by hook or by crook

In the early nineteen hundreds, New York’s Miner’s Theatre was a major venue. Sharing the stage were such luminaries as the male impersonators Ella Wesner and Vesta Tilley and jig dancer Pat Rooney. But what made Miner’s unique for a time was Amateur Night held on alternate Fridays.

Ella Wesner

“Backstage the various candidates were nervously awaiting the call. Certainly no prima donna ever experienced keener pangs than those blue lipped, pale faced, stage struck amateurs.

Juggler and imitator, David Swatrz strode forth. He had used black grease paint liberally, his intention being to transform himself into a French Count. But the lad’s head resembled nothing so much as the head of a zebra. He made a cone of paper and tried to balance it on his nose but it fell off sideways. He did manage to balance a broom on his chin though ensuing tricks failed as did his imitation of a madman using make believe paroxysms. “Sure, dat’s no imitation” was the verdict from the gallery.

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David was followed by James Macon doing the Hebrew Cake Walk and Miss Lottie Faustine singing and dancing in a pink and silver gown. A woman cornetist who looked old enough to know better was next.


Another account from 1905 lists a juggler, buck-and-wing dancers, a blackface comedian in a red plaid suit, a clay modeller and a quartet of singing newsboys. A “Black Shakespeare” failed to win the crowd but an “Armless Wonder” was showered with coins.

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Since the procession of utterly untalented hopefuls could be painful, not to mention boring, an enterprising stage manager came up with a way of policing the length of unsuccessful acts.

On Friday night, in October, 1903, at Miner’s Bowery theater, a particularly bad amateur was inflicting a patient audience with an impossible ‘near tenor’ voice. Despite the howls, groans and cat calls, the ‘artist’ persisted in staying on, when Tom Miner, who was conducting the performance, chanced to see in a corner a large old fashioned crook handled cane which had been used by one of the negro impersonators.

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Quickly picking it up, he called Charles Guthinger, the property man, and had him lash it securely to the wings and without getting in sight of the audience deftly slipped the hook around the neck of the would-be singer and yanked him off the stage before he really knew what had happened.

“The next contestant was to give imitations of noted actors, and after giving the worst imaginable one of Edwin Booth announced his next would be of Richard Mansfield. At this a small boy in the gallery yelled ‘Get the hook!’ The audience roared in approval while the ‘actor’ fled in dismay.

Published in: on January 6, 2011 at 8:50 am  Comments (33)  
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as classic as the curves of a broom handle

car dance

Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympic Theatre was on the verge of bankruptcy until he had the inspired idea of staging the worst act in vaudeville – The Cherry Sisters.***

The sisters were so awful that patrons conveyed their critical consensus by flinging cabbages and overripe tomatoes. At one performance, theater-goers threw eggs and chased the girls offstage. To protect her siblings, Addie at least once brandished a shotgun at an overly rambunctious crowd.

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image of Charlene Holt found here

The sisters mistook the raucousness for approval, and considered themselves a huge success so were horrified by a nasty review in the Cedar Rapids Gazette and sued the city editor for slander. A theatrical trial was held the following day with the Cherrys mounting the stage for the benefit of the magistrate, offering their performance as testimony. The jury, confronted with the evidence of the plaintiffs’ far graver crime, nevertheless found the editor guilty and sentenced him to marry one of the sisters. (All parties declined to enforce the ruling.)

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From Davenport to Vinton, month after month, the onslaught of rotten eggs and pension-aged fruit continued. At one show, patrons of the arts pitched slabs of fresh liver at the hapless troupe; in Dubuque, they were greeted by “a volley of turnips.” Everywhere they went, it rained cabbages, potatoes, rutabagas; one spectator heaved an old tin wash boiler onstage.

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image of Cherry Darling (NOT one of the Cherry Sisters) found here

Then, things got ugly and the reviews got worse.

“Effie is spavined, Addie is knock-kneed and string-halt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs without calves, as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.”

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Learn how to graft a cherry tree here

In “The Gipsy’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.

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Hammerstein assured his headliners that the barrage was orchestrated by jealous rival stars. “Your talent is so great,” he explained, “that you can expect fruit and vegetables to be thrown at every performance.” The Cherrys played to packed houses for two months, earning upwards of a grand per week.

They amassed a fortune estimated around $200,000. The American Weekly noted that over seven years of touring, “They began as the four worst professional actresses in the world and ended without improving one iota.”

None ever married, in fact they boasted of never having been kissed. (“We are too devoted to each other to consider matrimony and we could never stand the shock of being dictated to by a man.”)

***You can read the article I have quoted in its entirety here

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image of Don Cherry found here

Published in: on October 29, 2009 at 6:26 am  Comments (35)  
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