"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Awful Greatness of the Cherry Sisters

"Bravery is its own reward."
~Reputed motto of the Cherry family

In 1896, New York stage impresario Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of the famous librettist) was in serious financial trouble. He was deeply in debt, thanks to putting on several unsuccessful operas in a row.

It occurred to the producer that since his efforts to present the public with the best entertainment had been a colossal flop, why not try giving them the worst? This was a brainstorm that led to a memorable episode in the history of American entertainment. He hired a hitherto little-known vaudeville act, the Cherry Sisters.

The five siblings--Ella, Elizabeth, Addie, Effie, and Jessie--were raised on a small, ramshackle farm in Iowa. By the mid-1880s, both their parents were dead, and their only surviving brother, Nathan, had abandoned the farm for parts unknown, leaving the girls alone in the world. They spent a few years managing the farm, but then their ambitions became a good deal loftier. The girls always had a fondness for skits and recitations, and in 1893, the siblings, who ranged in age from 29 to 21, decided the stage would be their new career.

They rented an opera house in Marion, Iowa. The sisters handled every aspect of the production, right down to designing and distributing handbills advertising the show. The show was entirely characteristic of their later, more famous performances. They appeared on stage with their hair colored an eye-catching yellow--courtesy of some spare paint they had handy. Effie sang a solo. Jessie played the harmonica. Ella donned blackface and sang a comic ballad.

It is not clear whether the good citizens of Marion had a well-developed sense of humor, or they were extraordinarily starved for entertainment, but in either case, the sisters were a great hit. Their performances were sellouts. They followed this triumph with a stint at Greene's Opera House in Cedar Rapids.

This more cosmopolitan audience was not as enthused as the hometown folks. The "Cedar Rapids Gazette" summarized the evening with more honesty than tact: "Such unlimited gall as was exhibited last night at Greene's Opera House is past the understanding of ordinary mortals. They are no doubt respectable girls and probably educated in some few things, but their knowledge of the stage is worse than none at all...if some indefinable act of modesty could not have warned them that they were acting the parts 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. 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. At one minute the scene was like the incurable ward in an insane asylum, the next like a Methodist camp meeting. Cigars, cigarets, rubbers, everything was thrown at them, yet they stood there, awkwardly bowing their acknowledgments and singing on."

Whatever the Cherry quartet (Ella dropped out of the group early on,) may have lacked in talent, they made up for it with courage and self-esteem. According to report, each of the ladies thought she herself was immensely talented, and the negative audience reaction was the fault of her less gifted siblings or jealous rivals. The Cherrys stormed the "Gazette" offices and insisted on a retraction to these published insult. The editors--who knew a great opportunity to have a bit of fun when they saw it--sportingly suggested the offended women write their own rebuttal.

The "retraction" composed by the sisters gives some flavor of their literary and artistic talents. It read, "The Cherry Sisters Concert That appeared in the Gazette the other evening was initily a mistake and we take it back The young ladies were refined and modist in every respict And their intertanement was as good as any that has been given in the city by home people. The noise and tumult that was raised in the house was not done as stated by the Cedar Rapids people but by a lot of toughs that came down from marion with the intention of creating a disturbance."

The Cherry sisters still felt the wrong done against them had not been avenged. Addie filed a libel complaint against Fred Davis, editor of the "Gazette." The newspaper cheerfully suggested the trial take place during the aggrieved sisters' upcoming show. The popular suspicion that both sides in the dispute were staging a mutually advantageous publicity stunt was probably not unfounded.

The "trial" took place in March 1893. It was, without doubt, one of the most raucous tribunals on record. The audience was delirious with joy at the utter ridiculousness of it all. They shouted, whistled, blew horns, tooted kazoos. Before long, the Cherry Sisters could not be heard at all above the uproar, which considering their talents was possibly just as well.

With such popular support, the sisters naturally won their case. The erring Davis was ordered to manage the Cherry farm while the sisters were on the road. But that was not all. It seemed the court wanted to impose a life sentence. "We further find that when the said Cherry Sisters shall return from their triumphal tour, the said Davis shall submit himself to the choice of the said sisters, beginning with the eldest, and the first one who will consent to such an alliance to that one shall be then and there joined in the holy bonds of matrimony." (In truth, none of the sisters ever married, or, as far as is known, had anything remotely approaching a romantic relationship.)

The Sisters next appeared at Davenport's Burtis Opera House. Their reputation had preceded them. The local paper printed a notice warning their fans that guns were to be left at the theater door, and that all rocks larger than two inches in diameter were forbidden. After the performance, the same paper enthused that it had been an "unutterably rank show."

When the sisters took the stage in Dubuque a few months later, the audience reaction blossomed from mere rowdyism into anarchy. At first, their fans settled for hurling the usual vegetables and tin cans at them. But then, someone took the unusual step of spraying the sisters with a fire extinguisher, forcing them to flee backstage. One of the Cherry ladies--history is unclear about which one it was--retaliated by marching back in front of the audience sporting a shotgun. It was looking very much like the sisters would encore with a body count, until she was forced offstage again by a "volley of turnips." Attempts were made to restore order until someone threw a wash boiler onstage, causing a general retreat.

It is a very special theatrical act indeed that can inspire a full-scale riot.

The sisters filed a lawsuit against the city of Dubuque for failing to provide adequate security. This suit failed, but it little mattered. The Cherry women were quickly obtaining a sort of semi-legendary status.

The Cherry Sisters spent more months touring the midwest, and then traveled to New York for their grand appearance at Hammerstein's theater. It is safe to say the audience had never seen anything quite like it. To quote the "New York Times": "It was a little after 10 o'clock when three lank figures and one short and thick walked awkwardly to the centre of the stage. They were all dressed in shapeless red gowns, made by themselves most surely, and the fat sister carried a bass drum. They stood quietly for a moment, apparently seeing nothing and wondering what the jeering laughter they heard could mean...None of them had shown a sign of nervousness, nor a trace of ability for their chosen work."

The ladies opened the show by belting out their unforgettable theme song:
"Cherries ripe boom-de-ay!
Cherries red boom-de-ay!
The Cherry sisters
Have come to stay!"
They performed Irish ballads, more songs of their own unmistakable composition, and a God-knows-what called "Corn Juice." Jessie beat her drum. Their enthusiasm was matched only by their utter absence of anything approaching musical talent. One critic noted that "A locksmith with a strong rasping file could earn ready wages taking the kinks out of Lizzie's voice."

The sisters followed this concert with a dramatic skit of their own invention, "The Gypsy's Warning." Addie slapped on a fake mustache in the role of the villainous suitor of Elizabeth. Effie--the gypsy--interrupted them to deliver...well, a warning.

Scene from one of the Cherry Sisters' skits

The audience could not believe what they were seeing. Once they realized that the Cherry Sisters were not a deliberate joke, they gleefully entered into the spirit of the thing, hooting, heckling, and applauding. And these audience members came back for more. They brought their friends! As had happened with Robert Coates many years before, theater-goers learned that there is nothing quite so exhilarating as watching the worst performance you will ever see in your life. True badness has an epic greatness all its own.

Although the staid "New York Times" groaned that "It is sincerely hoped that nothing like them will ever be seen again," the ladies from Iowa were the surprise theater hit of the season. For the next six weeks, they played to full houses. The audience threw so many vegetables at them that grocers were having a hard time keeping them in stock. Oscar Hammerstein's career was saved.

After their stint in New York was over, the sisters continued their weirdly winning ways across the country, going all the way to California, where their show earned rave reviews such as "It was the most insipid, stale, weary, tiresome, contemptible two hours work we have ever seen on the stage." Their singing was described as "like the wailing of damned souls." Theaters would advertise their upcoming performances with lines such as, "This season the Cherry Sisters are worse than ever," and immediately sell out.

One night in Des Moines, two members of their audience briefly forgot to assail the sisters and took each other on. Richard Clarkson, owner of the "Des Moines Register," accidentally whacked a local politician named Lafayette Young with a cabbage meant for the stars of the show. Young indignantly retaliated with his own storehouse of vegetables until the two were finally separated.

The sisters describe themselves as "the best drawing card on the stage"
in a letter to "Variety," April 1908

When a writer for the "Odebolt Chronicle" turned from insulting the Cherry Sisters' talent to include some extremely unpleasant observations about their lack of physical beauty ("Creatures surpassing the witches of Macbeth in general hideousness...Their long skinny arms...rancid features...capering monstrosity...") the sisters, who had quite a taste for litigation, sued the "Chronicle," as well as the "Des Moines Leader," which reprinted the offending article. After asking the ladies to perform a few selections from their act, the judge dismissed their case. The sisters appealed the case all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court, which also found against them, ruling that "the editor of a newspaper has the right, if not the duty, of publishing, for the information of the public, fair and reasonable comments, however severe in terms, upon anything which is made by its owner a subject of public exhibition, as upon any other matter of public interest; of privileged communications, for which no action will lie without proof of actual malice...Surely, if one makes himself ridiculous in his public performances, he may be ridiculed by those whose duty or right it is to inform the public regarding the character of the performance." The case established a precedent confirming the right of the press to freely criticize public performers.

Considering they were (in all eyes but their own) nothing but a bizarre novelty act, the Cherry Sisters had a remarkably long run. They continued touring until 1903, when Jessie died of typhoid and malaria, at the age of only 31. This tragic event marked the virtual retirement of the act.

Jessie Cherry

Addie and Effie continued to make occasional appearances around their home in Cedar Rapids, but the surviving Cherrys focused their attention on the small bakery they opened. In 1924, Effie ran for mayor, on a platform of early curfews, efficient garbage collection, and the prohibition of profanity. She received 805 out of 10,000 votes.

Addie and Effie Cherry

In 1918, the sisters attempted a small comeback at Cedar Rapids' Majestic Theater. The passage of time had transformed the women from Iowa embarrassments into beloved local landmarks. Their old foe the "Cedar Rapids Gazette" conceded that the Cherrys "were applauded last evening instead of having things thrown at them." When their bakery failed during the Depression, the sisters went back on the road, appearing with the likes of Gracie Allen and Tallulah Bankhead, as well as the famed Iowa radio show "Barn Dance Frolic." According to contemporary newspapers, when future screen legend Gary Cooper made a personal appearance in Grand Rapids in the early 1930s, the people he most wanted to meet were the Cherry Sisters. According to contemporary newspaper reports, he insisted on being photographed with them, but much to my regret, I have so far been unable to find that photo. When a reporter asked Effie if she really thought their act was any good, she snapped, “Good? There’s 2,500 people out there, isn’t there? Good! You’ve got to be good to pack as many people in as we have for 40 years.”

Ella Cherry died in 1934, and Elizabeth in 1936. The now-destitute Effie and Addie had to be taken to the county nursing home. Effie, the last surviving Cherry Sister, died in 1944. Her passing earned her a not-unkind obituary in the "New York Times." After noting that there were many vaudeville acts that "were almost as bad as theirs," the article mused that "Maybe the laugh was on their side. Maybe the Cherry Sisters knew better than the public what was really going on. Be this as it may, they left behind an imperishable memory. And they gave more pleasure to their audiences than did many a performer who was merely almost good."

The more I learned about the Cherry Sisters, the less inclined I was to laugh. These orphaned farm girls had dreams of stardom, and they pursued them fearlessly, and, in their singular way, successfully. With no one to rely on but each other, they faced cruel mockery, contemptuous dismissals, and the regular shower of vegetables with remarkable pluck. They never admitted defeat. Delusional though they might have been about their abilities, they were honest, moral, and hard-working. One can't say the same about too many other show business acts.

And I'm positive that no one enjoyed their performances more than they themselves did.


  1. They did what they loved to do and didn't harm anyone. How is that worse than the egomaniacs in Hollywood who use and abuse all and sundry and eventually kill themselves through drugs and alcohol? I just wish the Cherrys' lives had ended a bit better. But they each had those incomparable memories to look back upon.

  2. It's like that movie "The Producers," where they try to go bankrupt by producing the world's worst show (a cheery musical number called "Springtime for Hitler") - only, to their horror, the show is a huge hit and people can't get enough of it. Either that, or it's like the rock concerts where people mostly went to see guitars get smashed.

    1. Maybe I should have titled this post "Springtime For Cherry Sisters."

  3. If only some wax cylinder recordings and film of them would turn up somewhere - it would be a treasure beyond repair.

    1. I searched the internet hoping to find something of that sort, but no luck. What a loss!

  4. KInda like the Shaggs of their time...

  5. I actually have some respect for them. While they were s**t, they were honest s**t, unlike some contemporary performers, who are dishonest, cynical s**t.

  6. Enjoying a skit on Travel Channel this PM, 19 Feb 2016, "The Cherry Sisters" action when performing in front of a judge in court, "Right of Fair Comment" was ruled in the sisters favor.Perhaps Travel Channel will show this wonderful skit of the sisters performing in their shows if people show interest in watching the girls perform again.

  7. There was, in fact, a demo recording of Jessie Cherry singing one of their original songs, but it disappeared a long time ago; the surviving sisters tried to buy it, but could not meet the asking price ($100 !!! - remember that this was about 100 years ago).

    1. Fingers crossed it turns up somewhere...

  8. If it is any help, the song was called "Fair Columbia". If the recording was archived anywhere, it might be under that name. (It can be dated no later than 1903, of course, but archives can make mistakes.) I have no information on when, where or by whom it was made, or who the prospective seller was, though apparently the sisters' failed quest to buy it was mentioned in some contemporary Iowa newspapers. There is an article in "Tractor" magazine, written by Jack El Hai, which goes into more detail, I think, but I have not read it.

    1. Thanks! I'll see what I can find out about it.


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