I’ve long been fascinated with the story of the Cherry Sisters, a famous vaudeville act from the late 1800s. I’ve collected information about them over the years, but they still remain a mystery to me.
The five sisters – Addie, Effie, Ella, Lizzie, and Jessie – grew up on a farm near Marion, Iowa. After their mother died, they continued to farm with their father and their brother Nathan. Then in 1885, their father died and Nathan headed off to Chicago never to be heard from again. The sisters were left to manage the farm on their own.
Their show business career began in 1893. They put their act together supposedly to raise money to attend the World’s Fair in Chicago and to search for their brother. Their first performance was in their home town where they rented Daniel’s Opera House at $5 for the night. They planned the show and made all the arrangements including crafting hand-painted signs to advertise it. The price of tickets ranged from 10-30 cents.
On January 21, 1893, three of the sisters – Ella, Effie, and Jessie – took the stage with bright gold hair created with left over sign paint. They sang and Jessie played the harmonica performing for about an hour to a polite audience. They made $250 that night and got the closest they would ever get to a good review. A reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette wrote: “The public wanted fun, the public got it; the young ladies wanted money, they got it.”
Their next stop was at Greene’s Opera House in neighboring Cedar Rapids. It was one of the largest theaters between Chicago and Denver and people were used to seeing some top-notch entertainment there. The Cherry Sisters did not fit that bill. This time the Cedar Rapids Gazette published a scathing review which read in part: “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.”
The sisters filed a complaint against the newspaper charging the editor with libel. At the newspaper’s suggestion, a trial was held at the sisters’ next performance. At the trial, the audience greeted the sisters with whistles, horns, and kazoos. It soon got so noisy no one could even hear the performance, but no one appeared to take the proceedings seriously anyway. The judge ruled in favor of the sisters and sentenced the newspaper editor to marry one of them. Both sides agreed not to enforce that ruling.
Newspapers across the country picked up the story of the trial giving the Cherry Sisters free advertising and launching their careers. They began performing at theaters across the state to audiences that hurled cabbages, potatoes, onions, and even tin cans at the stage. In New York City, Oscar Hammerstein heard about the sisters. He was deeply in debt with his Olympia Music Hall on Broadway, and was desperate to find entertainment that would fill the hall. According to reports, he read reviews about the Cherry Sisters and said, “I’ve tried the best – now I’ll try the worst.”
In 1896, four of the sisters opened at the Olympia Music Hall. Ella stayed home because one sister always had to be there to slop the hogs and milk the cow. They sang music they had written themselves, performed skits, and banged on a large bass drum as they pranced across the stage in their home-made costumes. On opening night, the audience appeared stunned at first. However, it didn’t take them long to find their voices and the jeering began. Still, a reporter for The New York Times described that audience as only “moderately brutal.”
The worst was yet to come as word of the Cherry Sisters and their lack of talent spread. People began coming to the theater to hoot and howl and toss objects at the stage as if they were part of the performance. The sisters sometimes criticized their audiences from the stage. “You don’t know anything,” a sister would say. “You have not been raised well or you would not interrupt a nice, respectable show.” But the rowdiness continued. One newspaper reported that retailers couldn’t keep up with the demand for vegetables that people bought to toss at the stage during the performances.
It seemed that critics were competing to see who could write the nastiest reviews. “Theirs is the worst act ever to make an assault on the musical stage,” one wrote. “They never missed a note, or found one either,” another quipped. But night after night, the Cherry Sisters filled the theater, and Hammerstein, who had booked them for six weeks, was able to pay off his debts.
The Cherry Sisters continued to perform traveling throughout the United States and Canada. Their act came to an end in 1903 when the youngest sister, Jessie, died suddenly while they were on tour in Arkansas.
For a long time, I figured the Cherry Sisters surely realized their performances were a joke, but I pictured them laughing all the way to the bank. Some reports said they made enough money with their act to retire to the farm in luxury. But information I’ve found more recently indicates that they spent much of their earnings on court expenses waging a war against harsh critics, and they eventually lost the farm. That makes me think they never realized how bad their performances were.
So the mystery continues. Were the Cherry Sisters shrewd businesswomen who found a way to make a comfortable living at a time when women did not have many opportunities? Or did they sincerely believe their act was good theater? What do you think?