For International Women’s Day, today we induct the historically important Worrell Sisters into these precincts.
Hailing from Cincinnati, the trio, Irene, Jennie and Sophie, were daughters of William, a circus clown. Jennie (ca. 1850-1899) was to be the most famous of the three. The girls had toured the Far West and Australia before coming to New York in the 1860s, purchasing their own theatre, and mounting their own succession of early burlesque shows (back when the word implied parodies as much as female attractions). In addition to their self-produced burlesques, in which they sang, danced and acted, they also booked acrobats, magicians, and the like.
The Worrell Sisters bought their theatre, which was located near Waverly Place, in 1866. Their shows included productions of Aladdin, Cinderella, The Elves, The Invisible Prince, Between You and Me and the Post, The Clerks, and Faust (all 1867); a revival of Augustin Daly’s Under The Gaslight (a rare straight drama), Paris and Helen, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (all 1868), Lalla Rookh (1869), and a revival of Lydia Thompson’s pioneering burlesque Ixion (1872). The Worrell Sisters were popular with critics (the New York Tribune called them “The Three Graces of Burlesque”) but operating the theatre was not profitable. They sold it circa 1869 and it subsequently became The Globe Theatre, The Theatre Comique, and the Broadway Athletic Club. It burned and was demolished in 1884.
After conquering New York, the Worrell Sisters toured the country some more, breaking up in the 1870s. In the 1880s, Jennie married an unsavory character named Mike Murray, who ran a gambling joint. He died in 1895, but she had divorced him years earlier. By this point her sisters and daughter had long since distanced themselves from her, as she had become “a confirmed inebriate” who associated with criminals. By 1899 she was homeless and living on the streets of Coney Island, probably living by prostitution. She made the newspapers one last time when she was found burned to death in a patch of beach grass (where she had been sleeping) in August of that year.
Sophie’s subsequent career was more fortunate. She became Mrs. George S. Knight in 1879, appearing under that name in comedies and musicals for many years. Her last performance was in 1893; she died shortly thereafter.
To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous