Culture  /  Profile

The Shaming of the Cherry Sisters

How “Vaudeville’s worst act” fought for fame and respect on the stage.

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malicious articles written in the newspapers throughout the country concerning the Cherry Sisters,” she set down in an unpublished memoir, “were written by unscrupulous editors and reporters devoid of all honor, morals or even respectability….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?