NPR profiles Vaudeville’s “World’s Worst Sister Act”, The Cherry Sisters

cherry sisters

Or as an 1896 New York Times article called them, “Four freaks from Iowa”.

“When the curtain went up…[t]he audience saw three creatures surpassing the witches in Macbeth in general hideousness. … Their long, skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically , and anon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage…strange creatures with painted features and hideous mien. Effie is spavined, Addie is knock-kneed and string-halt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs without calves, as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.” -from an 1898 review in the Odebolt Chronicle

You had me at “the wailing of damned souls”.

Despite, or perhaps due to, this being just the tip of the critical iceberg (this one being really more physically critical, I would say painfully cruel if it weren’t so outrageously over-the-top, than anything else), the Cherry Sisters enjoyed packed houses wherever they went. So great was their fame, that they were name dropped by Mae West in one of her movies (as an example of some manner of atrociousness), and the Iowa Supreme Court, upon ruling a libel suit instigated by the sisters against a paper reprinting the above slander, stated: “If there ever was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm…it is the one now before us… [T]he performance given by the [sisters] was not only childish, but ridiculous in the extreme. A dramatic critic should be allowed considerable license in such a case.”. Upon their retirement in 1903, it is said that after seven years of touring, the sisters walked away with the sizable turn of the century sum of $200,000. Clearly they had found a niche market, yet the question remained: were they in on it, and if not how could they not be with such reviews and receptions?

“They were simply awful … At one minute the scene was like the incurable ward in an insane asylum, the next it was like a camp meeting. Cigars, cigarettes, rubbers everything was thrown at them, yet they stood there awkwardly bowing their acknowledgments and singing on.” – Cedar Rapids Gazette, 1893

“They were just a quartet of incompetents and they were so indifferent to their reception by the public, that they were in demand for many years at a salary far higher than what would have been accorded them if they had possessed any real ability. 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.” – from Robert Grau’s book The Business Man in the Amusement World

“totally unclassified tones, indescribably in their awfulness. All expectations of a rank performance were disappointed. It was lots, lots ranker than anyone in his sane moments ever imagined.” – unidentified audience member

“A locksmith with a strong, rasping file could earn ready wages taking the kinks out of Lizzie’s voice.” -from a 1936 New York World Telegram obituary listing for sister Elizabeth

“They began as the four worst professional actresses in the world and ended without improving one iota.”

As an aside to their performances, I was interested to note that the sisters maintained a strong stance against what they saw as a sinful loosening of morals, not the least of which were womens fashion and demon alcohol. Sister Effie was so motivated by her beliefs, that she twice ran for mayor, campaigning on those very ideals. I also love the much more modern thinking of the following quote (unattributed to a specific sister): “We are too devoted to each other to consider matrimony and we could never stand the shock of being dictated to by a man.”

Follow the links to the original NPR piece and the two articles from which it sprang, one by noted Strange/Outsider music authority, and WFMU DJ, Irwin Chusid, whose book, Songs In The Key of Z, The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, features a piece on the Cherry Sisters, alongside such icons of unique musical vision as The Shaggs, Jandek, Harry Partch, etc.


7 responses to “NPR profiles Vaudeville’s “World’s Worst Sister Act”, The Cherry Sisters

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