Vaudeville was the most popular form of American entertainment from the 1880s to the 1930s and could probably be named the predecessor of modern American pop culture. Vaudeville would typically consist of a highly diverse series of short acts (6 to 15 minutes long). The acts (or “turns”) ranged from magic tricks to animal acts. Every relatively big city had its own theater for variety shows – For New York, it was Hammerstein’s.

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The Victoria Theater was a prominent American vaudeville house in New York opened by theater mogul Oscar Hammerstein I at the end of the 19th century. Later, Paradise Roof Garden was built above it, and the two venues became known collectively as Hammerstein’s. From 1904 to 1914 the house was run by Willie Hammerstein, Oscar’s son, who would put on highly popular vaudeville acts. One of which was the infamous Sober Sue act.

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In the summer of 1907, a performer under the nickname of Sober Sue began appearing onstage at Paradise Roof Garden, and was often referred to as “the girl who never laughed.” The producers of the theater offered a $1000 prize to anyone who could make Sober Sue crack a smile with their funny show. At first, people from the audience would come on stage and make funny faces or tell their best jokes, but they all failed – Sober Sue’s face remained solemn. Next, famous comedians began to take on the challenge and performed their best material. But Sober Sue never giggled or even cracked a smile. Consequently, her routine became extremely popular, and the audience was entertained by the best professional comedians of that time.

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Various theories and interesting stories circulated regarding Sober Sue’s emotionless face. Some theorized that she was partially blind or deaf, but the truth was finally revealed in the winter of 1907 – it was impossible for Sue to smile or laugh because her facial muscles were paralyzed. Later it turned out that the vaudeville scam was pulled by Willie Hammerstein who managed Paradise Roof Garden. Willie Hammerstein paid Sober Sue $20 a week, which was not that bad at the time. For the venue owner, shows produced a great deal of profit as he managed to lure top-rank comedians into performing for free. But after the truth has been revealed, Willie was condemned, and the comedians never forgave him.

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A lot of details about Sober Sue are still unknown, and there are no photographs of her left. It is believed that Sue’s actual name was Susan Kelly and that she suffered from Mobius Syndrome. The syndrome is a rare condition characterized by weakness or paralysis of multiple cranial nerves. However, these are nothing more than mere speculations. Nevertheless, Sober Sue did leave us a legacy – her name would continue to be used in show business as a metaphor for particularly tough audiences. For example, some reviews of comedies would call the show so funny, that “it could make even Sober Sue laugh.”