By Eleni Papageorgiou,
What could be the connection between Vaudeville and Moebius Syndrome? Well, no matter how hard you try to find the answer, you will probably not find it, because the answer is quite unexpected: “Sober Sue”, the girl who never laughed.
Since the 1880s and until the 1930s, one form of entertainment for Americans was Vaudeville. It was a theatrical genre born in France at the end of the 19th century. Originally, in its place of birth, France, Vaudeville was a comedy based on a comical situation and brightened up with light poetry, songs, or ballet.
When it reached the other side of the Atlantic, it became so popular, that Americans and Canadians got it off the ground and changed it dramatically. Then, in its new home, Vaudeville included, apart from musicians, singers, and dancers, magicians, trained animals, strongmen, clowns, jugglers, etc. For several decades, North Americans crammed together to watch all these acts and entertain themselves. For many critics, it is the ancestor of today’s pop culture.
Back then, each big town used to have its own theatre hall. In New York, Victoria Hall was first directed by Oscar Hammerstein. Later on, his son, William Hammerstein, took the lead and offered exceptional acts for his audience. One of these acts was Sober Sue, the girl who never laughed. This meant for her, staring straight-faced into a crowd of amazed and amused people.
She first appeared on stage in 1907, under the nickname Sober Sue. The producers of the theatre offered a $1,000 prize to anyone who would make Sober Sue smile with their funny show. At first, random people from the audience would come up on stage, making funny faces or telling jokes to make her crack a smile. No result, of course. Then, famous comedians arrived to try their best and challenge her. No result, again. Her face remained sober.
The Victoria N.Y. Vaudeville Hall was full each night and Sober Sue gained so much fame, you would suppose she was a well-paid artist. That was not the case, though. William Hammerstein paid her $20 a week to appear on stage and continue the challenge. The venue owner accumulated a great deal of profit and various theories circulated regarding Sober Sue’s smileless face. Some claimed she was partially blind or deaf, but the truth was finally revealed in the winter of 1907: she suffered from a rare neurological condition called Moebius Syndrome.
This syndrome is a congenital condition that results from underdevelopment of the facial nerves that control some of the eye movements and facial expressions. Other symptoms might include: trouble swallowing or sucking, difficulties with speech, cleft palate, dental problems, hearing problems, strabismus, etc.
After the reveal of the truth about Sober Sue, William Hammerstein was condemned and the comedians who had accepted the challenge, and had performed for free, never forgave him. The heaviest blow to Vaudeville came in the early 1910s, with the growth of the lower-priced cinema, and the advent of free broadcast radio and television. Many Vaudeville performers turned to the cinema, which offered greater salaries and less difficult working conditions. They left live performances and found fame in new venues. The new forms of entertainment speeded the death of Vaudeville, which finally came in 1932.
As for Sober Sue, not much is known about her life. What we do know is that her real name was Susan Kelly and no photo of her has been recorded as real and been saved. Her legacy, though, is an expression that goes like this when a comedy is very funny: “It could make even Sober Sue laugh”.
- Moebius Syndrome, hopkinsmedicine, Available here
- 100 Years Ago There Was A Woman That Was Famous Because Nobody Was Able To Make Her Laugh, boredpanda, Available here
- Το κορίτσι που δε γελούσε ποτέ: Η ιστορία της «Sober Sue», jenny.gr, Available here