Jack El-Hai | Longreads | October 2016 | 15 minutes (3,795 words)
In her late middle age, Effie Cherry felt troubled as she thought back on her life in the theater with her sisters. From the 1890s into the 1930s, the Cherry Sisters had sung, danced, acted, and recited from the stages of countless vaudeville houses. Of this experience Effie churned up mainly bitter memories. “All of the wicked, false and malicious articles written in the newspapers throughout the country concerning the Cherry Sisters,” she set down in an unpublished memoir, “were written by unscrupulous editors and reporters devoid of all honor, morals or even respectability…. After twenty-five or thirty years of persecution and slander by the press, one would think there would be an end, but the serpent’s tongue is always ready to strike in the dark, and still the slimy, venomous reptile is creeping on.”
So much for There’s No Business Like Show Business. Effie and her sisters — Ella, Lizzie, Addie, and Jessie — remain perhaps the greatest enigmas in the history of American theater. Successful by many standards and famous in their day, the Cherry Sisters also were ridiculed, physically assaulted by audiences, blistered in the press, ultimately impoverished, and widely regarded as vaudeville’s worst and least talented act.
Passions ran high at Cherry Sisters performances. Overripe vegetables flew onto the stage, the propriety of unmarried women performing in public came under attack, lawsuits germinated, and editorial writers composed antagonistic fulminations. Yet for decades the Cherry Sisters persisted in offering themselves on the stage, making repeated comebacks when their aging spirits moved them.
Nobody can doubt the anguish of witnessing a Cherry performance. The consensus at the time was nearly unanimous that they were horrendous. Yet the sisters never accepted or acknowledged that opinion. They sailed on, heads high, hats askew, voices off key. Effie and her sisters may have believed they were gifting great performances to the world that the buffoons in the seats couldn’t grasp. On the other hand, the women may have known of their artistic limitations, even exaggerated them, and played for laughs and outrage.
The questions these performers of humble origins left behind cloud their legacy: Did the Cherrys persist because they knew badness could sell or because they believed they were good? When the curtain rose, did audiences take advantage of the sisters, or did the Cherrys manipulate the crowds?
* * *
On a still summer day more than 20 years ago, I sat in my Chevy Nova at the side of a two-lane road near the town of Marion in Linn County, Iowa. Across the road and down a weedy slope, a broken fence along a farmer’s field disappeared into a thicket of bushes and trees. The foliage blocked the view beyond. At my side was a hand-drawn map, a gift from a local historian, suggesting that this desolate and overgrown patch of land had once belonged to the Cherry Sisters. According to yellowed newspaper accounts, the Cherrys owned a house and a farm here. After their good times in vaudeville ended and they could not afford to repair the collapsing roof of their house during the 1930s, they occupied the basement, which resembled an earthen dugout, and then set up household in a crude shack assembled from lumber that they scavenged from the house. As recently as twenty years before my visit, I had heard, rural explorers searched the area and discovered artifacts of the sisters’ lives: remnants of the basement, eating utensils, and trash.
I was about to get out of my car to make a similar exploration when a pickup suddenly swung around a curve and pulled up closely behind me. The truck dwarfed my Nova and idled, filling my rearview mirror with its grill. It seemed a sinister creature of mythology, like Cerberus, the monstrous dog that guarded Hades. Someone or something did not like me looking and planning on the shoulder of this road. Maybe too many seekers of the Cherry Sisters had stopped and stared here. The thought crossed my mind that the Cherrys, long dead, deserved some privacy. Still, in life they dared others to scrutinize them, over and over.
After a face-saving pause I started my car and moved on, and even as I drove away without trespassing into the farmer’s field, I felt tugged in contrary directions. Was I here in Marion to admire the Cherry Sisters or to add to their ridicule? What would they want me to think of them? I had to admit I did not know.
* * *
All five sisters grew up on that property near Marion, which their parents had settled by way of Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, and other towns in Iowa. Laura Cherry, their mother, died in 1875, leaving the girls and a brother, Nathan, in the care of father Thomas. All the kids had to work the 40-acre family farm. The Cherrys were poor, but Thomas told the children they descended from better stuff, English nobility in fact, and Effie forever believed that her mother had been a descendant of Massachusetts Bay Colony leader Edward Rawson. These poorly dressed, barefooted, and socially awkward sisters needed an ego boost, and they accepted their father’s family embroidery.
Thomas Cherry died in 1888 and Nathan mysteriously disappeared while working in Chicago, never to be seen again, leaving the sisters “orphans to battle our way through life alone,” as Effie wrote, although all except Jessie were adults by this time. They squeezed whatever money they could from their farm’s dairy output and their poultry-dressing business. In this hardscrabble existence they resolved never to drink, go to parties, kiss anyone except each other, marry, or otherwise threaten their tight bond as sisters.
Ella, the eldest and a homebody, did not take part in most of the sisters’ theatrical adventures to come; she was fond of physical work, small, and stout. Lizzie, the next oldest, was taller, blonde, and a skilled painter. Then came Addie, brown-haired and mathematically adept. Effie, the musician of the clan and the tallest, “was often told she had an apple blossom complexion, with dark brown hair and mild blue eyes,” she wrote of herself. The youngest was the ill-fated Jessie, the delicate and babied beauty of the family “in both face and soul,” as Effie noted. By the early 1890s, Ella was managing the farm and its six cows on her own, while Addie worked in a friend’s boarding house in Marion, Jessie attended school, and Effie and Lizzie had moved into town to operate a dairy store.
The sisters’ careers as performers began suddenly one morning in January 1893 when, as Effie later told it, she stopped at Addie’s boarding house during her milk deliveries. “Addie, I have made up my mind to give a concert at the opera house,” she said. “What do you think of it?” Addie was skeptical, but her sister convinced her that the public would welcome a joint performance by all of the Cherry Sisters. Addie raised one objection: “Effie, there are some people in this town who would try and make it disagreeable for us.” The old feeling of social awkwardness still hung over her. Effie had a ready reply, one she would repeat over the next 45 years. “That doesn’t bother me in the least, Addie,” she said. “I’m not afraid of them.”
Perhaps the sisters were bored, craved attention, or felt stuck in a town that was ignorant of what they considered their true talents. The women were unquestionably hard up for cash. Quickly the Cherrys prepared a show at Daniels Opera House in Marion on January 20, with tickets for sale at the local drug store. “Lovely Costumes, Rare and Sweet Music, Laughter by the Yard,” Addie’s hand-painted poster promised.
When the curtain rose, Ella, who had temporarily set aside her farm duties, performed the self-written ballad “Old Sam Scratch” in blackface. Jessie played a harmonica and crooned “Oh, Why Did They Dig Ma’s Grave So Deep, Little Nellie?”, Effie sang “I Am Growing Blind,” and all three appeared in outlandish homemade costumes with their hair daubed gold using leftover sign paint. In response, the audience whistled, stamped its feet, and shouted. This was a warm crowd of acquaintances and well-wishers, not strangers, perhaps the last good-humored audience the Cherrys would ever face. “The public wanted fun,” a Marion reviewer observed, “the public got it; the young ladies wanted money and they got it.” Their take was close to $200, a substantial sum at the time.
Encouraged after two more performances in their hometown, the Cherry Sisters next eyed the nearest sizable city, Cedar Rapids, for another go. “The costumes worn on this occasion were not the finest, and not as fine as we would have liked, but they were simple, modest and becoming,” Effie remembered. The city folk in Cedar Rapids, however, decided that these country sisters were buffoons. The crowd threw cigars, food, and anything else they could get their hands on as the sisters sang and bowed from the stage. “Miss Effie had hardly raised her voice when the uproar began and the noise and confusion soon drove her behind the curtain after repeated efforts on her part to quiet the house,” a reporter observed. “Pieces of tenderloin, liver and other articles without the flavor of rose geranium rained upon the stage.”
After rioters began breaking up furniture, the management darkened the lights and told everyone to leave. As the press portrayed the event, the Cherrys misinterpreted this tumult as an eruption of enthusiasm for their talents. But of course the crowd had a different intent, and the Sisters could not have failed to realize it. “Such unlimited gall as was exhibited last night at Greene’s opera house by the Cherry Sisters is past understanding…. 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 convey the idea,” noted the editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Undoubtedly, though, playing monkeys filled the theater.
Effie went through the motions of disputing journalistic accounts of the concert, noting that “very little disturbance prevailed, with the exception that a few remarks were made by some Marion men who sat near the footlights.” But she and her sisters saw an opportunity in the situation for more publicity. They agreed to take part in a public “sham trial” the next night, in which a packed house at Greene’s saw Gazette editor Fred Faulks convicted (by a kangaroo court) of writing maliciously of the Cherrys and sentenced to hard labor on the Sisters’ farm, plus an additional penalty of having to propose marriage to one of the women.
This kind of advertising can’t be bought, despite Effie’s later protests. “No doubt, dear reader, you will ask why we continued in the entertainment field when we had such heavy odds to contend with,” she mused in her memoir. The reason, she said, was simple: “We were alone in the world and had our own way to make. Father had left no money at his death, and it was hard work sometimes to make ends meet, and when we saw the crowds we could draw, and we knew we gave a very pretty and refined entertainment, why should we let them down us.”
After a few months of rest, the Cherry Sisters moved on to performances in other Iowa cities. In Davenport, a newspaper critic lamented their “unutterably rank show.” In Dubuque the crowd followed a pattern of hooliganism that would dog the sisters for years. The theater’s advance publicity had suggested that boorish behavior in the audience was allowed. Although management banned the crowd from bringing rocks greater than two inches in diameter, ticket buyers still carried in turnips, cabbages, and an old tin wash boiler, all of which ended up thrown onto the stage. Despite the presence of seven police officers, someone sprayed a fire extinguisher at the performers. A barrage of rocks and eggs assaulted the Cherrys as they left the theater. “Owing to the outrage perpetrated on us at Dubuque, Effie’s health gave way,” Effie wrote in the third person, “confining her to her couch for weeks with nervous prostration.”
Thus emerged the Cherry Sisters’ routine of giving a performance, seeing good ticket sales, enduring audience misbehavior, expressing outrage, and returning right back to the stage. Effie’s prostration, after Dubuque, was temporary. For the next three years the Cherry Sisters toured the Midwest. No reasonable person could see the audience response as adulation. The Cherrys were taunting the public, and performing badly was essential to their formula.
Even for talented women artists, vaudeville often delivered hostile audiences. Madame Yvette Guilbert, a Frenchwoman who wore regal gowns and sang from a repertoire of art songs, received hoots and laughter when she performed in New York City. She declared that unlike sophisticated French audiences, American vaudeville crowds included people “not yet up to the mark.” That assessment was charitable; ticket-buyers not interested in refinement and high culture filled the vaudeville galleries. Audiences also disliked women performers who flouted traditional female roles. A few performers like Cora Youngblood Corson, a Native American tuba player and band leader, and Eva Tanguay, a comedienne who danced clumsily and lampooned ballet, found success in vaudeville despite challenging conventions.
As did the Cherry Sisters.
* * *
Meanwhile, in America’s entertainment capital, a noted theater impresario was in trouble. Oscar Hammerstein had risked the construction of his grand Olympia Theatre — a splendid building in New York City with three stages, a roof garden, a two-story rathskeller and Turkish bath. It sat at Broadway and 44th Street, in the heart of today’s Theater District, but then blocks north of the concentration of theaters at Herald Square, isolated among horse stables and frequented by thin crowds. The theater was failing, but the Cherry Sisters formula impressed him. Hammerstein read of the big audiences that swarmed Cherry Sisters shows in the Midwest and sent his stage manager, Al Aarons, on a desperate trip to Marion to sign them to a contract. If decent talent couldn’t bring bodies into the theater, Hammerstein reasoned, maybe bad talent could.
The Cherrys’ brand of bad talent hit Manhattan in November 1896. “It was a little after 10 o’clock when three lank figures and one short and thick walked awkwardly to the centre of the stage,” a New York Times critic observed. “They were all dressed in shapeless red gowns, made by themselves almost surely, and the fat sister carried a bass drum. They stood quietly for a moment, apparently seeing nothing and wondering what the jeering laughter they heard could mean.”
The Cherrys suddenly launched into their theme song, sung to the tune of “Tar-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay.” Jesse followed with a solo rendition of the song “Corn Juice” (“a sentimental song that convulsed the audience,” a critic wrote), Addie and Lizzie crooned an Irish ballad, and Addie read “The Mystery of the 19th Century,” an essay she wrote. There was also a sung quartet, “a sad piece, but not as the Cherry Sisters did it. The audience roared.” The act climaxed with one of the Sisters’ signature entertainments: a short play called “The Gypsy’s Warning,” in which Effie played a soothsayer who warns an innocent maiden (Lizzie) of the evil intentions of a crude and mustachioed suitor (Addie).
“The Gypsy’s Warning” soon attained the status of theater legend. The skit’s opening line, “Lady, in that green grave yonder lies the gypsy’s only child,” became a popular punch line. “Effie…wrote it all herself,” a reporter observed, “and nobody ever tried to steal the credit from her.”
Calling them “four freaks from Iowa” and “four wretched women,” the Times concluded that the Cherrys “presented a spectacle more pitiable than amusing…. [I]t is sincerely to be hoped that nothing like them will ever be seen again. They are all too obviously products of the barnyard and the kitchen.” But the Sisters were seen again that autumn in New York, repeatedly. Within twelve days of the Cherrys’ opening, they had miraculously made Hammerstein’s debts vanish. They continued playing for six full weeks, during which Hammerstein’s sons Arthur and Will tossed “truck garden bouquets” onto the stage and encouraged crowds to pay tribute to the Cherrys in similar fashion.
Fresh produce reportedly grew scarce in New York City because of the demands of the Olympia audiences, who threw all manner of fruits and vegetables. The New York Herald later reported that the Cherrys attributed these nightly showers of vegetation to “the perverse machinations of managers with whom they refused to drink wine.” Not likely — as a writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette observed decades later after all of the Sisters had died, “they were old hands at the game of putting on a big bluff and burlesque for their own purposes.” Even the veteran actor Marie Dressler admitted that she eventually saw through the Cherrys’ act of incompetence and innocence.
After New York, the Cherry Sisters began what the New York Times called “a triumphal tour of the United States and Canada” that lasted for several years. That period of great financial success ended when the women hit a fork in the road.
By the turn of the century, the tastes of theatergoers were changing, and the increasing sophistication of vaudeville shows left fewer stage bills announcing the Cherry Sisters as headliners. The sisters were now offering their act far from the blinking lights of Manhattan. While they appeared at a theater in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1903, Jessie at the age of 33 succumbed to malaria and typhoid. “All the joy of our life was gone with the death of our little sister, for she was one of God’s most perfect flowers,” Effie lamented. Reduced in number, the Cherry Sisters stopped performing and returned home for two years.
During the next eleven years, the sisters left home to give just seven performances. Only two Cherrys, Addie and Effie, remained interested in the stage. They had made up to $600 per week in their heyday — the equivalent of more than $17,000 today — and with some savings in hand, they opened a bakery in Cedar Rapids with a specialty of making cherry pies. One customer described them as “extremely taciturn, reluctant to discuss their great success on Broadway, but not unfriendly.” They lived in a Cedar Rapids house decorated with a framed reproduction of the family coat of arms, souvenirs from their theatrical careers, and a large portrait of Jessie.
In 1924, Effie found her relative anonymity intolerable and decided to run for mayor of Cedar Rapids. Campaigning in an old-fashioned silk dress, an outmoded hat, and long black gloves, she laid out her platform, which included such unpopular initiatives as a 9 p.m. winter curfew for adults, closing public parks to eliminate them as trysting spots for the young, requiring swimmers to use more modest bathing suits, and the outlawing of profanity on the street. It was the old formula of annoying the public in exchange for their attention, although little actual support resulted. She received 8 percent of the votes cast. Two years later, she repeated her campaign and snagged less than 5 percent of the primary vote.
This election attention assisted a new round of theatrical comebacks. “As terribleness, their act is perfection,” Variety observed in 1924. Maybe it was respect for their advancing age that made audiences stop throwing vegetables at them. “Instead of a shower of debris they received nothing but jovial hisses from the audience,” wrote a critic of a Cherry performance in Chicago. Following one appearance in Cedar Rapids, the city’s paper even called them “distinguished local artists.” Starting in 1934, they enjoyed a brief period of rekindled popularity during a tour of such cities as New York (“No mockery, please,” the emcee said. “They are just two little girls trying to get along.” Some people in the audience wept.), Chicago, St. Louis, and Minneapolis. They had hardly changed their act at all, and their costumes now qualified as antiques.
Addie and Effie neatly shuttered their theatrical careers with an appearance at the Shrine Auditorium in Des Moines, before an audience of 2,500. Ella died in 1934 and Lizzie in 1936; both had long been irrelevant to the act. After living in the basement of their ruined family house in Marion, these bypassed sisters had been relocated to the county poor farm.
Now only Effie and Addie remained alive. Effie spent her time writing a play and short novels that bore such titles as The Blacksmith’s Daughter and Nobody’s Child. They all were fairy tales in which poor and beautiful young women — often described as barefoot and pure of soul — survived abandonment and the petty envy of others before finding a real home and true love. Then a series of financial setbacks hit the last two Cherrys, including the failure of their bakery and the departure of all the renters from their boarding house.
Addie’s death in 1942 following a cerebral hemorrhage left Effie alone, heartbroken, and ill. She entered a nursing home. Heart failure brought down the curtain on Effie’s life in 1944. To the end, she repulsed inquiries about her actual age, answering, “I ain’t a-sayin’.”
Her age, along with so much else about her motivations and personal feelings, was nobody’s business, Effie was saying. She persisted in seeing herself as an outsider certain that others’ understanding of her didn’t matter. Throw trash — she would persist. But the wall that she and her sisters had built against the outside world was cracking after such good service during childhood and early adulthood. As she confessed in her memoir — one of the few personal confessions she made in a singularly unrevealing work — she really did care what reporters wrote about her. It hurt when their perceptions of her family did not square with her perceptions. It caused her pain when journalists rudely dismissed her in print.
Perhaps the clearest glimpse of the hopes and motivations of the Cherry Sisters comes in the fiction that Effie wrote late in life. Each of her heroines, the daughters of impoverished and humble families like her own, finds romance, public recognition of her virtues, security, and happiness in the end. In Effie’s stories, the plots advance and fulfillment arrives for these characters through miraculous coincidences and the benevolent intervention of God. Long-lost parents unexpectedly appear at the women’s front doors and ardent suitors climb through windows without explanation. This glittery drop of the curtain, it seems, is what the Cherry Sisters fantasized for themselves.
* * *
Jack El-Hai is the author of The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WW2 and The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness. He lives in Minneapolis.