Cherry Sisters Alley? Count me in.

Cherry Sisters
Cherry Sisters

In these troubled times, when sharp, intransigent disagreement has become the new inhaling and exhaling, I offer you an alternative.

Let’s argue instead over naming that alley in Uptown Marion with all the art.

Hey, at least it’s not politics.

What, to this point, has been called “ImaginArt in the Alleys” soon will be given a permanent moniker by the Marion City Council. ImagineArt was born after the city landed a $350,000 ArtPlace America grant to revamp the alley between 10th Street and the 11th Street parking niche, right behind Uptown retailers along Seventh Avenue.

The alley now is home to several impressive and fascinating art installations. Two purveyors of frosty beverages, Uptown Snug and the newly opened Brick Alley Pub & Sports Bar, have patios on the alley. Check it out when you have a chance.

A fundraising campaign helped pay the freight, with naming rights pledged to the lead contributor. Turns out the big winner is Linn County, which kicked in $75,000.

So, according to a memo from City Manager Lon Pluckhahn, County Supervisor Brent Oleson, whose district includes Marion, Mayor Nick AbouAssaly and “other interested parties” recently gathered to consider possibilities. The Marion City Council will make a final decision in early May, ahead of the alley’s dedication during the Marion Arts Festival on May 20.

Conferees settled on three nominees: “Uptown Artway,” “Cherry Alley Artway” and “Marion Yard.”

Oleson says Uptown Artway is the leading pick among local boosters. He came up with Marion Yard as a tip of the cap to the town’s railroad heritage.

But his first choice was Cherry Alley.


“I wanted to name it after the Cherry Sisters. That wasn’t very well received,” Oleson told me this past week. “There’s never been recognition of the Cherry Sisters.”

That’s fitting, considering the Cherry Sisters were rarely well-received in their day. And at the risk of failing to “Reach Higher” by supporting a perfectly respectable, civically correct name for the alley, (see also, boring) I think Oleson is on to something.

Yes, according to the Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, the Cherry Sisters were “synonymous with any act devoid of talent.” And yes, audiences across the nation packed theaters not to cheer these daughters of Marion but to jeer, loudly, and throw lots of overripe produce.

But you have to admit, they made a major mark with their version of “art.” They were turn-of-the-century reality show stars who hit the scene far too soon to command a cringe-filled hour on TLC, Discovery or Bravo. Their act went viral without an internet.

And because they were so bad, they helped make First Amendment history.

The Gazette’s Diane Langton profiled the sisters in her terrific “Time Machine” column a couple of years ago. Their vaudeville act debuted on Jan. 23, 1893, at the opera house in Marion, just off the art alley and where Uptown Snug now slings pints. That’s 125 years ago next January.

Langton chronicles the sisters’ humble beginnings and that first show.

“After their father’s death, the five Cherry sisters, their brother and mother moved to Marion from Springville and settled on a 40-acre farm south of 11th Street. Their mother died shortly after the move.

“Their brother left for a job in Chicago and lost contact with his sisters. Effie, Jessie and Addie Cherry planned the concert as a fundraiser to help find him. The crowded house brought them more than $100, but it may have been the only show audiences heard all the way through.

“The program opened with Effie singing. Jessie followed with a tune on her mouth harp. A comic ballad written and sung by Addie and an attempted imitation of a Negro minstrel ‘were efforts that defy attempt at analysis or description,’ according to a Gazette reviewer.”


Reviewers from The Gazette and rags far and wide heaped derision by the barrel on the Cherry Sister’s, um, unique act. None was more famous than a diatribe penned by Billy Hamilton of the Odebolt Chronicle, reprinted in The Des Moines Leader:

“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 soon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage with a motion that suggested a cross between the danse du ventre [belly dancing] and a fox trot — strange creatures with painted faces and hideous mien. Effie is spavined, Addie is stringhalt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs without calves, as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle,” Hamilton wrote.

Ouch. And you think I’m hard on the governor.

The Cherry Sisters filed a libel suit against the Leader. But in a landmark decision in May 1901, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that freedom of expression is guaranteed to critics of a public performance, so long as there is no proof of “actual malice.”

“One who goes upon the stage to exhibit himself to the public, or who gives any kind of a performance to which the public is invited, may be freely criticized … Fitting strictures, sarcasm or ridicule, even, may be used, if based on facts, without liability, in the absence of malice or wicked purpose,” the court ruled.

“The editor of a newspaper has the right, if not the duty, of publishing, for the information of the public, fair and reasonable comments, however severe in terms, upon anything which is made by its owner a subject of public exhibition … Ridicule is often the strongest weapon in the hands of a public writer; and, if it be fairly used, the presumption of malice which would otherwise arise is rebutted …”

Iowa’s court was 60 years ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court, which applied the actual malice standard in its landmark New York Times v. Sullivan ruling regarding criticism of public officials.

So as a public writer who occasionally dabbles in a bit of stricture, sarcasm and ridicule, even, I feel I owe a debt to the celebrated and litigious Cherry Sisters. Free journalistic expression and unfettered artistic expression are right up the same alley, I say.

And as someone whose inbox often is brimming with the electronic equivalent of overripe produce, I feel a certain kinship to the Cherry Sisters. Also, “the wailings of damned souls” accurately describes my own vocal stylings.


So count me as one vote for Cherry Alley or Three Sisters Alley or something along those lines. It’s got history, humor and unsettles skittish boosters. What could be better?

Based on my track record, I know full well my endorsement will swiftly kill the idea. At the very least, I hope the final name includes “alley,” which is what makes the place unique. I don’t know what an “artway” is. Grant Wood lived on Turner Alley, not Turner Artway.

Please direct any and all rotten tomatoes to the email address below.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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