Books

Infamous Cherry Sisters of Marion subject of new biography

English writer researches vaudeville act, 'so bad they were good'

The Cherry Sisters pose for a picture during their heyday in the early 1900s. Darryl W. Bullock, an English author fascinated with eccentrics, has chosen the Marion sisters’ vaudeville act — and their subsequent lives — for a book due out this fall. He is asking if any Iowans have family memories about the sisters or mementos from their performances. (The History Center)
The Cherry Sisters pose for a picture during their heyday in the early 1900s. Darryl W. Bullock, an English author fascinated with eccentrics, has chosen the Marion sisters’ vaudeville act — and their subsequent lives — for a book due out this fall. He is asking if any Iowans have family memories about the sisters or mementos from their performances. (The History Center)
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An English author fascinated with eccentrics has zeroed in on the infamous early 20th century vaudeville act, the Cherry Sisters of Marion, for his next work.

The five orphaned sisters who made a name for themselves performing “dreadful” variety shows from the 1890s to 1930s have an untold story that goes well beyond their stage acclaim, said Darryl W. Bullock, of Bristol, England.

They were bold risk-takers who challenged male-dominated bastions of the day, were strident in their puritan, conservative beliefs, delved into politics and inadvertently helped establish libel laws for reviewing performances, he said.

“They had no money, no training, no schooling (in the arts), and put this act together, and for a period were really, really successful,” Bullock said. “The more I discovered about them, I learned the other side of the story.”

The sisters battled male-dominated theaters and the press, which criticized the act. Women couldn’t vote, and women didn’t run their own careers, Bullock said.

“And they were doing things for themselves, proving they could live their own lives,” he said. “It’s a fascinating story.”

Bullock is putting the finishing touches on “The Unbelievable But True Story of the Cherry Sisters,” the working title for what he said will be the first full-length biography of the “most infamous vaudeville act the world has ever known.”

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Working with McFarland, an independent publisher based in Jefferson, N.C., he anticipates a September release.

Bullock also wrote a book on Florence Foster Jenkins, “the world’s worst opera singer” and subject of a 2016 film starring Meryl Streep.

Before his book on the Cherry Sisters comes out, Bullock is putting out a call for anyone with personal stories or anecdotes passed down from older friends or relatives about the sisters — Addie, Effie, Jessie, Lizzie and Ella — no matter how insignificant the stories may seem. He has hope for those anecdotes, given their many connections to the area.

“I’m keen to find any people in Cedar Rapids, or elsewhere in Iowa, who may have any personal stories to tell about them, or perhaps who may own any old theater handbills, programs or perhaps even photographs of them,” he said, offering his email address — dwbullock@sky.com — to anyone wishing to contact him.

The Cherry Sisters began performing locally in 1893 and had become something of a sensation because of how bad they were, peaking in the first decade of the 1900s with performances as far away as New York City.

Their star power waned, and the sisters died off, but Addie and Effie, in particular, continued to perform for less and less money, trying to recapture their old glory, Bullock said.

Their final show was in 1938 at the old Strand Theatre near where the NewBo City Market now stands. Effie was the last sister to die, in 1944.

Two of the sisters — Addie and Effie — spent most of their lives in Cedar Rapids and, in the 1920s and 1930s, ran a home bakery on Third Avenue SW near downtown.

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Effie also ran for mayor in the 1920s, the first female in a mayoral race in Cedar Rapids, Bullock said.

Mark Stoffer Hunter, historian for The History Center, has been helping Bullock with some of the research.

Stoffer Hunter agrees the sisters’ story is one that deserves to be told.

Because of their performance reputation, they’ve never received their due for what they accomplished, he said.

“They are among the most enigmatic characters in Cedar Rapids history,” he said. “They are truly the rags-to-riches- to-rags story.

“We know much more about their biggest accomplishment, which is their terrible stage act — they were so bad they were good — but not much is known besides that.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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