Were the Cherry Sisters Really The Worst Musical Act Ever?

Cherry Sisters

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At this point, “good bad” is an art unto itself. In fact, entertainment that is “so bad it’s good” may require more spinning plates than art that is purely good or great. For something to achieve this status, it needs to be more than laughably bad, because movies and TV shows made with the intent of badness (Sharknado, for example) pale in comparison to ones made with the utmost sincerity (The Room, Miami Connection). But while this type of entertainment may seem relatively new (or at least as new as those beat-up old VHS tapes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 you keep around), it actually dates back to the late 1800s with a vaudeville act, the Cherry Sisters.

Performing a variety act consisting of music, poetry, inspirational speaking, essay reading, and staged hypnosis–all set to the sounds of a pounding bass drum and a mouth harp–the Cherry Sisters became, according to Anthony Slide in The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, “synonymous with any act devoid of talent.” The story goes that the sisters–Addie, Effie, Ella, Lizzie, and Jessie–had one of their first performances in 1893 in the local opera house in their hometown of Marion, Iowa. Hoping to fund a trip to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, they stumbled onto their act instead. They would tour all over throughout the 189’s and into the early 1900s, earning good pay, scathing reviews, and large crowds eager to jeer, laugh, and throw vegetables and fruit at them. Some even believe that the trope of throwing vegetables at a stage, known as produce pelting, may have come from the Cherry Sisters. You may remember this happening here:

source: youtube.com

And here:

source: youtube.com

According to the 2004 book Vaudeville Old and New, “Most observers ranged between two poles of opinion: those who held that the Cherry Sisters knew what they were doing and to some degree were complicit and those who maintain that the sisters were talentless naifs ignorant of how bad they were.” Like the best “so bad it’s good” entertainment, the jury remains out as to whether the sisters were aware of the realities of their performance and reception. They did remain steadfast, at least when talking to the press, in their assertion that they were “good” performers, with one letter written to Variety claiming: “Although we have the best act in vaudeville and are the best drawing card on the stage, we have no swelled head, as some others have…We have had more knocking since we went into the theatrical business than any act in the history of the world, and we have come to no other conclusion why this is done except we are not of the character of these unprincipled editors and managers who have done the knocking and slandering.” So even if they were in on the joke, it would seem the Cherry Sisters were savvy enough to not let their audience know.

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