She could command an audience with a "How-dee!" while wearing a cotton dress and a $1.98 straw hat with the price tag still attached. Her real name was Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, but her friends -and even her husband- just called her Minnie.
Minnie Pearl was a trailblazer. She earned her degree from Nashville's Ward-Belmont College (now Belmont University). Though her first professional work was for a touring theater company in Atlanta (Wayne P. Sewell Production Company), Minnie became the first solo female member of WSM's Grand Ole Opry and the undisputed queen of country comedy. In 1975, she became the first female comedian to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She was an American treasure. Her husband Henry Cannon, an Army veteran, started a charter service for country singers with various famous clients including Hank Williams and Elvis Presley.
"The price tag on my hat seems to be symbolic of all human frailty," Pearl once said of her trademark look. "There's old Minnie Pearl standing on stage in her best dress, telling everyone how proud she is to be there and she's forgotten to take the $1.98 price tag off her hat."
Beneath the hat was the same warm, and funny woman audiences loved, just with a few notable differences. Though she could rock a gingham dress like no other, off-stage Minnie preferred well-tailored blazers and slacks. And while on-stage Minnie was too busy chasin' fellers for book learnin', in her personal life, Pearl loved reading and poetry.
Her wit was razor-sharp, whether she was entertaining thousands or cracking up her close-knit brigade of Opry co-stars after the curtains came down. She's famous for her lighthearted digs at the fictional characters from her real-life hometown of Grinder's Switch. "He ain't a failure," she once said of her Uncle Nabob. "He just started at the bottom, and he liked it there."
But most often Pearl's humor was directed at herself. She made jokes about her looks, her age and her man-hungry ways. "A feller told me I look like a breath of spring," Pearl would say. "Well, he didn't use them words. He said I look like the end of a hard winter."
Pearl's Hee Haw co-star George Lindsey said her self-deprecating jokes were just another sign of her sweetness and comedic genius.
"She taught me that. If you turn the joke on yourself then you're not hurting anybody," Lindsey said during a tribute to Pearl. "It's those jokes that always get a laugh."
Cousin Minnie Pearl made her debut in 1939 at a women's club in South Carolina. She based the character on a woman she had met in Alabama. In 1940, Pearl stepped onto the Ryman Auditorium stage for the first time. The night of her debut, Opry producer George D. Hay eased Pearl's rattled nerves by giving her a timeless piece of showbiz advice: love your audience. "Just love 'em, honey," Hay said. "They'll love you back."
Because producers feared her hillbilly character would offend listeners, Pearl had to go on after 11 p.m. They did not need to worry, of course. Hay was right. The Minnie Pearl character loved her audience and they loved her right back. Cards and letters flooded in for the gal from Grinder's Switch.
In Grinder's Switch, Tennessee, which was a railroad switch three miles from where she grew up, Pearl created a world of beloved fictional characters who became almost as well known as she was.
Leave 'em Laughin'
Through 50 years in show business, Pearl befriended everyone from Dean Martin to Pee Wee Herman. She had a profound influence on other country comedians, such as her peer Rod Brasfield and future star Jeff Foxworthy, and was known for taking young upstart country singers under her wing.
After being successfully treated for breast cancer in the 80s, Pearl became an outspoken advocate for cancer research. In 1987, a cancer foundation to raise money for research was founded in her name. Her name is involved with another research center, Sarah Cannon Research Institute.
In 1991, Pearl suffered a stroke that ended her public performances. She spent the next five years in a Nashville nursing home. On March 4, 1996, Pearl passed away at the age of 83.
Nowhere is Pearl more beloved than in her hometown of Centerville, Tenn. A man even set out to create a chicken wire statue of the town's favorite daughter.
Pearl wrote about Grinder's Switch in her autobiography, calling it a "state of mind."
"It's a place where there's only happiness -where all you worry about is what you are going to wear to the church social, and if your feller is going to kiss you in the moonlight on the way home," Pearl wrote. "I wish for all of you a Grinder's Switch."
Thanks to Minnie's wit, wisdom and heart, we can all know a piece of small-town Grinder's Switch magic. And we're so proud to be there.
This story previously ran on Feb. 25, 2020.
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