Pearl, Minnie (1912–1996)
Pearl, Minnie (1912–1996)
American entertainer who was the first humorist in country music to achieve worldwide recognition. Name variations: Ophelia Colley Cannon; Sarah Ophelia Colley. Born Sarah Ophelia Colley in Centerville, Tennessee, in 1912; died in Nashville on March 4, 1996; youngest of five daughters of Thomas K. Colley (a lumber merchant) and Fannie Tate (House) Colley; attended Ward-Belmont College; married Henry Cannon (her manager), in 1947.
Joined the Grand Ole Opry (1940); inducted into the Country Music Association's Hall of Fame (October 13, 1975); received Brotherhood Award from National Conference of Christians and Jews (1975).
With her trademark price tag dangling from a dime-store hat and her greeting of "Howdyyyyy! I'm just so proud to be here," Minnie Pearl worked at the Grand Ole Opry for 56 years. She had arrived at a time of transition, when hillbilly music crossed over to the more respectable country and western. Pearl was the first country music humorist to gain worldwide recognition.
Minnie Pearl was born Sarah Ophelia Colley in Centerville, Tennessee, in 1912. "I was a mistake from the start," she wrote in her autobiography. Her mother, a finishing school graduate, was 37 and had four girls in school when she learned she was pregnant once more. She was also one of the social leaders of Centerville, population 500. The epitome of genteel Southern womanhood, Fannie House Colley was an accomplished pianist who supplied the background music for recitals, plays, and musicals at the local opera house.
As baby Sarah, Pearl served as a doll-in-residence; her older sisters dressed and undressed her and paraded her up the street in a layette. Pearl claims she was so spoiled by all the love and attention that her father called her G.M. (general manager). The soft-spoken and dignified Thomas Colley owned a lumberyard and sawmill that was located near Grinder's Switch, which was hardly a town, more of a spur track for loading freight trains that Pearl would later claim as her home. Thomas, who had given up waiting for a son, took her with him when he was surveying lumber camps. To her mother's chagrin, Pearl was turning into a rough-and-tumble type. Thomas also taught her to "never let the truth interfere with a good story."
By age four, she was plunking out tunes on the piano. By age six, she was playing the piano at World War I bond rallies and belting out such songs as "If He Can Fight Like He Can Love, It's Good-bye Germany." In exchange for free admission, she began to supply background music for the silent movies at the local cinema, until her mother found out. Stagestruck, Pearl would appear in front of anything that smacked of an audience, convinced she was going to be the most celebrated actress of all time, despite advance reports, overhead in passing, that she was a trifle plain. Following high school, she planned to attend a first-rate college, as her sisters had done, then move on to the American Academy of Dramatic Art or the Pasadena Playhouse.
The stock-market crash of 1929 changed all that. Pearl was offered two years at Ward-Belmont in Tennessee, or four years at the University of Tennessee. She chose Ward-Belmont for its drama department and its director Pauline Sherwood Thompson , who was highly respected throughout the South. But Ward-Belmont, untouched by the Depression, was also an elite finishing school, where Southern girls from prestigious backgrounds and old money matriculated. Pearl knew she was out of her element within the first 24 hours. "I felt like I'd been dropped into a funeral home," she wrote. Dinner conversation revolved around shopping in Paris, London, and Rome; Pearl's travels had taken her to Nashville. It did not help when Townsend told
her that she had ruined her voice while cheerleading in high school, but Pearl's piano playing and talent eventually ingratiated her.
Upon graduation, she opened a studio to teach drama in Centerville, aware that she would not be allowed to leave home to seek her fortune until she reached a respectable age, at least 21. When that time came, she joined The Sewell Company, a theatrical production enterprise that booked shows in schools, churches, and civic organizations in rural communities. While the company supplied the director, sets, and script, locals were used in the cast. "Like the Music Man coming to River City," wrote Pearl, she traveled as a director from town to town during the winters for the next six years. She was also the summer director of the Wayne P. Sewell Training School in Roscoe, Georgia.
In her travels, a character named Minnie Pearl began to evolve, based partially on the matriarch of a mountain family she had lived with for ten days. She would pull out Minnie Pearl whenever she arrived in towns, speaking to groups, telling them how glad she was to be there. "It was a lot easier than standing up there as Ophelia Colley," she wrote. Pearl told her father about the mountain woman she had met and mimicked her. "You'll make a fortune off that some day," he said, "if you keep it kind."
In 1939, a friend asked her to do Minnie Pearl for a Pilots Club Convention. Up until then, she had not worn a costume. "I dressed her as I thought a young country girl would dress to go to meetin' on Sunday or to come to town on Saturday afternoon to do a little trading and a little flirting." She wore a pale yellow dress of cheap organdy with a round collar, white cotton stockings, and a straw hat. (The price tag would come later, the beneficiary of a genuine mistake.) The night of the convention, "as I passed among the tables in my costume, speaking to people, smiling and saying Howdy, an incredible thing happened to me. I felt myself moving out of Sarah Ophelia Colley into Minnie Pearl…. It gave me a wonderful sense of freedom I hadn't had before."
In the spring of 1940, bookings for Sewell slowed to a crawl. The 28-year-old Pearl found herself back home in Centerville, out of work, careerless, unmarried, and extraordinarily depressed. She took a job with the local branch of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), running a recreation center for children. Still pulling out Minnie Pearl on occasion, she was asked to trot her out for a bankers' convention. It was the turning point. Someone of influence saw the show, and she was offered an audition for the Opry.
Despite the fact that she had never been a fan of country music, Pearl seized the chance. She longed for a job in show business and longed to be out of Centerville. In November 1940, Minnie Pearl made her three-minute Opry debut. Her mother's review: "Several people woke up." Asked to return the following week, she was greeted with 300 pieces of mail and was signed on as a regular at $10 a week. She also joined Roy Acuff's show on the road, but her lack of experience revealed itself quickly and Acuff had to let her go. She reworked her routines, wrote more material with her sister Virginia Colley , loosened up even more, and went back out on the road with Pee Wee King.
Pearl would become a mainstay of the Opry and would also appear for 20 years on the syndicated television show "Hee Haw." In 1966, she was voted Country Music Woman of the Year by the Country Music Association; in 1975, she was named to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Diagnosed with cancer in 1985, Pearl had a double mastectomy. Two years later, President Ronald Reagan presented her with the Courage Award from the American Cancer Society for her volunteer work. Pearl also suffered a mild stroke in 1991; forced to retire, she could not attend that year's White House ceremony to receive her National Medal of Art. Minnie Pearl died in Nashville of a brain seizure or stroke on March 4, 1996.
Pearl, Minnie, with Joan Dew. Minnie Pearl: An Autobiography. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1980.