Necessity is often the “mother of invention” but, in step with human perversity, it could sometimes be the mother of absurdity as well. Outside of the political arena, nowhere is this more apparent than upon the wicked stage of entertainment. From carnival sideshow thrills to the gimmicky spills of Hollywood B movies, the ludicrous is sure to draw a crowd. Indeed, this is the freaky realm where spectacle replaces talent and where art isn’t appreciated for how good it is but for how bad it could get.
In 1896, the magnificent impresario Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of the brilliant lyricist) was in yet another state of financial dire straits. Despite putting on the best and most expensive talent, his newly-opened theatre the Olympia (later the Criterian) failed to reap in the profits that he had hoped for. The theatre was inconveniently and poorly situated at 44th Street and Broadway; at the time, a smelly patchwork of blacksmith shops and stables. The action was fast and furious along the fledgling Great White Way of song and dance, where success or failure could occur (literally) overnight. Hammerstein realized that something drastic had to be done. “I’ve been putting on the best talent and it hasn’t gone over,” he concluded. “I’m going to try the worst.” One night, the curtain at the Olympia rose on the very, very worst:
It was a little after 10 o’clock when three lank figures and one short and thick walked awkwardly to the center of the stage. 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 could mean. Then they began to sing, in thin, strained soprano…the ancient “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom de Aye.” People listened in amazement as one senseless verse followed another, accompanied at rare intervals by a graceless gesture and intermittent thumps on a big drum. (Carroll, John F. “Oscar Hammerstein I: 1895 to 1915.” Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, 1998 pp. 84-85)
They were none other than the Cherry Sisters; by all contemporary accounts, the worst act in (or out of) show business, one that could drive an audience to either hysterical laughter or to hysterical suicide. The family included mother Addie and daughters Effie, Jessie, and Elizabeth. A brother, Nathan, went to Chicago in 1885 and disappeared (perhaps wisely) and there isn’t any mention of a father (perhaps he, even more wisely, died). The women were a Bible-toting, eternally spinsterish breed that stereotypes are built upon and lend religion its negative stigma; further described as “wretchedly poor, homely, ignorant, and without a trace of taste.” After a barnstorming rise to infamy through the Midwest, hailed by a barrage of laughter and derision across the prairie, the clan (sans Ma Addie) were brought to New York by Hammerstein. He had found the worst of all possible (and impossible) acts America had ever seen and exhibited them for all they were worth.
One night Hammerstein displayed a seldom seen crueler side with a bit of theatrical exploitation. While the sisters were performing, he armed his sons Arthur and Willie with an arsenal of fruits and vegetables and positioned them at opposite ends of the music hall. Effie was half way through a song when a cabbage hit her in the head; a barrage of produce soon followed. According to one account, Oscar hurried backstage afterward and explained to the “bewildered bucolics that fruit-and-vegetable throwing was a symbol of success in New York. ‘Other stage stars,’ he said to Effie, ‘are jealous of anybody who has outstanding talent and they hire people to throw things at girls like you.'” (GHOSTS OF 42nd STREET)
Not surprisingly, all the reviews were uniformly terrible; the New York critics and audiences found the sisters as uniquely entertaining as the audiences that preceded them in the Midwest. Indeed, the sisters were a fascinating joke, from the east side to the west side, all across the town. However, the bad reviews only served to fuel public enthusiasm, just as Hammerstein had planned; the Cherry Sisters packed the Olympia to the rafters. For two months the Cherrys were a sensation, earning them nearly $1,000 a week and saving the debt-ridden Olympia Theatre. After their run at the Olympia ended, they opened at the Proctor 23rd Street to yet more sold out houses.
What continues to fascinate is not that they were awful, nor that audiences would find a perverse delight in their awfulness, but rather how utterly unconscious were the Cherry sisters in regard to their own awfulness. How could three women, if bearing the mere trace of a brain between their ears, imagine that the scorn and ridicule that they evoked was that of conspiratorial envy or artistic ignorance? How could they delude themselves into believing that the greengrocer bombardments that greeted them were expressions of acclaim? Despite being apparently less than bright and obviously not very sophisticated, there wasn’t anything outside of their talentless presentations to suggest that they were completely deranged. Attempts to find a method to their sensational madness were astoundingly unsuccessful: the Cherry sisters were almost certainly genuine…if they practiced at it they couldn’t have been anything else.
For a more in-depth look at the Cherry Sisters, read CHERRY BOMB here.
Photos: New York Public Library
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