“They are simply awful. They left farm life to go on the stage and are raising larger crops than when tilling the soil. Beans, peas, turnips, carrots, eggs and cabbage literally rain down upon them whenever they shamble onto the stage.”
A Chicago arts publication gave the Cherry Sisters from Marion, Iowa, a scathing review for a performance at Davenport’s Burtis Opera House in spring 1893. Addie, Jessie, Effie and Lizzie were farm girls who were trying to earn a little extra money by showcasing their musical talents, but somehow their performances brought out the worst in Iowa audiences.
The Cherry Sisters sang, played musical instruments and recited poems and essays on stage all around Iowa. In March 1893 they offered Cedar Rapids citizens a musical show at the opera house. The hall was jam packed and brought in almost $700 for the house. But the audience responded to the Cherry Sisters by throwing hats and umbrellas at the stage. They blew whistles and tin horns so anyone who hoped to listen to the women couldn’t hear a thing.
When the sisters were scheduled in May at the opera house in Davenport, Addie and Lizzie missed the passenger train running from Cedar Rapids, so they hopped a freight train. But they didn’t arrive in time for the show, so Effie and Jessie went on stage without them.
The orchestra opened the show but soon beat a hasty retreat out of range of the flying objects. Effie entered the stage dressed like “old Mother Hubbard,” and Jessie wore short skirts with bright red stockings. The two, sharing a hymn book as they sang, marched down to the footlights as gracefully as “a bovine going to pasture,” according to a newspaper reporter. As Jessie sang the “The Gypsy’s Warning,” she was pelted with vegetables and eggs “old enough to vote.”
Someone threw a cake with a piece of sheet iron baked into the middle. When the sisters’ manager came on stage and threatened to shut down the show, he was rewarded with a barrage of sticks, potatoes and pieces of boards. A couple of weeks later the sisters went to the Grand Opera House in Dubuque, where the police were brought out to preserve order. As soon as Effie began the show, the audience broke loose with vegetables, seltzer water, eggs and sausages tied with pink and blue ribbons.
But neither the police nor the auditorium manager seemed willing to step in to quiet the crowd. The sisters left the opera house by an alley where a hack and driver waited to take them to a hotel, but the audience followed and continued to heckle them. They were bombarded with potatoes, eggs and stones.
The sisters said they were growing accustomed to the crowd reactions. But they said they had never encountered anything like the Dubuque audience. “We never before ran the risk of being killed,” Lizzie said.
Finally, the press turned their wrath on the audience. A reporter from the Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper wrote that the culprits should be ashamed to have treated the Iowa girls so badly. He predicted that the evening would long be a black spot on the otherwise bright reputation of Dubuque.
The Cherry Sisters decided to take action too. They brought charges against Fred Davis, a Cedar Rapids reporter who wrote in his review of their show that they “have about as much talent as the cows which they quit milking.”
And they sued two other Iowa newspapers for their negative reviews. But the Iowa Supreme Court ended up ruling against the sisters.
Cheryl Mullenbach writes about Iowa history. Her column is published Saturdays in the Clinton Herald.