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Old 09-24-2010, 09:50 AM
135 posts, read 365,817 times
Reputation: 111


I am sure you all have heard of famous Iowans like John Wayne, Ronald Reagan , Donna Reed , Lillian Russel etc. etc. , But have you ever heard of the famous Cherry Sisters ?

Not many have, however in their day their show was such a big ,, I guess 'hit' can be properly applied, that it even inspired a significant supreme court decision on freedom of speech rights.

The Cherry sisters, Ella, Lizzie, Addie, Effie, and Jessie, were born sometime between 1854 and 1871 on a farm near Marion, Iowa. They lived a pretty rough life especially after they became orphans in 1888 when their father died and they were left to care for the dairy farm by themselves.

Sometime in early1893 Effie came up with the idea of hitting the stage and holding "musical" concerts with her sisters to make money and attempt to escape the drudgery of the farm life.

Well it would seem that in those days before American Idol and Americas Got Talent simply telling a group they werent none to good was considered insufficient.
This being the case spectators of the day expressed their dislike with other methods as was documented in the papers of the time.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette wrote: "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. ...Cigars, cigarettes, rubbers, everything was thrown at them, yet they stood there, awkwardly bowing their acknowledgements and singing on."

The sisters persisted however, and decided to hit the road with their show.
Unknown to them the very article in the Gazette which had inflamed them to the point that they first attempted to sue the paper for libel but were talked into dropping the charges , had made them famous,, or would that be infamous ?

The Gazette articles it would seem had brought the Sisters fame throughout Iowa, but it was subsequent performances in Dubuque that led to their "big break". The reputation they acquired from Cedar Rapids had apparently followed them, as during the first song of the performance, the audience had already come equipped with tin horns, cowbells, and rattles, attempting to drown them out.
At first they retreated the stage, then later returned to be greeted with "a perfect fusilade of garden trash, decayed fruit, tin cans, and other noxious missiles." One member of the crowd even went after them with a fire extinguisher.
Once again the sister retreated , then they came out a third time, one of them wielding a shotgun !
Even though they were now packing firepower the barrage of turnips, cabbages, and eggs proved to be too much for the artists. The throwing of a washboiler onto the stage was more than the sisters could take and the show was brought to a halt.
Believe it or not the sisters came out ahead in the long run. The National Police Gazette from New York published tales of their antics, and now the Cherry Sisters had hit the big-time, as next year they were going to be performing in New York's Olympia Theatre.
However the sisters had some unfinished business to attend to back in Dubuque. In addition to filing a lawsuit against him, they subdued the editor of the Dubuque Herald, who had published negative reviews of them, and proceeded to beat him with horsewhips.

While in New York the sisters found themselves just as well recieved as they had been in Iowa.
After their opening night, each Cherry Sisters performance involved them immediately under fire of a massive vegetable barrage, so much so that the price of vegetables skyrocketed in the Olympia Theatre area while they were in town.
The New York Times said of the show: "Never before did New Yorkers see anything like the Cherry sisters from Iowa...it is to be sincerely hoped that nothing like them will ever be seen again."
However the sisters got the last laugh , they sold out all of their New York appearances, then used that success to tour across the country, making a ton of money in the process.

As they traveled the nation with their show, the Cherrys were involved in constant legal battles with local newspaper editors.
They either never realised the show was a disaster or did, and were just trying to act angry to get publicity.
Anyway, most of these cases were eventually dropped. However, this article printed in the Des Moines Leader lead to a legal action that took them all the way to the supreme court:

"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 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 prance 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 a hideous mein. 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 broomhandle."

A suit of $15,000 was filed by Addie Cherry against the Leader, claiming the publication had been "maliciously intending to injure your petitioner in her said good name, fame and credit...and exposing her to public contempt and ridicule." As it turned out, Mrs. Cherry would lose her case at both the local, state, and Supreme Court levels. The decision was significant, as it provided for a broad interpretation of the rights of publishers to comment and criticize on a public performance.

The 1901 Supreme court ruling stated: "If ever there was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm, -aye, even gross exaggeration, - it is the one now before us. According to the record, the performance given by the plaintiff and the company of which she was amember was not only childish, but ridiculous in the extreme. A dramatic critic should be allowed considerable license in such a case."

The Cherry sisters kept "performing" until 1903, when Jessie died of malaria. They attemped to return to the stage on several occasions, each unsuccessful.
After the death of Effie in 1944 the New York Times printed what was to become their final and most positive newspaper review.

"Maybe the laugh was on their side. Maybe the Cherry sisters knew better than the public did what was really going on. Be this as it may, they left behind an imperishable memory. And they gave more pleasure to their audiences than did many a performer who was merely almost good."
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Old 09-24-2010, 10:50 AM
Location: Des Moines, Iowa
2,401 posts, read 3,886,421 times
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Thx for sharing! .

Just a point of clarification. Ronald Reagan was a radio broadcaster at WHO in Des Moines. He is not technically considered an "Iowan" by most measures as he was neither born here or lived here for a substantial part of his life.

Also: is there a source that needs to be cited or is this really your own commentary?
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Old 09-24-2010, 12:59 PM
135 posts, read 365,817 times
Reputation: 111
I considered using Buffalo Bill instead of Reagan , however went with Reagan because even though he was not born here he became famous here and is much better known and associated with Iowa history.

As for the majority of my posting much of it was inspired from an article in a book of "Interesting Facts of American History" I have owned for years .
Most of the direct newspaper articles came from various websites about the sisters I looked up.
I forgot to post any links in my haste to run a couple of errands , sorry bout that.

Here are some I used to compose the post above.

Articles on the Cherry Sisters from The Odebolt Chronicle, 1898-1901

Cherry Sisters - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Stars of Vaudeville #85: The Cherry Sisters « Travalanche

If interested in learning more about the Cherries and their claim to fame a simple google search will provide you with all the info your heart could desire.
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