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The Cherry Sisters: Marion's Priceless Paupers
by DJ Kauffman Correspondent · June 8th, 2017

In precarious times, the five 'Cherry Sisters' rose above societal prejudices by persevering in the face of extreme opposition. They were Suffrage Era women in the entertainment business, and are named among other famous female Vaudeville performers such as Helen Keller, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Marie Dressler.

The performing sisters, whose show was sometimes billed as the 9th Wonder of the World, may have unknowingly helped lay the foundation for social and gender equality in America. For they held their own against snobbish elitists, unsympathetic journalists, and heads of cabbage being thrown at them while performing their Vaudeville acts on stage.

Ellen (Ella) (d. 1934), Addie (d. 1942), Effie (d. 1944), Elizabeth (Lizzie) (d. 1936), and Jessie (d. 1903), were strong women fending for themselves on the family farm after the deaths of their parents, Thomas and Laura Rawson Cherry, and after their brother Nathan Cherry's disappearance in Chicago during the late 1880s. At the time they got the notion to perform at the local opera house.

According to The Cherry Sisters, by Steven J. Fuller, Effie took the first step toward stardom, when she rented "Daniel's Opera House in Marion for five dollars a night. The sisters made all of the arrangements for the production, even distributing handbills with crude portraits of themselves in the streets of Marion. Tickets sold for 10 cents, 20 cents, and 30 cents each. On January 21, 1893 Ella, Effie, and Jessie made their debut."

In keeping with the more famous acts on Broadway, Fuller wrote, they appeared "on stage with hair painted a bright gold-an effect created with left over sign paint-and attired just as ludicrously. Effie sang a solo, followed by Jessie who played the harmonica. Next Ella acted the part of a black face minstrel in a comic ballad. The show lasted slightly over an hour, and netted the sisters $250" (Ella's act, revealed the prevalent and acceptable racial prejudice in American society thirty years after the Civil War).

With money in hand and touting a positive newspaper review, the Cherry Sisters had all of the encouragement they needed to take their show on the road: "The entertainment given at Daniel's Opera House by the Cherry Concert Company was a polished...affair. The people of this handsome overgrown village on Indian Creek absolutely crowded and jammed, pushed and hauled, and literally walked over one another in wild efforts to procure seats..." [Cedar Rapids Gazette]

They soon decided to perform their Cherry Sisters act before the more "sophisticated" crowd at Greene's Opera House in Cedar Rapids. After doing so well earlier, the sisters were surprised by a glaring news write-up following their C.R, performance. "They couldn't sing, speak or act," the Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter wrote. "They were simply awful ... At one minute the scene was like the incurable ward in an insane asylum..."

The negative feedback did not stop the sisters, however, from continuing their performance career path, for they soon began touring throughout Iowa. According to Fuller, Oscar Hammerstein, owner of the Olympia Music Hall in New York, heard about the Cherry Sisters' unusual act, and contractually hired four of them at $100 a week, lasting four weeks.

In addition, Cherry Bomb, The Story of the Awful Cherry Sisters by Irwin Chusid states, "On November, 16, 1896, Something Good, Something Sad, opened at the Olympia. According to one unattributed press account, 'the four grim-faced [sisters] sidled out on the stage in hand-made red calico dresses and began their act. Elizabeth played piano and Jessie slammed a huge bass drum while the sisters sang: Cherries ripe, Boom-de-ay! Cherries red, Boom-de-ay! The Cherry sisters have come to stay!

"'Next, Jessie, draped in an American flag, sang an original, patriotic number entitled Fair Columbia. Lizzie followed with what must have been a jaw-dropping version of a traditional Irish ballad sung with a twang. In Effie's vocal centerpiece, The Gypsy's Warning, Jessie portrayed a barefoot flower maiden falling prey to a swashbuckling Lothario, played by Addie. Later in the evening, a "living sculpture" tableau entitled Clinging to the Cross featured Jessie suspended from a giant crucifix.'"

Their, so bad it was good act, propelled the Cherry Sister's into the lime light, where they watched their careers blossom over night. Unfortunately, what was good for their pocketbook was bad for their egos, because their style of entertainment brought out the animal instincts in many show patrons. "People enjoyed tossing tomatoes and whatever at them," writes David Soren, acting curator of the American Vaudeville Museum Collection at the University of Arizona.

A kinder review was written about them in an article published by the Anamosa Journal entitled, The Cherries have Been Around; dated Thursday, January 23, 1896. "The citizens of Prairieburg (Iowa) are not behind the times in starting novelties of amusement. They were entertained in Baker's Hall by the Cherry Sisters on one of the last evenings in December. Those who were in the audience say it was a great song and dance. One of the features of the program was the Cherry Song. It ran thus wise:

'Cherries ripe, Cherries red, The Cherry Sisters are still ahead!

Terrara boom-de-aye, Terrara boom-de-aye. Pound the drum--I've chewed my thumb.'

'Cherries red, And cherries ripe, About the Cherry Sisters they're all right

Terrara Boom-de-aye, Terrara Boom-de-aye, Thump the drum--I'll chew my gum.'

There were several more of the stanzas with the gin cocktail of inspiration in them, but these two will swell the persimmon of artistic appreciation. There was a large and explosive audience, and there were no receipts of cabbages, onions or potatoes."

Lizzie Cherry's bio on Findagrave by K, says the Cherry Sisters toured the Vaudeville circuit from 1893 to 1917, "singing songs they wrote, reciting poetry and performing an original operetta."

They stopped performing when Jessie, the youngest, died in 1903 of typhoid fever. "The sisters quit the circuit and retired to their Iowa farm. They'd amassed a fortune estimated around $200,000.... Within a few years of returning home, they were once again destitute." [Cherry Bomb; The Story of The Awful Cherry Sisters By Irwin Chusid.]

According to a Thursday, June 8, 1933 Anamosa Journal article, Cherry Sisters Get A Great Big Hand, Effie and Addie must have tried a comeback. "The Cherry Sisters of Cedar Rapids, renowned stage stars, made a personal appearance at the Niles Theater, Sunday and Monday. Large sized crowds gave the girls a great big hand at each performance. The writer was too young to remember the days when the Cherry Sisters were slaying them along Broadway, but many of the old-timers recall the act as it was originally presented.

"Many claim the voices of Effie and Addie have improved, not so much in quality, but in volume. You know, not good, but loud. The feature number of the program of course, was 'The Gypsy's Warning.' ... Addie, dressed as a Spanish or Mexican romeo, seeks the hand of a fair young ... Senorita.

"Effie, dressed as a Gypsy, appears and speaks her warning piece. In this number, Addie exerts all of her talent to show the various moods of pleading for love ... when the old gypsy steps in and gives her warning, 'Cherries Are Ripe.'"

The Odebolt Chronicle dated February 17, 1898; The Cherries Were Here says, "But having salted down $60,000 in the bank and purchased several large farms with the proceeds of their foolishness they are willing to keep it up as long as they can make it pay. Their personal characters are above reproach; they are virtuous both from necessity and choice, as any one will conclude at sight of them... They are nature's own raw material, unique and inimitable."

Hai of Longreads who traveled to Marion in 2016 wrote, "Yellowed newspaper accounts ... After their good times in vaudeville ended and they could not afford to repair the collapsing roof of their house (near Marion) during the 1930s, they occupied the basement, which resembled an earthen dugout, and then set up household in a crude shack assembled from lumber that they scavenged from the house."

There are several varying reconds of Lizzie and Ella's last days. Some local historiancs claim they died on their farm, while others have suggested they passed away at the County Home and their farm was taken by the County to pay for their stay.
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