As a touring vaudeville act in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Cherry Sisters sold out shows, but their success was matched only by their infamy. They sang, danced, played instruments, and recited poems and essays in over-the-top, dramatic performances, and they drew audiences who came to witness their obvious lack of talent. As the American Weekly once reported, “They began as the four worst professional actresses in the world and ended without improving one iota.”
“The thing is, people packed the theaters to go and see them,” says Darryl W. Bullock, author of The Infamous Cherry Sisters: The Worst Act in Vaudeville. “It was almost part of the entertainment for the night—to go and see how diabolically awful these girls would be.”
There are different stories out there as to why the Cherry Sisters started performing in the first place. But what is certain is that the personal lives of the five sisters were just as unfortunate as their professional lives were uncanny. At the same time, they unintentionally left behind an important legacy after suing two Iowa newspapers for libel in 1898 for a scathing performance review, resulting in a court decision that set a precedent in media law.
Now Presenting: The Cherry Sisters
Addie, Effie, Ella, Lizzie, and Jessie Cherry made their way to Marion, Iowa, with their parents in 1872. Their parents—father a painter, mother a housewife—had previously moved with them to several different states, having lost two children. As the story goes, both of their parents died by the time Jessie, the youngest, was 17 years old, and their brother Nathan ran away from home.
So, what drove the Cherry Sisters to take to the stage? Some accounts say they wanted to earn enough money for a trip to Chicago to attend the World’s Columbian Exposition. Others say they needed to make money to pay off the mortgage on their family farm.
Entertaining audiences on stage as a group was Effie’s idea. In 1893, the women, according to Bullock’s biography, decided to perform at the local Daniels Opera House—all five of them at the time—as a way to make money quickly, playing off their previous experiences in school and church productions. They made posters and eagerly posted them around their community.
Their first show started with a song from Effie, and then they all sang, danced, and played musical instruments such as the harmonica. Because the neighbors and friends in attendance politely applauded them (as to not insult them, Bullock says), the sisters thought they were simply marvelous, pocketing $100 in ticket sales and deciding that they were destined for the stage.
However, during their second performance—this one at a larger theater in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, starring only four of the five sisters—the audience didn’t hold back in expressing their true opinions, blowing tin horns and throwing various items at the sisters. In a scathing review, the Cedar Rapids Gazette wrote, “Their knowledge of the stage is worse than none at all, and they surely could not realize last night that they were making such fools of themselves.”
The sisters were incensed and demanded a retraction. According to Bullock’s biography, Addie ended up writing one herself, and the newspaper printed the “barely intelligible retraction”—full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. The sisters then accused the writer of making libelous claims. He was arrested, and the newspaper proposed an idea: Hold a theatrical trial at the local opera house and have the sisters perform for the jury. They did just that, and the writer was eventually found guilty and sentenced to marrying one of the sisters! Though, he didn’t actually serve his sentence.
With word of the latest incident spreading nationwide, the Cherrys began gaining attention across the country. And despite the negative press and reactions they faced, the sisters continued performing locally in front of such crowds. It’s unclear whether they took themselves seriously or were in on the joke.
“They’re developing this reputation of being comical, and they will leave [the] stage or the theater manager will pull down the curtain, close the curtain on them,” says Leo Landis, state curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa.
The women soon approached a vaudeville agent in Chicago, who recognized just how terrible (and so full of potential!) their performance was, with a strange ability to draw large crowds. The agent signed the sisters to tour through Iowa, Kansas, and Illinois. The curtain was about to open on their career, but they were becoming famous for the wrong reasons.
Harsh Reactions and Riots
While there were other vaudeville acts at the time that received negative treatment from their audiences, none of them lasted nearly as long as the Cherry Sisters, who continued selling out their shows, Bullock says. That may be because it became a tradition that wherever the Cherry Sisters performed, newspaper editors would review their show, and needless to say, their critiques weren’t positive in the slightest.
The Cherry Sisters became the vaudeville act that people loved to hate. The sisters claim to have written their songs themselves, but most of their performances were based on songs that were already well known, Bullock says. When they tried to dance, they would “kind of hop around,” he adds. They performed short playlets, but they were “very overwrought, very dark, very weepy, lots of gnashing of teeth and wailing. Very, very over the top, completely ridiculous.”
“Very quickly, the Cherrys got this reputation of being so diabolically awful that people would go see them just to throw things at them, and they did,” Bullock says. “People would throw rotten fruit and vegetables; they’d throw cigarette butts, cigar butts, overshoes. … They’d take their overshoes off and throw them on the stage.”
While the Cherry Sisters always denied it, legend has it that they sometimes performed behind a screen to avoid being hit by flying objects. Of course, in today’s world, the violence they faced would be viewed as outlandish, even frightening. Yet even at the time, some condemned how audiences responded and felt the sisters deserved a chance to perform. While The Davenport Daily Times in Iowa expressed hopes that the Cherry Sisters “will not be induced to make a second professional visit” to the city, they also wrote that their lack of talent “is no excuse for the rowdyism that characterizes the audiences at their engagements.”
Their awful performances elicited such strong reactions that in some cities, riots broke out in the audience. As detailed in Bullock’s biography, during an early performance in Dubuque, Iowa, the audience came armed with rotten eggs, cabbages, and other food items, some even carrying fire extinguishers and tin horns. At one point in the performance, Jessie was sprayed in the face with a fire extinguisher and ran from the stage, her clothing soaked. A frustrated Effie then returned with a shotgun and pointed it at the audience, only to be hit by cabbages. The police and theater staff did little to stop what was happening.
Even when the show ended, men from the audience followed the Cherrys to their hotel, and policemen escorted the women inside. The chief of police felt compelled to charge the opera house manager a $14 fee for preserving order, and the Dubuque riot made national headlines. The city’s mayor declared that this was the most scandalous event the town had ever experienced.
“If the audience were annoying them, one of the girls would think nothing of brandishing a rifle and kind of pointing it at the audience and threatening them,” Bullock says. “It became riotous. And people would quite often try to break out of the audience.”
From the Midwest to New York
Word of the Cherry Sisters vaudeville act soon made its way to Oscar Hammerstein, a theater mogul who booked them at New York’s Olympia Music Hall in 1896 in an effort to save the venue from bankruptcy. “I’ve tried the best—now I’ll try the worst,” he reportedly said. When they arrived, a headline in The New York Times described them as “four freaks from Iowa” and “a spectacle more pitiable than amusing.”
Fortunately for the Cherry Sisters, and Hammerstein, their New York performance, lasting six weeks, brought financial success, and they earned about $500 a week. They performed an opening song written to the tune of “Ta ra ra Boom de ay,” followed by a singing solo by Jessie, a rendition of an Irish ballad by Lizzie and Addie, and a dramatic essay reading by Addie. They all then performed a skit titled “The Gypsy’s Warning.” Their lack of talent, on display to the big city, was something New Yorkers had never seen before. And, The New York Times reported, “It is sincerely to be hoped that nothing like them will ever be seen again.”
Critics went so far as to even criticize the sisters’ appearance. According to a 1979 article published in an Iowa history magazine, The New York Tribune reported upon their New York debut, “Miss Jessie narrowly escaped being pretty, but her sisters never were in any such danger.” Yet for Hammerstein, getting the Cherry Sisters to perform at the Olympia Theater paid off, as he was able to save the theater from bankruptcy. All the while, the sisters were bombarded with rotten vegetables on stage.
The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville references a 1910 description of the Cherry Sisters by Robert Grau in his The Business Man in the Amusement World, in which Grau notes, “There was, though, something approaching cruelty in the spectacle which these poor females presented, night after night, in exhibiting their crudities to howling, insulting audiences.”
Their lives seemed to parallel the title of their act through the years: “Something Good, Something Sad.”
Cherry v. Des Moines Leader and Its Legacy
Upon the sisters’ return to Iowa, Billy Hamilton, editor of The Odebolt Chronicle in Iowa, printed one of the most scathing reviews of the Cherry Sisters’ act in 1898 after attending one of their performances:
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 [soon] waved frantically at the suffering audience. Their mouths opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage with a motion that suggested a cross between the “danse du ventre” and a fox trot—strange creatures with painted faces and hideous [demeanor]. Effie is spavined, Addie is knock-kneed and stringhalt and Jessie, the only one who showed her stocking, has legs with calves as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.
Negative reviews were nothing new for the Cherrys, but this one, in particular, tugged at the heartstrings. Part of it was picked up and reprinted by the Des Moines Leader, so the sisters sued the two newspapers for libel, claiming $15,000 in damages for “false and malicious” information.
“The women saw it as a step too far,” Bullock says. “The kind of things that were being said about them in the papers were very, very cruel.”
The Iowa State Supreme Court eventually ruled against the sisters. The verdict read, “If ever there was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm, it is the one now before us. According to the record, the performance given by the plaintiffs was not only childish but ridiculous in the extreme. A dramatic critic should be allowed suitable license in such a case. The public should be informed of the character of the entertainment, and the publication should be held privileged.”
The Iowa court also wrote in its opinion that a newspaper editor has the “right to freely criticize any and every kind of public performance,” so long as the review is not driven by what is called malice, or an intentional effort to injure another party. Just because a comment is grossly exaggerated, the judge said, doesn’t mean it’s unfair.
The concept of “fair comment” that arose from Cherry v. Des Moines Leader set an important precedent, and the landmark case was cited in legal cases for decades to follow. It was a loss for the Cherry Sisters but a triumph for the nation’s free press—and it ensures the sisters will go down in history for more than just their shows.
“I think the legacy of Cherry v. Des Moines Leader is that you do see the press is being allowed to print things,” Landis says, “that, if done without malice, and that are truthful, then it’s fair criticism.”
After the Curtain Closed
When Jessie died of typhoid fever in 1903, the sisters retired, making occasional comeback performances in the years following. “As terribleness, their skit is perfection,” Variety magazine commented in 1924. None of the sisters married, and Effie ran for mayor of Cedar Rapids—twice—on a platform that advocated for a 9 p.m. curfew. She lost both races.
Bullock compares the Cherry Sisters to acts on TV shows today like The X Factor or America’s Got Talent that are ridiculed by the audience and gain notoriety for their poor performances. The sisters may have been an early example of entertainment that was “so bad it was good.”
But reflecting on their legacy, Bullock also says the Cherrys were, in some ways, ahead of their time. “They were five women who were doing their own thing, and playing to their own rules. They did what they wanted to do,” he says. “They weren’t going to let men tell them they couldn’t do it.”
Still, to this day, the true motivations of the Cherrys remain a mystery. Did they intentionally put on horrible performances simply for the money, well aware of their lack of talent? Or did they actually think they were good at what they did, and that the negative reviews were unwarranted?
“I don’t think that the Cherry Sisters would have gone to the trouble of trying to sue different people if they weren’t taking themselves seriously,” Landis says.
On the other hand, Bullock says, “I believe they absolutely knew that they were a thing; they were figures of fun and they exploited that,” pointing to the constant negative reviews in the press and the fact that their managers seemed to be completely in the know.
These are questions that, more than a century since their debut, we don’t really know how to answer. As a Des Moines Register reporter once wrote, “Either the Cherry Sisters are completely sincere and take themselves seriously, or they are the most accomplished actresses the world has ever known.”
By Jordan Friedman, contributor for Ripleys.com