University of Rochester

Rare, Old Films Show Lively Deaf Culture, Linguist Says

October 24, 1995

Deaf people who lived in the United States in the early part of the 20th century were friendless recluses, right?

That couldn't be further from the truth, though it's what Hollywood film producers and novelists would have you believe, says Ted Supalla, an American Sign Language linguist at the University of Rochester.

"Like today, deaf people partied together, drove cars, went to school," he notes. "They entertained hearing and non-hearing people alike with songs and stories."

Supalla has co-produced Charles Krauel: A Profile of a Deaf Filmmaker, the first video composed of rare film footage of get- togethers among deaf people earlier in this century. Pictured, for example, are a rousing rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," performed for a standing-room-only crowd, and a moving interpretation of "The Star Spangled Banner," elegantly signed at only a moment's notice.

Other recorded performances were rendered by deaf artists using theatrical techniques for enhancing the beauty of sign language. One classic style incorporates rhythmic beats into signs similar to cheers in their simple cadence of 1-2, 1-2-3. This visual melody has virtually vanished today, remaining in only one song, the mascot cheer of Gallaudet University: "Hail to the Mighty Bisons."

The documentary also features an interview with Charles Krauel, the deaf filmmaker who recorded those events on a movie camera he purchased in 1925. Krauel and his friend Chas Yanzito shot thousands of feet of film over 50 years. A long-time resident of Chicago, he left behind the richest-known collection of films on the deaf community when he died in 1990 at age 98. His memories of the scenes depicted in the films are shared through an interpreter.

"What Krauel did is amazing," Supalla says. "By simply recording casual get-togethers and other events, he preserved half a century of deaf history for future generations to see. Without these films, a huge chunk of American history would be missing."

The video not only dispels popular myths about deaf people but documents the evolution of ASL. Footage shows people using signs that are no longer in use -- an exciting prospect for researchers who examine how and why the language changes. The films also allow researchers to study literary forms in use at the time, such as storytelling traditions.

Supalla met Krauel in Illinois in the early 1980s through a friend who remembered Krauel filming events when she was a small child. For Supalla, whose original aspiration was to be a filmmaker, it was an inspirational meeting. Like Steven Spielberg, who has launched a film and archive project to preserve the experiences of Holocaust victims, Supalla hopes to document the history of the deaf experience in the United States.

"There might be more home movies out there, in garages and attics, that people think are worthless. But these movies tell the story of the American deaf community in a way that's never been told until now," he said. "I hope as word gets out, people who find these will contact me."

Charles Krauel: A Profile of a Deaf Filmmaker is available from DawnSignPress, 9080 Activity Road, Suite A, San Diego, CA 92126. Cost is $29.95 plus shipping and handling. Quantity discounts are available. A guide to the documentary, which includes a transcription of the interview along with cultural notes, will be published in the spring.