The Cherry Sisters are widely regarded as having been the worst performers in the history of American vaudeville.
The Cherry sisters consisted of Ella, Lizzie, Addie, Effie, and Jessie, each born sometime between 1854 and 1871 in a farmhouse near Marion, Iowa. They began in a tough manner, as they became orphans in 1888 when their father died, and were left to care for a dairy farm by themselves. Hence, in January 1893 Effie came up with the idea of going on stage and holding concerts for cash. The group was bad from the beginning, at least in the view of the Cedar Rapids Gazette: "Such unlimited gall as was exhibited last night at Greene's opera house by the Cherry sisters is past understanding....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. ...Cigars, cigarettes, rubbers, everything was thrown at them, yet they stood there, awkwardly bowing their acknowledgements and singing on." Oddly enough, while the sisters were totally impervious to the crowds, they became quite offended by the paper, and took them to court with accusations of libel. However, they were eventually persuaded to drop the intial charge, and do a mock trial on the stage instead. In the words of the Gazette, the trial was "the worst experience Cedar Rapids has ever been treated to."
The Gazette articles had brought the Sisters fame throughout Iowa, but it was subsequent performances in Dubuque that led to their "big break". The reputation they acquired from Cedar Rapids had apparently followed them, as during the first song of the performance, the audience had already come equipped with tin horns, cowbells, and rattles, drowning them out. After withdrawing from the stage, they returned to be greeted with "a perfect fusilade of garden trash, decayed fruit, tin cans, and other noxious missiles." A fan even went after them with a fire extinguisher. Despite this, the sisters would not be denied. They left and came out a third time, one of them wielding a shotgun. Still, the barrage of turnips, cabbages, and eggs proved to be too much. The throwing of a washboiler onto the stage finally brought an end to the performance. However, it was the sisters that came out ahead in the long run. The National Police Gazette from New York published tales of their antics, and now the Cherry Sisters had hit the big-time, as next year they were going to be performing in New York's Olympia Theatre. But, before this, the sisters had some business to take care of back in Dubuque. In addition to filing a lawsuit against him, they subdued the editor of the Dubuque Herald, who had published negative reviews of them, and proceeded to beat him with horsewhips.
The group was just as "successful" in New York as they had been in Iowa. After their opening night, each Cherry Sisters performance involved them immediately becoming the target of a massive vegetable barrage, so much so that the price of vegetables skyrocketed in the Olympia Theatre area. The New York Times wrote: "Never before did New Yorkers see anything like the Cherry sisters from Iowa...it is to be sincerely hoped that nothing like them will ever be seen again." Despite their lack of artistic merit, the sisters sold out all of their New York shows, and used this success to tour across the country, making a ton of cash in the process.
Why the Cherrys were significant
As they were touring the country, the Cherrys were involved in constant legal battles with local newspaper editors. They never did seem to figure out that their show was a joke(or maybe they did, and were just trying to act angry to get publicity, like Mike Tyson). Anyway, most of these cases were eventually dropped. However, this article from the Des Moines Leader lead to more prolonged legal action:
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 anon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom. They prance around the stage with a motion that suggested a cross between the danse du ventre and a fox trot, strange creatures with painted faces and a hideous mein. Effie is spavined, Addie is knock-kneed and string-halt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs without calves, as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broomhandle.
A suit for $15,000 was filed against the Leader by Addie Cherry, claiming the publication had been "maliciously intending to injure your petitioner in her said good name, fame and credit...and exposing her to public contempt and ridicule." As it turned out, Mrs. Cherry would lose her case at both the local, state, and Supreme Court levels. The decision was significant, as it provided for a broad interpretation of the rights of publishers to comment and criticize on a public performance. The 1901 Supreme court ruling stated: "If ever there was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm, -aye, even gross exaggeration, - it is the one now before us. According to the record, the performance given by the plaintiff and the company of which she was amember was not only childish, but ridiculous in the extreme. A dramatic critic should be allowed considerable license in such a case."
The end of greatness
The Cherry sisters continued their show until 1903, when Jessie died of malaria. They attemped a few comebacks, each unsuccessful. The death of Effie in 1944 prompted what was their final and most positive newspaper review from the New York Times:
Maybe the laugh was on their side. Maybe the Cherry sisters knew better than the public did what was really going on. Be this as it may, they left behind an imperishable memory. And they gave more pleasure to their audiences than did many a performer who was merely almost good.
Source:To Go Free:A Treasure of Iowa's Legal Heritage, a book I won for being in a competiton against nobody else, winning by default.