The Cherry Sisters: The Worst Act in Vaudeville

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As far I know, it’s none of their birthdays today, but I’m posting this anyway!

The cruelty underlying the appeal of this act makes it closer to gladiatorial spectacle in conception than to vaudeville. The Cherry Sisters were so awful it was like a car wreck. The difference between them and Fred Allen , who’d billed himself as “The World’s Worst Juggler”, was a complete lack of self awareness. There were five Cherry Sisters: Effie, Addie, Ella, Jessie and Lizzie. Singers without charm or wit, they stood there, sang off key, and were under the mistaken impression that they were actually quite good. [“It would not be too far off the mark, “ wrote one of them,” to say we were one of the best.”]

The appeal of the act appears to have been much akin to the appeal of screening an Ed Wood film today. The difference is the poor Cherry Sisters were live and in person to absorb the abuse of the audience, which not only hooted, howled and hissed, but threw vegetables at them.

A review from the Des Moines Leader was not sparing in its bile:

Effie is an old jade of 50 summers, Jessie a frisky filly of 40, and Addie the flower of the family, a capering monstrosity of 35. Their long skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and anon waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage with a motion that suggested a cross between a danse du ventre and fox-trot—strange creatures with painted faces and hideous mein. Effie is spavined, Addie is string-halt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs with calves as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.

The girls hailed from Marion, Iowa. They started performing to raise funds so that they could attend the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. An enterprising and cynical genius spotted them and realized he could make an act out of it. As such, it was way ahead of its time. It was another 90 years, for example, before David Letterman would present Larry “Bud” Melman. The Cherry Sisters began to be booked throughout the mid-west. Oscar Hammerstein, having read about them in reviews like the one above quoted, brought them to the Victoria, knowing that a sophisticated and, well, cruel New York audience would especially relish this sort of entertainment.

The act the Cherries brought to New York was called “Something Good, Something Sad”. They never knew just how sad.

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The act consisted of moral melodrama, bad singing, and inept comic turns. In addition to being  terrible performers, they also seem to have been rotten human beings, meddlesome Puritans of the worst kind, who couldn’t refrain from disparaging anything pleasurable, such as, oh, every other act in vaudeville. They had a particular animus for Mae West, who got her revenge by badmouthing them in one of her pictures. Their repertoire included a song called “My First Cigar” (a cautionary tale), another one called “Fair Columbia” (in which the singer was draped in a flag), and a tableux called “Clinging to the Cross” in which one of them, dressed as Jesus, was crucified. And then there was their theme song. Dressed as Salvation Army ladies, they banged a drum, rattled a tamborine and sang:

Cherries ripe, boom-de-ay!

Cherries red, boom de-ay!

The Cherry sisters have come to stay!

Hammerstein actually encouraged the audience to throw vegetables at them, explaining to the girls that the other acts, jealous, had hired them to do that. The Cherries were sold out in New York for ten weeks, rescuing Hammerstein’s other theatre the Olympia, from bankruptcy. They then embarked on a highly successful national tour.

By the time the youngest sister Jessie died in 1903, the girls had amassed a quarter of a millon dollars, with which they retired to their farm in Iowa. Comebacks were attempted but the Cherries’ moment was over. (The take of their first night back on the boards was $7). As late as 1935 Addie and Effie, the only ones remaining, attempted yet another comeback. Addie was well into her 80s, Effie was pushing 70. Given how bad they were when they were young, the mind reels, and the heart bleeds, at an idea of what that spectacle was like.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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7 comments

  1. One other legacy of the Cherry Sisters was that later authors followed Billy Hamilton’s lead and write their own more-or-less inspired descriptions and criticisms of the act and its history. My own contribution, on TV Tropes, reads in part: “The sisters believed that the fault was neither in their stars, nor in themselves, but in their detractors…” [who they thought did not appreciate wholesome entertainment]. An essay titled “Cherry Bomb” is very eloquent on the subject.

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  2. The hilariously scathing critique was written by William “Billy” E. Hamilton, editor of the ‘Odebolt Chronicle’, 1901. The review was reprinted by the ‘Des Moines Leader’. The Cherry Sisters sued the ‘Leader’ for libel only to lose the case after performing part of their act in court. District Judge C.A. stated that the sisters were actually as bad as the review had claimed.*

    *Source: “A Treasury of Iowa Tales”, 2000.

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