Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cherries Ripe, Boom-de-ay

Dan O'Brien's wonderful play The Cherry Sisters Revisited is playing at Actors Theatre of Louisville until April 11, and can't recommend it highly enough. Run, don't walk. Call now. Don't miss this chance to see one of the most important plays about the 19th century of the 21st century.

The Cherry Sisters - Addie, Effie, Ella, Jessie and Lizzie - were a group of spinster sisters from rural Iowa who formed one of the most notorious vaudeville touring acts of the late 1800s. Their traveling variety show featured musical numbers, dance routines, acrobatics, skits, morality plays and reading of essays - all authored and performed by the sisters, who had no training, formal or informal, at any of it.

Some of their songs were simply traditional standards with new lyrics substituted, such as their theme song being a rewrite of "Ta ra ra boom de ay":

"Cherries ripe, Boom-de-ay!

Cherries red, Boom-de-ay!

The Cherry sisters

Have come to stay!"

The soulless and hopelessly negative news media of today often randomly chooses things to go on crusades against for seemingly no good reason, but nothing can compare for the enmity it held for the Cherry Sisters. In 1930, Time Magazine noted: "In every town that the Cherry Sisters played, it was an invariable custom for the editor of the local paper to review their act with a column and a half of humor, satire, parody and biting sarcasm."

Cherry-bashing soon became a columnist's pasttime, and it soon reached the point where, even had the ladies put on a show that met their standards of taste, they almost certainly would still have lambasted them in print. Negativity sells papers.

Because of this unfair hounding, the Cherry Sisters soon developed a reputation for having an adversarial attitude to the media and to criticism. According to Wikipedia:

In January 1893, Fred P. Davis, the city editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, reviewed their performance at Greene's Opera House, noting, "...their knowledge of the stage is worse than none at all." The sisters demanded a retraction, and the Gazette complied, allowing them to write it themselves. The Cherry Sisters did not consider the retraction to be sufficient and accused Davis of libel. The complaint resulted in a light-hearted mock trial onstage at a Cherry Sisters performance in March 1893.

In 1898, the Odebolt Chronicle printed an extremely negative review of the Cherry Sisters' act, entitled "The Cherries Were Here". Critic and newspaper editor Billy Hamilton's piece described the sisters as being "three creatures surpassing the witches in Macbeth in general hideousness" and continued, "the mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom." The article was later reprinted in other newspapers around the state, including the Des Moines Leader.

In response, the Cherry Sisters sued the Chronicle and the Leader for US $15,000, claiming that the unflattering descriptions of their physical appearance presented in the article constituted acts of "false and malicious" libel. The Odebolt Chronicle kept an ongoing log of the progress of the proceedings, which included a courtroom performance by the sisters, noting on April 27, 1899, "we had lots of fun out of the case".

The Polk County Court decided in the newspapers' favor in 1899, and the sisters appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. The Court upheld the verdict, stating in their May 28, 1901 decision, "the editor of a newspaper has the right, if not the duty, of publishing, for the information of the public, fair and reasonable comments, however severe in terms, upon anything which is made by its owner a subject of public exhibition, as upon any other matter of public interest; of privileged communications, for which no action will lie without proof of actual malice...Surely, if one makes himself ridiculous in his public performances, he may be ridiculed by those whose duty or right it is to inform the public regarding the character of the performance."

To this very day, the Cherry v. Des Moines Leader case is considered to be a landmark decision, setting a still-cited legal precedent regarding the media's right to fair comment and critical analysis. It was, as we see it, an unfortunate legal decision, one that opened the floodgates to the social disease of gossip columnists, trashy supermarket tabloids, and subhuman celebrity-dirt-dishing websites.

Even in her obituary, Jessie Cherry was not spared cruel mockery by the press. From the Daily Iowa State Press, October 6, 1903:

Jessie Cherry is Dead. Her passing recalls the occasion on which she appeared here, to vegetarian applause. Her greatest hit was appearing as the barefoot maiden in one of their songs, and many a newspaper ode has been written to her toes.

Their programs were so utterly unconventional and so entirely without artistic sentiment that they soon became a rage and the sisters were called to New York by a prominent vaudeville manager. There their fame grew and they followed up their financial success by a tour of the whole country. They had many exciting experiences and it became necessary for them to add to their stage accessories a large wire screen to stop the flood of bad vegetables which were nighly hurled toward the stage when they were singing.

One of the things I find most intriguing about O'Brien's play is its portrayal of Ella as being a sort of "idiot savant" clairvoyant, who foresees the future of her sisters, as well as her own. On a further occult note, the play makes extensive use of the concept of The Aether, and we gradually become aware that Effie's fourth-wall-breaking monologues to the audience make a certain sort of internal sense. She's stuck in a kind of purgatory, watching her life unfold again and again and again, trying to figure out what went wrong.

One by one the sisters died off, until Effie was the last woman standing. She opened a bakery in Iowa in her declining years, and reportedly sold only Cherry-flavored pastries. She passed away in 1944, her lifespan having bridged that mythically resonant space between the Civil War and World War II.

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