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Sober Sue: The Woman No Comedian Could Amuse

People | September 15, 2019

Maybe the real Sober Sue, maybe not. The stone-faced woman didn't leave much behind except for her legacy Source: (soundofhope.org)

As actress and comedian Phyllis Diller once said, "A smile is a curve that sets everything straight." What would life be like if you were unable to laugh or even smile? Well, for one mysterious woman nicknamed "Sober Sue" in the early 1900s, it meant making good money staring straight-faced into a crowd of amazed and amused people. It is believed this woman's name was Susan Kelly, although no one knows for sure.

Despite her enigmatic history, Kelly's story stood the test of time. More than 100 years later, the internet still buzzes about her stony face, even though no pictures of it have survived. In the days of Gangs of New York, "Sober Sue" entertained and astounded thousands of people with her no-nonsense facade, even in the face of the most uproarious acts you can imagine. Why couldn't Sober Sue laugh? The answer would no doubt anger a lot of the people who tried to make her.

A Painting of The Paradise Garden. Source: (William Glackens)

The Hook

As you can only imagine, the entertainment of the early 1900s ranged from bizarre to grotesque and everything in between. In even this colorful landscape, Sober Sue attracted audiences in droves to see the woman who would never laugh or even slip a smirk. The deal was that if any member of the audience could get the impassive Sober Sue to smile, they'd receive $100. If they could somehow get her to laugh, they'd get 10 times that much. In today's money, an audience member stood to earn $3,054 for a grin and $30,542 for a giggle. 

The Scene Of Sober Sue's Crowd Drawing Sobriety From Smiles. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)

The Scene

Naturally, for that kind of dough, anyone with a half-decent joke would try their hand at turning Sober Sue's frown upside-down. Our girl Sue "performed" at Hammerstein's Roof Garden above The Victoria Theater in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. The building (seen above) looked like a game of Chutes and Ladders stuck to the sides of a factory. Inside this monument to fire hazards, comedians from all around the world worked their magic with the hope of getting a chortle from Sober Sue. In all the years she performed, no one ever got so much as a simper---for a good reason.

Not Sober Sue but a Young Girl with Facial Paralysis. Perhaps a Sober Sue in Waiting. Source: (New York Van Publishing)

The Catch

So what was Sober Sue's secret? How did she remain deadpanned in the face of nonstop, desperate comedy? Well, once the theater closed, they let the cat out of the bag. Apparently, old Sober Sue suffered from facial paralysis and couldn't crack a smile if her very life depended on it.

One of the few recorded writings mentioning Sober Sue was a small notice in The New York Times on July 4, 1907, but much like Sober Sue, the Grey Lady doesn’t tell us much: "The motion for an injunction restraining Susan Kelly, who is known as 'Sober Sue,' from appearing under the management of the Hammerstein's at the Paradise Roof Garden was adjourned yesterday until July 8," it reads. No one knows what the injunction was for or whether or not it was related to the shady nature of her "act."

Paradise Roof Garden Above The Victoria Theater. Source: (Pomegranate, Rohnert Park CA)

Every Great Act Deserves a Copycat

Hard facts on the original Sober Sue are hard, if not impossible, to come by. We don't even know for sure if she really had facial paralysis or if it was merely a fictional anecdote. However, we do know that throughout history, other ladies took on the name and act of the original Sober Sue.

In the October 1943 edition of Time Magazine, another Sober Sue made headlines. According to the magazine, "In Philadelphia, when her boyfriend 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.'"

Then, in 1947, the Chester Times wrote a long anecdote about Sober Sue ending up 500 miles from her desired destination at a stranger's dinner table. "She telephoned her friends in Chester, and when they came for her, she didn't smile her goodbyes to Mr. and Mrs. Patton (the benevolent strangers)," it reads. "In Sue's business, a smiling face doesn't pay -- it pays off."

Tags: picasso self portraits | Sober Sue

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!