Helen Potter at Legg Hall

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On Monday evening, February 9, 1885, the audience at Legg Hall was treated to an evening with Helen Potter, America’s leading elocutionist whose reading was “pure and perfect,” and whose impersonations were legendary. Her fame, however, did not prevent some discussion regarding the ticket price – 50 cents – double the usual amount for a performance at Legg Hall.

The editor of the Skaneateles Press hastened to reassure the villagers: “Fifty cents is not a high price for admission to Helen Potter’s impersonations. The character of her work requires an elegant and costly wardrobe and the attendance of a maid. Those who engage her are not allowed to reduce the price of tickets below 50 cents, and in many places reserved seats sell for much more than that.”

In large halls and small, Potter did dramatic readings, and then reenacted the performances of the era’s most popular lecturers, such as Oscar Wilde, Susan B. Anthony and Henry Ward Beecher, and actresses Charlotte Cushman, Sarah Siddons and Sarah Bernhardt. She portrayed Cleopatra, Cassius from Julius Caesar, and an elderly Chinese storyteller.

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Audiences loved her. One critic wrote:

“Through all of the varied performance which she gave, she never failed for an instant to be entertaining. The opening piece, ‘Gabriel Grub,’ the grave digger who was frightened by the goblins in one of Dickens’ inimitable Christmas stories [“The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” ], was read in a manner which defies criticism and prevents suggestion. The chorus of diabolical voices was simply superb… ‘Aunt Melissy on Boys,’ Trowbridge’s comical production, was rendered extremely well, Miss Potter assuming the guise of the elderly female in question, and changing her naturally clear and bell-like voice to the harsh tones of age.

“The personations forming the second portion of the evening’s entertainment did not begin until 9:15, and lasted till nearly half-past 10 o’clock, but no one had any idea of being tired, or dreamed that the entertainment was getting to be too long. ‘Katharine of Aragon,’ in two scenes [from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII] representing the plea of the unhappy queen in Court and her death after the divorce had been granted, was rendered in such perfect imitation of Miss Charlotte Cushman, in make-up, voice and acting, that the resemblance was startling… The personation of Anna Dickinson, which followed, was remarkable.”

(Miss Potter’s imitation of suffragette and abolitionist Dickinson was so uncanny that Dickinson attempted to get an injunction against her when she performed in Philadelphia.)

Miss Potter immersed herself in her subjects. For those living, she watched them on the stage and absorbed every detail. She developed a system of notation for the sounds, pitch and timing of their public speech and their gestures accompanying each phrase. For her impression of Sarah Bernhardt, she wore a dress from Bernhardt’s Parisian dressmaker. When commissioning a wig for her impersonation of John Gough, she acquired a lock of his hair for matching.

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Potter’s impression of John Gough was her masterpiece and always her finale. One reporter noted, “All idea of Helen Potter is lost in the living representation of the great temperance orator.” Another noted, “The audience often forgot it was a personation and thought they were listening to Gough himself.”

At 50 cents a seat, Potter made $20,000 in her second season alone, and retired comfortably after eight years of touring.

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