Posts tagged ‘performance’

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.

May 19, 2015

#93) Escape artists

Note: this is a simulblog, appearing both on “D-Theory” and “Positive Music Place.”

When one of my friends posted her concerns that the internet would spoil the finale of “Mad Men” before she had a chance to watch it, I reassured her in my typically smart-ass manner: “Already saw it. Vader is Luke’s father.”

My knowledge of “Mad Men” consists of having watched about 10 minutes of it and listening to people praise it. The show has helped me see that just because something is popular, that doesn’t make it bad. I get the show’s appeal: timeless themes of pride undone by a tragic flaw set against a glamorous ’60s backdrop is a winning combination. I’ve realized that the problem is not Don Draper; it’s another “D”. My tastes in TV are escapist (see #44 and #84 for more info). Thus, if I don’t want to be judged for favoring lighter entertainment when it comes to the tube, I shouldn’t judge those who prefer Adele to Mahler.

A few days ago I was listening to a popular country song that was the requested first dance at a wedding where I was performing with the 40-Oz. Band. Overhearing it, my wife gave me a look that needed no explanation. All I could do was tell her, “Not everyone wants to be challenged on their wedding day.” Similarly, not everyone wants to be challenged after a long day at the office.

Like all creative professionals, us musicians put so much work and heart into what we do that when someone doesn’t notice, it’s a hard pill to swallow. We shake our heads when people download Nicki Minaj tracks by the millions  while our heart-felt oeuvre, honed by the light of a midnight lamp, is met with indifference at Open Mic night.

Yet we ignore, too: whether it’s by eating fast food instead of going to the farmer’s market; by reading “Twilight” instead of Shakespeare or by watching “The League” and “Shipping Wars” instead of “Mad Man.” That doesn’t make us bad people; everyone needs convenience and escapes now and then. Most dieticians agree that you can’t expect yourself to eat perfectly 24/7. Play for the people who want the challenge, don’t let the ones who don’t bring you down and step outside your own comfort zone now and then. You may pleasantly surprise a writer, chef, candle maker or photographer who assumed you were just looking for an escape.