Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Cherry Sisters’ vaudeville act was so bad it set legal precedent

Image: Historycenter.org
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: The Cherry Sisters

What it’s about: Previous generations’ entertainment tends to be looked at through rose-colored glasses. “The ’70s had The Godfather and we have Norm Of The North!” Never mind that the ’70s also had Exorcist II: The Heretic, and we have Moonlight and Inside Out, or that Godfather II was handily outgrossed by Earthquake. Usually, quality is remembered through the ages, while the disposable crap is quickly forgotten. Not so for the Cherry Sisters—Ella (the eldest, who left the act early on), Lizzie, Addie, Effie, and Jessie—who put on an 1890s vaudeville act so terrible, it made a lasting contribution to history (even earning a segment on Drunk History).


Strangest fact: The trope of an angry crowd throwing vegetables at a bad performance may have come from the Cherry Sisters. Previous acts were surely pelted with produce before the Cherrys, but they seem to have been famous for it. When they first performed their show, Something Good, Something Sad, in their hometown of Marion, Iowa, audiences were polite, as it was mainly their friends and neighbors in attendance. But as soon as they took their act on the road, it was clear at least one half of that title was misleading. “Spectators routinely laughed, heckled, catcalled, booed, and threw vegetables,” according to their Wikipedia page. One audience member sprayed a fire extinguisher directly into one of the women’s faces to stop the show. They eventually began performing behind a wire mesh to avoid being hit by projectiles (although they later denied ever doing so).

Wire mesh has saved many an act over the years. (Screenshot: The Blues Brothers)

Biggest controversy: Wherever the Cherrys went, bad reviews followed. Iowa’s Odebolt Chronicle described them as “three creatures surpassing the witches in Macbeth in general hideousness… sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom.” The sisters sued the Chronicle, and the Des Moines Leader (which was one of several papers that reprinted the scathing review), claiming that the attack on their appearances constituted libel. While the court case was decidedly real, the sisters also worked it into the act, staging mock trials as part of their show, and saying, “we had lots of fun out of the case.”

But not so much fun that the sisters let the case go when the Polk County Court decided in favor of the newspapers. They appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict. In Cherry V. Des Moines Leader, they ruled that, “the editor of a newspaper has the right, if not the duty, of publishing… fair and reasonable comments, no matter how severe,” assuming the subject is a public figure. “If one makes himself ridiculous in his public performances, he may be ridiculed.” The case ended up being a landmark for freedom of the press, and is cited to this day in arguments about libel and fair use.


Thing we were happiest to learn: At least for a while, the Sisters managed to fail upwards. Willie Hammerstein, one of the era’s most successful Broadway producers (New York still has a venue that bears his name, over a century after his death), booked the Cherrys into the Olympia Music Hall, a venue he ran that was on the verge of bankruptcy. “I’ve been putting on the best talent and it hasn’t gone over,” he declared. “I’m going to try the worst.”

Shockingly, it worked. Within two weeks of Something Good, Something Sad’s opening, the theater was solvent, and the show ran for six weeks, fueled mostly by morbid curiosity, spurred on by the act’s terrible reviews. The New York Times called the sisters “pitiable,” looking past the badness of their act to its source. “The effects of poverty, ignorance, and isolation are much the same all over the world, and the Cherry Sisters exhibited every one of them with a pathetic frankness that left no question as to their status or their character.”


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Cherry Sisters were undone not by reviews or unruly audiences, but by typhoid fever. Jessie, the youngest sister, contracted the disease and died in 1903, at age 31. The bereaved sisters retired the act, rather than continue on without her.

Also noteworthy: What the sisters lacked in talent, they made up for in strident Christian morals. Their act featured “strong patriotic and religious themes,” including a sketch in which Jessie was crucified on stage. During their run in New York, they turned down any party invitation that came their way, and refused to go to Coney Island, for fear of being scandalized by seeing a woman in a bathing suit.

To this day, beachgoers at Coney Island sport scandalously bare ankles. (Photo: Irving Underhill, Online collection of Brooklyn Museum)

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Besides their contribution to legal history, the Cherry Sisters are also a notable early example of outsider music. Irwin Chusid’s definitive book on the subject, Songs In The Key Of Z, mentions them as a precursor (if not necessarily an influence) on untalented-but-persistent acts like The Shaggs.


Further down the Wormhole: Marion, Iowa, may have been the only sympathetic audience the Cherry Sisters ever faced. When the sisters performed there, the town had roughly 3,000 people; today it has a dozen times as many. As it does with nearly every town in America, Wikipedia breaks down demographics by race, population density, and percentage of households containing married couples. While how much of an equal partnership marriage is can vary greatly by culture and era, the idea of two people pledging to stay together for life is a standard relationship in nearly ever culture. But there are exceptions. One of the Mosuo, a matriarchal agrarian society in southern China, in which every relationship is temporary. We’ll take a visit next week.

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