1907 newspaper advertisement for Sober Sue's performance
In the Summer of 1907 a performer named "Sober Sue" began to appear onstage at Hammerstein's Roof Garden, located above the Victoria Theater in New York City. Sober Sue was billed as the girl who never laughed.
The theater offered a prize of $100 to anyone who could make Sober Sue laugh. People from the audience, as well as professional comedians, all accepted the challenge, but all failed. Sober Sue never so much as cracked a smile. Her routine became extremely popular.
An unknown grumpy woman. Not Sober Sue.
In fact, there are no known photographs of Sober Sue.
Various theories were advanced to explain Sober Sue's amazing ability to keep a straight face. Critics theorized that perhaps she was deaf or partially blind. The truth was only revealed after her run at the Roof Garden had finished. It was impossible for her to laugh because her facial muscles were paralyzed. Or, at least, this was the story that circulated.
The Roof Garden was managed by Willie Hammerstein. He paid Sober Sue very little, a mere $20 a week, but his unwinnable challenge managed to lure top-rank comedians into performing for free. Thus, for him the act proved extremely lucrative. However, the comedians who had been conned into performing for free never forgave him.
Few details are known about Sober Sue. We know that her real name was Susan Kelly, but little else.
We know her name because of a small notice that appeared in the New York Times
on July 4, 1907 informing its readers that:
The motion for an injunction restraining Susan Kelly, who is known as "Sober Sue," from appearing under the management of the Hammersteins at the Paradise Roof Garden was adjourned yesterday until July 8.
However, we don't know why there was an injunction restraining her from performing. Perhaps it was related to the scam (i.e. that it was impossible for her to smile).
Sober Sue's facial paralysis has been attributed to Mobius Syndrome, a condition caused by abnormal development of the cranial nerves, leading to bilateral facial palsy, which produces a mask-like facial expression. But there's no definite confirmation that this is what she suffered from.
In Oscar Hammerstein 1: The life and exploits of an impresario
, Vincent Sheean claimed that Sober Sue was an African-American woman. However, this is unconfirmed and seems unlikely, because contemporary newspapers would probably have mentioned it if she was African-American. Sheean offered no sources to back up his claim.
It's also sometimes claimed that Sober Sue was managed by the notorious publicist Harry Reichenbach, and these accounts attribute to him the idea of offering $1000 to make her laugh. (See the Wikipedia article
about Harry Reichenbach.) But this also is unlikely, since Reichenbach himself didn't mention managing her in his autobiography, Phantom Fame
Long after she stopped performing, Sober Sue's name continued to be used in show business as a metaphor for a particularly tough audience. For instance, reviews of comedies would often claim that the show was so funny "it could make even Sober Sue laugh."
Other Sober Sues
As early as September, 1903 the New York Times
contained notices of "Sober Sue, the Smileless Woman" performing at Huber's Museum in the Curio Hall with Babbitt's Midget Minstrels and Yucca, the female shadow. It is not known if this is the same Sober Sue who appeared at the Victoria Roof Garden in 1907, but it likely is.
However, in later decades other female performers adopted the original Sober Sue's name and act. Again, it is not known if these women shared her facial paralysis. (Note: the original Sober Sue's facial paralysis is not fully confirmed. It's possible it's merely an invented anecdote.)
The October 4, 1943 issue of Time Magazine
contained a short notice about a performer called Sober Sue whose real name was Susan Cole. The notice reads:
Soberer Sue. In Philadelphia, when her boy friend was charged with evading the draft, Susan Cole, once billed by carnivals as Sober Sue, the Mirthless Marvel ($100 if you can make her laugh), muttered: "The way I feel ... I could raise the ante to $500."
Finally, on March 10, 1947 Pennsylvania's Chester Times
contained a story about a downbeat dinner some local residents had with a performer called Sober Sue:
Free Feed Wins No Smile From Lost Sober Sue
Sober Sue, the sideshow attraction who pays $100 if you make her smile and $1000 if you can make her giggle, was in Media late yesterday by mistake -- and it was no laughing matter.
Sober Sue is the sobriquet of the Mirthless Marvel, one of Triangle Shows' biggest drawing cards. Yesterday, she was bus-bound from New York to North carolina. Misjudging her destination by about 500 miles, Sue alighted from the bus in Media.
Realizing her mistake, she decided to visit friends in Chester. It was while awaiting transportation that William Patton, of 107 Emerald Street, Media, happened along. He listened to her dead-panned tale of woe.
He invited her to Sunday dinner.
She accepted the invitation without changing her expression. She didn't smile when she was introduced to Patton's wife. She didn't grin when the steaming meal was brought in. She didn't laugh at the Patton's attempt at humor. In short, she couldn't be considered the perfect dinner guest.
She telephoned her friends in Chester, and when they came for her, she didn't smile her goodbyes to Mr. and Mrs. Patton. In Sue's business, a smiling face doesn't pay -- it pays off.
So Sue left. She told the Pattons that she was due in Wilson, N.C., March 25, to hit the sideshow trail.
Further References to Sober Sue in NewspapersNew York Times
. Tuesday, June 25. 1907:
Nothing Amuses Sober Sue
The Lima Daily News
Sober Sue made her first appearance in the "Mute Review" in the Paradise Roof Garden on the roof of the Victoria Theatre last night. Over her head hung a sign offering a reward of $100 to any one who could make her laugh. Though she was in the "Mute Review" she was allowed to talk, and throughout the evening she said frankly enough that she was amused by nothing that happened before her. She looked very sad.
. June 29, 1907:
A female named "Sober Sue" is the big attraction at a New York roof garden. She sure must be unique there.
John Cameron Swayze. "New York" The Oneonta Star
. February 21, 1952:
To pick the greatest figure who ever trod Broadway in its prime would take a Magi and even then a choice would probably bring heated rebuttal from any Sardi's habitue, all of whom have their favorites. I suspect, though, it would be hard to top Oscar Hammerstein, who brought to Times Square his first theater, the Olympia, in 1893. His friends questioned his sanity, building "way uptown in the Forties." After a rough start, it succeeded and Hammerstein followed with the Victoria, six years later. Part of the Victoria's success traced to a woman known as Sober Sue, who sat on the stage with a face so straight it could break a comedian's heart. The theater had a standing offer of $1,000 to anyone who made her laugh. The public came to watch the efforts and comedians improved their acts trying for the jackpot. None ever succeeded. There is a touch of tragedy to the secret only Hammerstein knew. Sober Sue's facial muscles were completely paralyzed.