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The Cherry Sisters—19th-century Iowa farm girls—yearned to visit the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. So in what would later become the tradition of many a B-musical, they chimed: “Let’s put on a show!”

Effie, Addie, Ella, and Jessie came up with the idea of staging a vaudeville act to pay their way to the fair. Their inexperience, corny material, and all-around lack of talent didn’t bother the hometown friends and neighbors who gave them enthusiastic applause when they tried out their act. But road audiences expected entertainment for their two bits. So the Cherry Sisters grew accustomed to dodging rotting vegetables and raw eggs. Addie was even known to patrol the stage with a shotgun to keep audiences from running the girls out of town.

Endless insults

 

But one night, the audience tried something new: They blew tin horns left over from the previous year’s presidential campaign in hopes of drowning out the Cherrys’ caterwauling. Well, bless their hearts, the sisters took the horns for raucous approval. So imagine their dismay to read in the following day’s Cedar Rapids Gazette: “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 convey the idea.”

Stunned by the criticism—unexpected as it was for once—the Cherrys did what any self-respecting performers would: They sued for slander. And even after they performed their act for the jury, somehow they won their case. The jury sentenced the editor to marry one of the sisters, but the Cherrys declined … much to his relief.

By 1898, the sister act had dwindled to three with Ella’s retirement. And their promoter had developed the good sense to erect a mesh-screen barrier to protect them from most of the rotting fruits that greeted their labor. But nothing could protect them from the stinging criticism of the press. After a performance in western Iowa, local editor William Hamilton described them as “surpassing the witches in Macbeth in general hideousness.”

Perhaps Hamilton’s nastiness would have gone unnoticed if the Des Moines Leader hadn’t picked up the story. The sisters were beside themselves to read in such a prominent newspaper his view that “the mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom. ”

Once again, the Cherry Sisters sought redress through the courts. They sued the Des Moines Leader for libel. Once again, they performed their act to back up their claim. But this time, the courts were less sympathetic to the pitifully untalented sisters. Their case was dismissed with the judge declaring that a newspaper should have the right to criticize public performers to the point of ridicule. The Cherrys appealed, but in 1901, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling, saying “If ever there was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm … it is the one now before us.…” The ruling became the foundation for the First Amendment standard of “fair comment and criticism,” which allows today’s comedians and critics to make public figures the butt of their routines and disdain.

Last laugh

 

In their decade-long career the Cherry Sisters toured the Midwest and as far as Canada and New York, where they headlined for the great theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein I, turning around his fledgling Olympia Music Hall and his career. “I’ve been putting on the best talent, and it hasn’t gone over,” he said. “I’m going to try the worst.” They packed the house. Hammerstein managed to convince the sisters jealous rivals had hired instigators to pummel the stage with garbage.

The Cherrys finally left the circuit and returned to their Iowa farm in 1903 after Jessie’s death from typhoid fever. And despite all the vicious reviews, rotten cabbages, and derisive laughter that followed their career, the Cherry Sisters retired in just 10 years with a fortune estimated at $200,000 … which today would be nearly $30 million. Not bad for an act the American Weekly said, “began as the four worst professional actresses in the world and ended without improving one iota.”

 

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