Vaudeville was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America from the 1800s to the 1930s. It consisted of a highly diverse series of short acts. The acts were often between 6 to 15 minutes, and the acts ranged from magic tricks to animal acts. Vaudeville was the America’s Got Talent of its time. Every big city had a theater where you could buy tickets to see various Vaudeville acts. In New York, it was Hammerstein’s.
The Victoria Theater
The Victoria Theater was a prominent American vaudeville house in New York during the 19th century. It was owned by theater mogul, Oscar Hammerstein I. After the Victoria Theater gained popularity, the Paradise Roof Garden was built above it. The two venues combined were known as Hammerstein’s. Willie Hammerstein ran the house from 1904 to 1914. He was Oscar’s son, and hie put on some fantastic and popular vaudeville acts. One of the most infamous acts was Sober Sue.
Sober Sue began performing onstage at the Paradise Roof Garden during the summer of 1907. She was also known as “the girl who never laughed.” The theater’s producers offered a $1,000 prize to anyone who could make Sober Sue crack a smile by being funny. In the early days, people would join Sober Sue on stage and make funny faces or tell jokes to make her laugh. Everyone failed. Each time, Sober Sue kept a straight face. It wasn’t long before famous comedians were coming to the Paradise Roof Garden to make Sober Sue laugh. They performed their best material and had the whole audience in stitches, but Sober Sue never giggled or even cracked a smile.
A Genius Idea
Sober Sue’s act was genius because Willie Hammerstein was getting two acts for the price of one. He was getting famous comedians to come to his stage for free to make Sober Sue laugh, and they had her there with her straight face. It was a fantastic act, and people really got a kick out of it.
Plenty Of Theories
As Sober Sue gained popularity, there were various stories and theories going around about her emotionless face. Some people believed that she was blind or deaf, and she simply couldn’t see and hear the people who were making her laugh. People couldn’t figure out how she was able to stand there stone-faced, even though the people on stage with her were hilarious.
The Truth Comes Out
In the winter of 1907, the truth finally came out. Everyone found out that it was impossible for Sue to smile or laugh because her facial muscles were paralyzed. Even if she wanted to laugh, she was physically unable to. Her medical condition helped her to earn $20 a week, which was pretty good money back then. Today, this would be $544. Making $544 a week for standing on stage without being able to physically laugh would be a pretty good deal. For Sue, it was a great deal. Unfortunately, when her secret came out, it all came to an end.
The End For Willie
Willie made a great deal of money on Sue’s inability to laugh. He even managed to get the highest-paid comedians to come in and perform for free. When the truth came out, Willie was condemned, and the comedians never forgave him. After Sue’s secret came out, the business never recovered.
What About Sue?
What happened to Sue after her act died when the secret was exposed is unknown. Did she move on to a different city and perform her act there? Did she ever entertain again? Nobody really knows.
The Little That We Know
There are only a few things that we know about Sober Sue. There is just one photo of her in the world. It is believed that her real name was Susan Kelly and that she suffered from a condition called Mobius Syndrome. This is a very rare condition that is characterized by weakness or paralysis of multiple cranial nerves. Since we don’t know much about her, this is simply speculation.
Even though we don’t know much about the woman behind the Sober Sue act, she did leave behind her legacy. Today, her name is a show business metaphor for very tough audiences. It is not uncommon to read a good review for a comedian that reads, “The show was so funny that it could make Sober Sue laugh.” She was an incredible sensation while she was performing, and people came from all over the country to see her. If she were alive today, she would be thrilled that people are still talking about her. 100 years ago there was a woman that was famous because nobody was able to make her laugh.