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Time Machine: The Cherry sisters

Marion group became famous for having no talent

The Cherry Sisters
The Cherry Sisters
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MARION — ‘Marion society was all agog before the concert given by the Cherry Concert Company at the opera house” on Friday, Jan. 20, 1893, according to the Marion Sentinel. “It will be many a day before those who attended will forget the enjoyable time spent.”

The Gazette reported, “The good people of this handsome, overgrown village on Indian Creek absolutely crowded and jammed, pushed and hauled, and literally walked over one another in their wild efforts to procure seats” at the second-floor Daniels opera house.

Those were, perhaps, the kindest words written about the Cherry Sisters.

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.

That engagement led to one at Greene’s Opera House in Cedar Rapids on Feb. 17. Greene’s, in the 100 block of First Avenue East, once claimed to be the finest opera house between Chicago and Denver. The program was expanded, and sisters Ella and Lizzie were added. The Cedar Rapids orchestra accompanied “The Five Cherry Sisters Opera Co.”

The Gazette review for that performance was less charitable.

“Such unlimited gall as was exhibited last night at Greene’s opera house by the Cherry sisters is past the understanding of ordinary mortals. They no doubt are respectable girls and probably educated in some few things, but their knowledge of the stage is worse than none at all, and they surely could not realize last night that they were making such fools of themselves. If some indefinable instinct of modesty could not have warned them that they were acting the part of monkeys, it does seem like the overshoes thrown at them would have conveyed the idea in a more substantial manner.  ... But nothing could drive them away and no combination of yells, whistles, barks and howls could subdue them. Let it not be understood that the audience was a gang of hoodlums and that they wanted back their money. Quite the contrary. The parquet and dress circle was filled and the balcony as well by the best people of the city, who went, anticipating just such a funny attempt on the part of the stage struck country girls, and no one in the house, but would have paid again for their ticket if asked to do so. ... They couldn’t sing, speak or act. They simply were awful. When one of them would appear on the stage, the commercial travelers around the orchestra rail would start to sing, the orchestra would play and the entire audience constituted the chorus. ... Cigars, cigarettes, rubbers, everything was thrown at them, yet they stood there, awkwardly bowing their acknowledgments and singing on.”

Tales of the performance led to scheduling a second one at Greene’s to accommodate the people who missed the first one, this time with a screen to cover the front of the stage to catch all of the shoes and other missiles thrown at the sisters.

Before that happened, however, the sisters arrived at The Gazette’s offices, asking to see the person who wrote the review.

“In their opinion he was worse than a horse thief and they declared their intention of having him arrested,” The Gazette reported.

They then filed a libel suit against The Gazette’s city editor Fred P. Davis. Davis was arrested and a trial date was set. The Gazette proposed that the trial be held in the opera house, saying “It would make the richest entertainment of the season.”

The Cherry Sisters Opera Co. played again at Greene’s on March 14. Part of the program that night was Davis’ mock trial at which he was found guilty and sentenced to tend the sisters’ farm.

They earned more than $80 from a full house before setting out for an exhibition in Chicago.

The sisters filed and lost several libel suits, but a landmark Iowa Supreme Court decision regarding libel law was based on their suit against the Des Moines Leader. The ruling favored critics’ “right of fair comment” on public entertainment.

The sisters’ performed one more time at Greene’s on Sept. 11. While Ella and Lizzie stayed home to take care of the farm, Effie, Addie and Jessie began a national tour that culminated at Oscar Hammerstein’s New Olympia Theater in New York City for a monthlong run.

While they made good money, they had little financial acumen and never seemed to prosper.

Jessie died in 1903. Lizzie and Ella lived on a small farm near Kenwood Park in 1915, while Addie and Effie lived on 10 acres near Ellis Park. Addie and Effie made tours every winter, performing comedy, impersonations and monologues, but engagements waned.

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In 1933, Effie and Addie tried to stage a comeback. A performance in Des Moines, billed as “The Original Cherry Sisters, the Worst Act in the World,” drew comments from those who attended that their efforts drew pathos instead of laughter. Their last reprise was at the Cedar Rapids Strand Theater in 1938.

Between 1933 and 1944, the remaining four sisters died. Ella and Lizzie are buried in Oak Shade Cemetery in Marion. Effie and Addie are buried at Linwood in Cedar Rapids.

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