Posts tagged ‘Donald Trump’

January 6, 2017

#123) Learning from idiots 6: The Cherry Sisters

cherry-sisters-adIf Donald Trump had won the 1896 Presidential Election, he would have found suitable performers for his inauguration in the Cherry Sisters. At first glance, the four sisters from Marion, Iowa and their infamous vaudeville act might seem an ancestor to the “so bad, it’s good” oeuvre of Ed Wood or the car-crash-you-can’t-take-your-eyes-off appeal of the Kardashians. However, close examination shows that the story of the Cherry Sisters just might share some unlikely parallels to that of our president elect.

In 1893, Addie, Effie, Ella (the oldest, who only appeared during the early years), Jessie and Lizzie Cherry decided to put together a performance act to raise money to attend the Chicago World’s Fair. The sisters had recently been orphaned and their brother Nathan had disappeared under unknown circumstances. Although their friends in Marion were supportive, on the road, the reception wasn’t quite so warm. As one reviewer wrote, “Their long skinny arms equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and soon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. Their mouths opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom.” The dumpster fire drew the attention of struggling New York producer Willie Hammerstein, father of famed librettist Oscar II. Hammerstein’s rationale in bringing the sisters to Broadway might be compared to that of recent voters: “I’ve been putting on the best talent, and it hasn’t gone over…I’m going to try the worst.” His investment paid off as Cherry Sisters sold out his Olympia Theater, saving it from bankruptcy.

The Cherry Sisters often played the delusional victim (“Although we have the best act in vaudeville and are the best drawing card on the stage, we have no swelled head, as some others have…We have had more knocking since we went into the theatrical business than any act in the history of the world”) and described their modus operandi in a, shall we say, somewhat circuitous manner (“I have recitations and readings; recite and read in costume. Sometimes I have worn men’s clothes. I never dance. I recite essays and events that have happened, I have written up of my own.”) On the other hand, they may have been shrewder than they let on. Author Jack El-Hai argues, “Though undoubtedly lacking in artistry, they exploited badness to stay in the public eye. It was their brand.”

Another parallel-if not directly between the sisters and Trump, between their time and ours-can be seen in the the girls’ relationship with the press. It was darkly symbiotic: terrible performance = scathing reviews = newspapers sold to bloodthirsty readers = publicity for the act = new audiences for more terrible performances. As this NPR article notes, “The journalistic jabbing, which rivaled some of today’s most caustic comments sections, became part of the strange, interactive audience participation that surrounded the sisters.” An early review rings eerily familiar today: “Such unlimited gall as was exhibited last night…is past the understanding of ordinary mortals.” The critic went on to point out, “At one minute the scene was like the incurable ward in an insane asylum, the next it was like a camp meeting.”

A non-symbiotic episode between the sisters and the media was their 1901 libel lawsuit, Cherry vs. Des Moines Leader. The Iowa Supreme Court found in favor of the defendant: “One who goes upon the stage to exhibit himself to the public…may be freely criticised. He may be held up to ridicule, and entire freedom of expression is guarantied dramatic critics, provided they are not actuated by malice….Unless this be true, liberty of speech and of the press guarantied by the constitution is nothing more than a name. If there ever was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm–aye, even gross exaggeration–it is the one now before us.” (Though, as the Strange Company blog notes, “The popular suspicion that both sides in the dispute were staging a mutually advantageous publicity stunt was probably not unfounded.”)

Whether they were too dumb to know better, gluttons for punishment or secretly enjoyed the debacle, the Cherry Sisters persevered in the face of unrelenting adversity from critics and audiences until the youngest, Jessie, died from typhoid at age 31 in 1903. The older sisters then retired the act and returned to Iowa. In one last parallel, Effie ran for mayor of Marion in 1924 on a platform of “early curfews, efficient garbage collection, and the prohibition of profanity.” Here, her story takes a decidedly different turn from Trump’s; she received 805 out of 10,000 votes.

Effie was the last surviving sister when she died in 1944. Her New York Times obituary noted, “Maybe the laugh was on their side. Maybe the Cherry Sisters knew better than the public 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.” It may be a stretch to speculate that Trump will be remembered in a similar manner, but while we’re waiting to find out, we just might be able to look to the Cherry Sisters for some context on the unusual election cycle we just witnessed.

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May 30, 2016

#112) How not to complain #5: Condescension and condiments (an open letter to Sara Benincasa)

Note: the original article this post references was updated in October, 2016 to be more Trump specific. The previous version of the article focused more on the Republican party in general than Trump.

Dear Ms. Benincasa,

First, the good stuff: your recent article wouldn’t have struck a nerve with me if you hadn’t done something right. Like the other previous four subjects of my How Not To Complain series, you show potential in this timeless art form. Sometimes the boat needs to be rocked; sometimes we need to be douchebags, especially in the current political climate. When all of the douchecockery has been meted out however, has the opinion of your mark changed? For your incisive and witty deconstruction of voters who are motivated by “ego and need to talk about stuff at your organic locally grown dinner parties for the next four years”, come November, my vote will still be cast for one Gary E. Johnson, unless a porn star comes out of the woodwork an announces her candidacy.

Why did you fail to convince me? The C-word. Not that C-word; it’s condescension. Sometimes condescension is not only necessary; it can be highly entertaining. I’ve watched the video of Baylor basketball player Taurean Prince’s explanation of how his team got out-rebounded by Yale almost as much as Miss Teen South Carolina and “Asians in the Library” combined. Condescension resembles another C-word: condiments. Condiments can make a burger, hot dog or Amish-made soft pretzel taste great – but 1) they can’t mask lack of quality in the burger/dog/pretzel itself and 2) when they are used in excess, the main course itself is lost.

You start off with a promising main course: a new slant on a line we’ve heard before. “Don’t throw your vote away because [of] your ego and ‘personal brand'”, you say. “I get it if it makes you feel really good personally and like a great liberal with super awesome true blue standards to vote for Bernie and support Bernie. But when Hillary gets the nomination, and she will, it is imperative to vote for the Democrat because the DNC platform is vastly superior to the GOP values.”

Indeed, the villain of your piece isn’t so much Trump, whose name is mentioned only a few times in passing (and has shown himself to be just as much of an enemy of the Republican establishment as of the Dems), as it is the GOP itself. I’ll grant you that Republicans have not exactly distinguished itself over the last dec..quar..half centu…well, it’s been a while. I don’t, however, believe that the difference between the two parties is so big that “people… would suffer terribly under a GOP presidency and the Supreme Court for the next 10 to 40 years.”

The protein of your main course, your argument against Republican policy, consists of two examples: “No Child Left Behind” and abstinence-only education. We’re on the same page here: those were both turds. Rip Torn has a good phrase to describe abstinence only education; it also applies to NCLB. However, laughable as it is, has abstinence-only education truly “made people suffer?” Are Race to the Top and Common Core a drastic improvement over NCLB? Was American education the envy of the world during the Bill Clinton presidency?

Once those two examples are given, the rest of the dish is filled out by lines that are quotable and likely to get those who already agree with your arguments to nod vigorously but not likely to convert anyone to your point of view. “You’d consign us to 4 years of Trump and two or three decades of a disgusting, vile Supreme Court because you have a sad feelz in your tum-tum?” you ask. Fair enough, but your claim that my not voting for Clinton would be “an insult to me and women and queer folks and all the people who benefit and even have a chance to thrive under Democratic policies” just isn’t enough of a deterrent to stop me from pulling the lever for Johnson/Weld. The sad feelz I have in my tum-tum is hunger. The condiments, while tasty and original, weren’t enough to carry the dish.