of the two major railroad lines that passed through downtown at the time:

“We found Syracuse smoky and dirty.  But it has a most beautiful theater, of which every one is justly proud.  Our dressing-room was a real pleasure, with every convenience that could be desired – even a shower-bath! . . .  The audience there interested me, they were so silent, paying the closest attention. . .  After a while they found their tongue and asked more questions than we could answer.”

Newspapers reported that the Syracuse audiences were quite taken with Keller’s abilities.  Keller enjoyed her time in vaudeville and she and Anne toured until 1924, which helped stabilize Keller financially. Helen and Anne’s appearances lasted about 20 minutes, packaged in among other Vaudeville acts in both matinee and evening performances.

Syracuse newspaper advertisement, June 13, 1920 – OHA Collection