Three of the Cherry Sisters: Addie, Jessie and Effie – Courtesy of the Des Moines Register
The Cherry Sisters: Three of the siblings strike a theatrical pose.
In the early 20th century, the Cherry Sisters — a family of performers from Marion, Iowa — were like a meme.
Simply invoking the name — the Cherry Sisters — was shorthand for anything awful.
As Anthony Slide wrote in the Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, the onstage siblings became “synonymous with any act devoid of talent.”
Apparently, they were a cross between early American performance art and age old scapegoatism.
Their variety act included original music, bass drum thumping, poetry, mouth harp playing, inspirational recitations, essay reading, fake hypnosis and other artistic expressions.
And the audience responded to the whole shebang by hurling vegetables, shouting interjections and behaving rudely.
“People enjoyed tossing tomatoes and whatever at them,” says David Soren, acting curator of the American Vaudeville Museum Collection at the University of Arizona.
“The Cherry Sisters were generally regarded as the worst ever.”
But the Cherry Sisters also signified something else in American comedy history. In the tradition of Tiny Tim, Andy Kaufman and certain other deadpan comics, the questions always hovered around them: Were they sincere? Were they in on the joke? Did they even care what people thought?
“Several good researchers,” the 2004 book Vaudeville Old and New observes, “have pondered the reasons the Cherry Sisters were willing to put up with the abuse that attended their vaudeville careers.
Most observers ranged between two poles of opinion: those who held that the Cherry Sisters knew what they were doing and to some degree were complicit and those who maintain that the sisters were talentless naifs ignorant of how bad they were.”