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The Cherry Sisters

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Handbill for a Cherry Sisters show.  The sisters didn't think it was comedy.  They were nearly alone in this view.

When you perform for friends and neighbors, they’re likely going to clap, no matter what the quality is.  Your parents will always clap, your grandparents will always hug you and say, “Good job!”, the nice people up the street will always say, at worst, “Well, that was… interesting.”  But if you really want to know how good you are, take your act on the road.

In the 1890s, in the small town of Marion, Iowa, there was an act that was politely received by the neighbors, which instilled in the performers the confidence to seek out larger, unfamiliar audiences.  The act was reviewed by the local paper, the Marion Leader, on January 20, 1893, warmly summarizing, “It will be many a day before those who attended will forget the enjoyable time spent.”  Bolstered by the warm appreciation of their small community, the five Cherry Sisters sought larger audiences outside of town, but didn’t quite get the encouragement the new audiences they found.

The five sisters—Ella, Elizabeth, Addie, Effie and Jessie—put on their own variety show called Something Good, Something Sad.  In it, the five of them would sing original songs, usually with patriotic themes, (though there was one noteworthy attempt at mimicking a minstrel show), one of them playing the piano and the other banging on an oversized drum.  They would write and perform short morality plays, typically with stern and religious overtones.  They had the confidence one needs in order to achieve success.  They just didn’t have the talent.

There are no recordings of their performances, so who can say for sure how enjoyable time with them might have been spent?  Recording technology existed at the time, but it was rare and expensive, and besides, nothing could capture the sights, the sounds and the sensation of a Cherry Sisters performance.  Their show moved from town to town, and once word got out, they found themselves playing before packed houses.  A month after leaving Marion, they put on a show in Cedar Rapids that was the first sign of their infamy.  The Cedar Rapids Gazette wrote the following review of their February 17, 1893 performance:

“Such unlimited gall as was exhibited last night at Greene’s opera house by the Cherry sisters is past the understanding of ordinary mortals. They no doubt are respectable girls and probably educated in some few things, but their knowledge of the stage is worse than none at all, and they surely could not realize last night that they were making such fools of themselves. If some indefinable instinct of modesty could not have warned them that they were acting the part of monkeys, it does seem like the overshoes thrown at them would have conveyed the idea in a more substantial manner.  ... But nothing could drive them away and no combination of yells, whistles, barks and howls could subdue them. Let it not be understood that the audience was a gang of hoodlums and that they wanted back their money. Quite the contrary. The parquet and dress circle was filled and the balcony as well by the best people of the city, who went, anticipating just such a funny attempt on the part of the stage struck country girls, and no one in the house, but would have paid again for their ticket if asked to do so. ... They couldn’t sing, speak or act. They simply were awful. When one of them would appear on the stage, the commercial travelers around the orchestra rail would start to sing, the orchestra would play and the entire audience constituted the chorus. ... Cigars, cigarettes, rubbers, everything was thrown at them, yet they stood there, awkwardly bowing their acknowledgments and singing on.”

The publicity helped to expand their fame—and their notoriety.  And lest you think this might have been all in fun, that they knew just how terrible their act was, note that the Cherry Sisters actually sued the Gazette for libel.  The paper probably goaded them into it, though.  Before filing the suit, they appeared in person at the Gazette’s offices, demanding to talk to the person who had written the review.  They were not given that privilege, but Gazette editor Fred P. Davis took the heat.  Davis was charged with libell, but he remained unbowed.  He suggested that the trial be held in the Greene’s Opera House in Cedar Rapids, where the Cherry Sisters had put on the infamous performance that led to the lawsuit.  “It would make the richest entertainment of the season,” Davis quipped.  Davis got his wish—sort of.  The following month, the Sisters returned to Greene’s, putting on a sketch they wrote in which Davis is tried in court, found guilty, and sentenced to work on the Cherry family farm back in Marion, where he would be forced to marry one of the Cherry Sisters.  

Apparently, their claims of libel were sincere.  The Sisters would go on to sue other newspapers who gave even nastier reviews, including one small-town Iowa paper that went on to attack not only their abilities but their appearance.  For that, they netted $15,000, which was a princely sum in the 1890s.

Maybe the Cherrys most famous engagement was at the Olympic Music Hall on Broadway in 1896.  A young man named Willie Hammerstein owned and operated it, but business was struggling.  (Willie Hammerstein’s son, Oscar Hammerstein II, also went into the entertainment business, producing such hits as Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music.)  Hammerstein said, “I’ve been putting on the best talent, and it hasn’t gone over… I’m going to try the worst.”  It worked, too.  He managed to save himself from bankruptcy (for the time being), thanks to a six-week engagement with the Cherrys.  People packed the Olympic to see what the New York Times had referred to as “four freaks from Iowa” (Ella, the eldest, retired from the act shortly before the Broadway engagement.)  New York audiences were a bit more polite than those in the Midwest.  Back in Iowa, their performances would be greeted with fruit and vegetables hurled at them from the spectators, as well as the cigarettes, cigars and overshoes mentioned in the Gazette review above.

The Cherry Sisters enjoyed decent box office draws, but they probably made more money from their libel suits against newspapers who gave them unfavorable reviews (and there were a lot of them).  Regardless, they never really did strike it rich in show business.  The four Cherry Sisters continued on the vaudeville circuit until 1903, when Jessie, the youngest sister, contracted typhoid fever in Arkansas and died.  The other three retired and went home.  They made a few comeback attempts, with moderate success.  Effie Cherry even ran for mayor of Cedar Rapids, promising to institute an 8:00 PM curfew for children, and a 9:00 PM curfew for adults. That bid didn’t go over too well, either.  In 1944 Effie, the last living Cherry Sister, died.  The New York Times ran a long obituary for her, remembering the rest of the sisters, as well, recalling them as “one of the strangest episodes in American vaudeville.”

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Publicity photo for three of the sisters, circa 1903.


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