Not only do things get worse before they get better some things are best when they start bad and stay that way. Evidence the Cherry Sisters.
It's 1896: no radio, no TV; motion pictures as popular entertainment still a few years away. Berliner (discs) and Edison (cylinders) are laying the groundwork for the record industry. No cars, no planes. The epicenter of public amusement is the theater. Itinerant performers singers, jugglers, dog acts, pianists, minstrels, and seltzer-siphon buffoons work the circuit known as "Vaudeville." There were stars, like Nora Bayes, Fanny Brice, and Sophie Tucker and there were the Cherry Sisters. Their closest late 20th-century analogue might be aboriginal rock legends the Shaggs minus the talentor a reduced-rate Del Rubio Triplets with even lousier makeup.
The sisters Effie, Addie, Ella, Jessie and Elizabeth, of Marion, Iowa were by contemporary accounts the worst act in vaudeville. Unadulterated stinkeroo. Their show, Something Good, Something Sad, was so atrocious it triggered a perverse public hysteria: it played to sold-out New York houses for ten weeks. It put impresario Oscar Hammerstein's career in turnaround and rescued his floundering Olympia Music Hall from the brink of bankruptcy.
November 16 marks the 100th anniversary of the sisters' "heralded" opening on the Great White Way. Don't bother sending a card the whole family has gone to the one place even FedEx doesn't deliver. The last of the sisters all childless spinsters died in 1944. Their brother Nathan went to Chicago in 1885 and was never heard from again.
The Cherrys' rise to the bottom began with an innocent ambition: earning enough money to visit the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (and perhaps to find Nathan). The prairie-bred farmgirls burned the gaslamps beyond bedtime hammering together an evening's worth of hokey, moralistic one-acts, derivative ballads, and awkward ethnic dialect routines. With no prior experience before the footlights, they trod the boards before uncritical friends in their home village. Encouraged by neighborly applause and a modest profit the Cherrys took their cockeyed show on the road. They barnstormed through such 19th-century cultural citadels as Ottumwa, Muscatine, and Osage.
Slogging through the marshes and municipal auditoriums of the midwest, the sisters were so awful that audience heckling seemed too polite; instead, patrons conveyed their critical consensus by flinging cabbages and overripe tomatoes. At a Creston, Iowa, town hall performance, theater-goers threw eggs and chased the girls offstage. To protect her siblings, Addie at least once brandished a shotgun at an overly rambunctious crowd. One regional reviewer described them as "wretchedly poor, homely, ignorant, and without a trace of taste." In Cedar Rapids, where the backwater Bernhardts rented Greene's Opera House for 50 bucks, their gawky revue got a noisy reception patrons blew tin horns left over from the 1892 presidential campaign. The sisters mistook the raucousness for approval, and considered the evening a huge success. Next day, they were horrified by a nasty review in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which stated:
"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 convey the idea.... Cigars, cigarettes, rubbers everything was thrown at them, yet they stood there, awkwardly bowing their acknowledgments and singing on."
Their honor at stake, they sued the city editor for slander. Justice was uncommonly swift. A theatrical trial was held the following day at Greene's, with the Cherrys mounting the stage for the benefit of the magistrate, offering their performance as testimony. The jury, confronted with the evidence of the plaintiffs' far graver crime, nevertheless found the editor guilty and sentenced him to marry one of the sisters. (All parties declined to enforce the ruling.)
From Davenport to Vinton, month after month, the onslaught of rotten eggs and pension-aged fruit continued. At one show, patrons of the arts pitched slabs of fresh liver at the hapless troupe; in Dubuque, they were greeted by "a volley of turnips." Singing for your supper is one thing; having it hurled at you overhand is another. Finally, a compassionate promoter erected a wire-mesh screen between players and audience. The sisters virtuous ladies whose lips never tasted wine (they once refused to speak to their piano player for a week because he said "damn")suspected that the unruly mob behavior had been instigated by stage managers whose (imagined) advances they'd rebuffed. Everywhere they went, it rained cabbages, potatoes, rutabagas any local crop surplus. One rowdy spectator heaved an old tin wash boiler onstage.
Then, things got ugly.
In February 1898, following a typical Cherry freakshow in western Iowa, Odebolt Chronicle editor William Hamilton wrote:
"When the curtain went up...[t]he audience saw three creatures surpassing the witches in Macbeth in general hideousness. ... Their long, skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically , and anon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage...strange creatures with painted features and hideous mien. Effie is spavined, Addie is knock-kneed and string-halt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs without calves, as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle."
Tomaters and warshbuckets they could deal with, but this this clearly crossed the line. Two weeks later, when the Des Moines Leader reprinted this passage, the Cherrys sued for libel. In a precedent-setting 1899 decision after what legal documents disclose was a very colorful trial!the suit was dismissed, with the court affirming a newspaper's right to criticize public performers to the point of ridicule. In 1901, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld Cherry v. Des Moines Leader, noting: "If there ever was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm...it is the one now before us... [T]he performance given by the [sisters] was not only childish, but ridiculous in the extreme. A dramatic critic should be allowed considerable license in such a case."
Backtrack to 1896: while the Cherrys were quickening their reflexes dodging several of the major food groups, in New York, impresario Oscar Hammerstein had major migraines. At his new "uptown" Olympia Music Hall at Broadway and 44th Street, he'd staged a series of big-name showcases which flopped. The venue, surrounded by smelly stables and a blacksmith forge, was inconveniently located; the theater district was a half-mile away at old Herald Square. A story in the Morning World about the Cherrys, then touring the midwest, caught his eye. They were described as "so grim and so serious that audiences were rolling in the aisles with laughter." Hammerstein mulled the possibilities. "I've been putting on the best talent, and it hasn't gone over," he acknowledged. "I'm going to try the worst." He dispatched stage manager Al Aarons to lasso the Cherrys (minus Ella, who wisely retired) and shepherd them east under contract. Tomato futures skyrocketed.
On November, 16, 1896, Something Good, Something Sad, opened at the Olympia. According to one unattributed press account, "the four grim-faced [sisters] sidled out on the stage in hand-made red calico dresses and began their act." Elizabeth played piano and Jessie slammed a huge bass drum while the sisters sang:
"Cherries ripe, Boom-de-ay!
Cherries red, Boom-de-ay!
The Cherry sisters
Have come to stay!"
Next, Jessie, draped in an American flag, sang an original, patriotic number entitled "Fair Columbia." Lizzie followed with what must have been a jaw-dropping version of a traditional Irish ballad sung with a twang. In Effie's vocal centerpiece, "The Gipsy's Warning," Jessie portrayed a barefoot flower maiden falling prey to a swashbuckling Lothario, played by Addie. Later in the evening, a "living sculpture" tableau entitled "Clinging to the Cross" featured Jessie suspended from a giant crucifix.
The first-night reviews were merciless. "It was awful," claimed the World. The New York Times critic commented, "All too obviously they were products of the barnyard and the kitchen. None of them had showed a sign of nervousness, none a trace of ability for their chosen work." Another press witness, cited in a 1936 New York World-Telegram obit for Elizabeth, stated, "A locksmith with a strong, rasping file could earn ready wages taking the kinks out of Lizzie's voice."
According to a 1944 article in the World-Telegram (published upon Effie's death), the act had been greeted with "a stock of tomatoes, cabbages and onions, [and] a great racket of screeches, yowls, hoorahs and catcalls." Hammerstein assured his headliners that the barrage was orchestrated by jealous rival stars, "who hire people to throw things at girls like you." (In fact, the owner had recruited his sons, Arthur and Will, to incite the "truck-garden bouquets.") "Your talent is so great," he explained, "that you can expect fruit and vegetables to be thrown at every performance." Behind the now-de rigueur fishnet, the Cherrys played to packed houses for two months, earning upwards of a grand per week. It saved Hammerstein's derrièreand his theater. Following their run at the Olympia, the gutsy quartet played an additional two weeks at Proctor's 23rd Street Theater to continued SRO houses.
Despite their celebrity, the schoolmarmish Cherrys rejected New York's glamorous nightlife. "We were invited to parties by Lillian Russell, Diamond Jim Brady, John L. Sullivan and others," they told "Voice of Broadway" columnist Louis Sobol, "but we never accepted." Usually, after the pulp-splattered curtain came down, the ladies took dinner at the Holland House, then went straight to bed. Occasionally they'd take horse-drawn buggy rides through Central Park, but not after dusk. "We always wanted to see Coney Island," they told Sobol, "but we did not want to see women in bathing suits."
The triumphant Cherry Sisters embarked on a US-Canadian tour, drawing sell-out crowds at most engagements. Having achieved notoriety in New York, their reputation preceded them at every whistlestop. In Marshalltown, Iowa, a theater sign proclaimed:
Iowa's Famous Songbirds
Bad Eggs, Black Powder and
Ten-Gauge Guns Barred
Audiences hooted, howled, and heaved, but the gals persevered, chalking it up to jealous competitors. In all their days on the road, the sisters never lost a note nor found one.
When Jessie, the youngest, died in 1903 of typhoid fever, the sisters quit the circuit and retired to their Iowa farm. They'd amassed a fortune estimated around $200,000. The American Weekly noted that over seven years of touring, "They began as the four worst professional actresses in the world and ended without improving one iota." Considering the onslaught they endured, particularly before the screens were installed, it was a blessing that no one was seriously injured by a wayward projectile. One journalist attributed this miracle to "nervous marksmanship on one side and amazing agility on the other."
None ever married in fact, they boasted of never having been kissed. ("We are too devoted to each other to consider matrimony and we could never stand the shock of being dictated to by a man.") Within a few years of returning home, they were once again destitute. They eventually lost the farm and moved to Cedar Rapids, where they opened a bakery. Cherry pie, naturally, was a specialty. A local lad fondly recalled seeing a sign in the window: "Fresh Bread and Bull Pups for Sale."
Sadly (but understandably), the Cherrys were never invited to make commercial recordings; however, Jessie cut a demo disc of her show-stopping "Fair Columbia." A few years after her death, a brief item appeared in an Iowa paper noting that the surviving sibs were trying to buy the disc from its owner so they could hear their dear, dead sister's voice. Problem was, they couldn't afford the asking price of $100. (The record's eventual disposition is unknown; it's probably in an attic somewhere, alongside the missing reels of von Stroheim's Greed.) Effie ran for mayor of Cedar Rapids twice, in 1924 and 1926, losing both times. Her William Jennings Bryanesque platform (anti-tobacco and no-liquor; longer skirts, longer hair and longer consciences for women; and a 7 o'clock curfew for minors) was decidedly out of step with the Roaring Twenties, even in the flat-earth precincts of Iowa.
When their money ran out, the surviving Cherrys attempted comebacks, but their luck seemed to have run out as well. At a Chicago theater in 1913, first night receipts were $7. The second night gate figures improved to $11. (The tally did not include the value of airborne produce.) The sisters blamed the dismal turnout on "lack of publicity." In 1935, the proprietor of The Gay Nineties, a New York nostalgia venue, brought Addie and Effie back to town with much fanfare but their compelling, negative charisma had evaporated. "Some of the club's cash customers merely yawned and ordered the waiter to bring two more, quick," reported the American Weekly. "Others wanted to know if this was supposed to be funny, while many simply moaned and went out." The pathetic sight of two frumpy hags in high-button shoes trying to entertain jaded patrons in a New York nightclub must have been too painful to endure.
Addie died in 1942, and Effie the last of the line two years later, forever sparing the world's gene pool. (They never revealed their ages, but both were estimated octogenarians.) In an August 12, 1944 obituary, the World-Telegram's Burton Rascoe sensed an element of martyrdom in their Sisyphean plight. He lamented that the Cherry family "summed up in themselves, and took the blame for, all the bad acting in the world....They were the targets for abuse that should have been more equitably distributed."
How could anyone let alone an entire sibling clan be so stupid, so dense, so blind to such overwhelming public derision? This is the question Jack El-Hai addressed in "The Mystery of the Cherry Sisters," published in the Summer 1996 issue of Tractor, an Iowa arts and culture zine (available for $3 from Legion Arts, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52401). El-Hai, a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist, has dogged the Cherrys' legacy since 1993. With a grant from the Center for Arts Criticism in St. Paul, he visited Cedar Rapids, scoured the archives in Iowa City, made a pilgrimage to Marion, and drafted a book proposal. He's read Effie's unpublished novel ("it's terrible," he said in a phone interview) and her unlikely-to-be-a-major-motion-picture memoirs ("not exactly gripping"). He even poked around Chicago for traces of the elusive brother Nathan, to no avail. (Perhaps he should have checked '60s Mayor Richard Daley's voter registration rolls.)
The title of El-Hai's article is deliberately provocative. He admitted there are many mysteries about the sisters, but one supersedes all others: "Were the Cherrys conscious of their own badness, and did they try to be bad in order to please their audiences?"
After a thorough study of the sisters' stern moral underpinnings, El-Hai grew convinced there was method to their badness. They were a "strange mixture of Puritanism and exhibitionism," he observed. Avery Hale, in a December 1944 remembrance in Coronet magazine, wrote that the Cherrys often attended cliché-ridden, off-circuit productions at Greene's Opera House in their formative years. They were "deeply impressed" by these programs in which "virtue was usually melodramatically triumphant and retribution caught up with the silk-hatted villain just before the last-act curtain." If America was to overcome the forces of darkness, the Cherrys felt destined to carry the lantern.
"They hated women performers who made the most of sex appeal," El-Hai explained, "especially Mae West, who included a disparaging line about the Sisters in one of her films." When it came to morality, Effie, in particular, couldn't get off the soapbox. "Woman has been degraded by nudity on the stage today," she railed in 1934. "I'd clean up all the filthy literature and periodicals...It is woman's place to wage war against sin which has infested us for so long." She thought ladies shouldn't smoke in public because "it loses their charm and makes them appear too masculine." (In the sisters' heyday, Jessie had sung a cautionary tale of lost virtue entitled "My First Cigar.") Effie's mayoral platform advocated civic cleanliness, ankle-length skirts, and "more and bigger policemen." The Cherrys waged a lifelong campaign against decadence, and the stage gave them an opportunity, El-Hai said, "to become the theater's primary exponents of decency."
Make no mistake the Cherrys were as talent-free as critics insisted, and oblivious to that fact at the dawn of their careers. "They couldn't have been good if they tried," El-Hai believes. But having captured the public's attention as "The World's Worst Sister Act" (as they were billed in St. Louis), they weren't about to forsake fame to protect the family name. The rewards headlines, packed halls, and money were too great to pass up, even at the cost of public humiliation. Success was measured in sheer numbers. El-Hai unearthed a telling 1936 quote from Effie, then appearing with Addie at an Iowa radio station barn dance. Asked by a broadcaster if their act was any good, Effie retorted, "Good? There's 2,500 people out there, isn't there? Well, that's more than [comedienne] Ina Claire drew in this same theater a while back and she's good, isn't she?" As for the relentless caricature in the press, the sisters gathered bad reviews like so many rose petals. "They viewed being bad as a means to an end," El-Hai figures, "as a way to keep themselves before audiences so they could uphold theatrical decency."
Were they more sophisticated than they let on? Did these hayseeds with pigslop under their fingernails parlay ineptitude into a long-term publicity stunt? The sisters never blinked; they played greenhorns to the hilt, onstage and off. "I can't understand why we're persecuted as we are," said Addie. "Why, prominent men have raised their hats when passing our house in Cedar Rapids on the streetcar."
"Over the years,"
El-Hai discovered, "a mythology grew up around them about how bad
they were, what was thrown at them, why they persevered. It's almost
like they've become an urban legend." A true verdict on their
motivations may never be possible. "Either the Cherry Sisters are
completely sincere and take themselves seriously," said the Des
Moines Register, "or they are the most accomplished actresses
the world has ever known."
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