Saturday, January 10, 2009

Something Good, Something Sad

Ever heard of the Cherry Sisters? They're widely regarded as the worst show-business act ever, and that's a mighty tall reputation to live up to. And yet, the more we learn of their taste-defying radioactive powers, the more we wish we could bring them back from the dead and put them onstage in a Catclaw production today.

Saith the Wikipedia:

The Cherry Sisters' vaudeville act was formed in the early 1890s, after the death of their parents and the disappearance of their brother Nathan. Originally all five sisters were involved, however, the eldest, Ella, retired from the stage before 1896, leaving her siblings to continue the act as a quartet.

Addie Cherry described the Cherry Sisters' work as "concerts,--literary entertainments." Entitled Something Good, Something Sad, their show featured songs, dances, skits, morality plays and essays authored and performed by the sisters. Some of their songs featured new lyrics set to traditional standards; others were completely original compositions. Musical accompaniment was provided for some numbers by Elizabeth and Jessie, who played the piano and bass drum. The material had strong patriotic and religious themes; in one scene, Jessie was suspended from a cross in an imitation of the crucifixion.

The act was received politely by the sisters' neighbors in Marion, but when it went on the road, it received overwhelmingly negative responses from the audiences to which it played. Spectators routinely laughed, heckled, catcalled and threw vegetables at the sisters throughout the entire performance. In several instances the audience violence reached dangerous proportions: in one incident in Dubuque, a fire extinguisher was sprayed directly into one of the sisters' faces, and the show was stopped by the local marshalls to prevent further harm. Eventually the sisters performed behind a wire mesh curtain to avoid being struck by projectiles from the audience, although they would later deny that this had ever been necessary.

In 1896, the Cherry Sisters were brought to Broadway by impresario Oscar Hammerstein in an attempt to attract attention to his floundering new venue, the Olympia Music Hall. His rationale, as given in an interview, was, "I've been putting on the best talent, and it hasn't gone over...I'm going to try the worst." The theory was sound: Something Good, Something Sad saved Hammerstein from bankruptcy only twelve days after opening on November 16, and ran for six weeks, drawing audiences who were curious to see the act the New York Times referred to as "Four Freaks from Iowa". The Times, in their assessment of the sisters, considered the act "more pitiable than amusing" and noted "...the effects of poverty, ignorance, and isolation are much the same all over the world, and the Cherry sisters exhibited every one of them with a pathetic frankness that left no question as to their status or their character."

Two of the Cherry Sisters are pictured above (in case you thought it was a photo of Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons).