Pearl, Minnie (1912-1996)

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Pearl, Minnie (1912-1996)

Country music's first comedian, Minnie Pearl, entertained Grand Old Opry audiences for more than half a century. Her gingham dress, white stockings, and straw hat complete with $1.98 price tag dangling from it made her a figure recognized wherever country music was heard. Ploughboys and presidents responded to her contagious grin, her homespun humor, and her exuberant greeting. So familiar was her image that upon her death in March of 1996, commentators, columnists, and cartoonists alike pictured her entering the pearly gates and greeting St. Peter with her trademark, "How-dee! I'm just so proud to be here."

Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon never planned to become a country comic. The sheltered, youngest daughter of conventionally conservative Southern parents and a product of Ward-Belmont, a Tennessee finishing school, she dreamed of becoming a fine dramatic actress. "I planned," she said, "to out-Bernhardt Bernhardt."

The character "Minnie Pearl" evolved from young Ophelia Colley's years working for the Sewell Production Company, an Atlanta-based touring theater company that sent young women directors to stage productions throughout the small-town and rural South. What began as a collection of stories culled from her touring experience gradually developed into a country character that Ophelia used to sell the Sewell productions. She named the character Minnie Pearl because they were common country names, names that were familiar to her audiences. When Ophelia earned her first job, not as a Sewell director but as an entertainer named Minnie Pearl, she was paid the handsome sum of $25 (more than twice her weekly salary). She then added the costume to her act. Minnie Pearl performed for the Pilots Club Convention in Aiken, South Carolina, in 1939, and Ophelia Cannon acquired an alter ego. That performance, the comedian later revealed, was the first time that she "became the character."

A year after the Aiken appearance, Minnie Pearl debuted on the Grand Ole Opry in a three-minute spot at 11:05 p.m., a time chosen so that if Minnie flopped, the affected audience would be as small as possible. Far from failing, however, Minnie received several hundred fan letters and an offer to become a regular at the Opry. For the next fifty-one years Minnie Pearl, with her tales of Brother, Uncle Nabob, Aunt Ambrosy, and other inhabitants of Grinder's Switch (a name Ophelia Colley borrowed from an abandoned loading switch in Hickman County, Tennessee) captured the affections of Opry audiences and other audiences far from Nashville, including standing-room-only audiences at Carnegie Hall. An early indication that Minnie was on her way to becoming an American icon came in 1948 when Alben Barkley, Harry Truman's vice president, began his first official address to the nation with the words "well, as Minnie Pearl would say, I'm just so proud to be here!"

Minnie Pearl with her hillbilly naivete and her inexhaustible search for a "feller" may seem an incongruous figure as a pioneer for women's equality, but Miss Minnie opened doors in the country music business that other women eagerly walked through. She headlined in an era when the only women around were "girl singers" in clearly subordinate roles. Aside from being the first female member of the Grand Ole Opry, Minnie Pearl was also one of the first women to be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame (1975) as well as the National Comedy Hall of Fame.

The woman who auditioned for WSM knowing nothing about country music became one of the most beloved figures in the country music industry. Initially befriended by Roy Acuff, already an established star when Minnie Pearl came to the Opry, she in turn befriended generations of newcomers, including Chet Atkins and Hank Williams. The esteem in which younger entertainers held her is evident. Dwight Yoakam, who managed to alienate himself from many in the industry, sent fifty dozen roses for Minnie Pearl's fiftieth anniversary celebration on the Grand Ole Opry. And both pop-contemporary Christian music star Amy Grant and country music sensation Garth Brooks named daughters after her.

The same generosity that endeared her to the country music community led her to work for humanitarian causes. Aa a cancer survivor, Minnie Pearl worked tirelessly for the American Cancer Society. Her efforts were recognized in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, who presented her with the Cancer Society's Courage Award. In 1988 she became the first recipient of the Nashville Network/Music City News humanitarian award, which bears her name. A stroke in 1991 forced her to retire, but her presence continued to be felt in the country music community where good wishes for Miss Minnie were standard fare on award shows. Her husband, Henry Cannon, represented her on tribute shows she could only watch. She died on March 4, 1996.

Minnie Pearl ended her 1980 autobiography by wishing for her readers a Grinder's Switch. "Grinder's Switch," she wrote, "is a state of mind—a place where there is no illness, no war, no unhappiness, no political unrest, no tears." Perhaps it was her ability to evoke such a place that endeared her to fans and peers alike. She allowed her audience to inhabit a space where eccentricities were tolerated, humor was barbless, and laughter was easy.

—Wylene Rholetter

Further Reading:

Cannon, Ophelia Colley. Minnie Pearl: An Autobiography. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Tassin, Myron. Fifty Years of the Grand Ole Opry. New York, Pelican, 1991.