“How-Dee! I’m just so proud to be here!”
The cheery opening call naturally brought a smile to the audience before the first joke was cracked. That catchphrase meant Cousin Minnie Pearl was here with more gossip about folks back home in Grinder’s Station!!
Minnie’s story is a tale of going after your dreams despite the obstacles. It’s working with the curve balls that life throws you and using them to reach your goal.
Sarah Colley dreamed of being a dramatic actress on Broadway. With those goals in place, she studied acting and dance at Nashville’s most prestigious girls’ finishing school Ward-Belmont (now Belmont University).
Unfortunately, she entered the job market in the middle of The Great Depression. Getting any job in the Great Depression was tough, but finding an acting job was decidedly harder.
Sarah reluctantly took what was available, becoming the director of a traveling production company. It was only tangentially related to her dream, but it would have to do.
Her company staged amateur shows and pageants. To promote their presence in town, Sarah spoke at local group meetings. She pitched the merits of her company for a few moments of entertainment.
Minnie was inspired by a lady whom she met years ago. The lady had unique mannerisms and back-country dialect which Sarah used in her act.
Minnie dresses as if she’s going to town on a Saturday for “a little tradin’ and a little flirtin’”. Her frilly knee-length dress, white stockings, battered Mary Jane shoes and plastic flower adorned straw hat were all purchased at thrift stores.
The quintessential $1.98 price tag came along after Cousin Minnie made a name for herself. One day before a show Sarah forgot to remove the price tag from the plastic flowers on her straw hat. As she performed, the tag popped out and dangled from her hat for the rest of the show. Sarah was extremely embarrassed, but her audience loved it, so she included it in Minnie’s outfit.
Grand Ole Opry
While performing her Minnie Pearl act at a local bankers’ convention, Sarah caught the attention of WSM Nashville radio executives. They asked her to audition for a spot on the Grand Ole Opry radio show.
On November 30, 1940 Cousin Minnie Pearl made her first Grand Ole Opry appearance. The producers of the show worried her hayseed character would offend the listeners. They gave her an 11 p.m. time slot knowing a large part of the audience would have turned off the radio by that time.
Instead of offended, listeners were quite taken with the charming mountain girl. Within the first week 300 letters, cards, and telegrams, all addressed to Minnie Pearl, inundated the studio. Pearl immediately became a full-time cast member with a prime time slot of 8:45 p.m.
Fans adored Minnie’s self-deprecation and ribbing of her kinfolk.
“A feller told me I look like a breath of spring. Well, he didn’t use them words. He said I looked like the end of a hard winter.”
About Her Brother
“He’s a boy with excellent aims, but no ammunition.”
About Her Uncle Nabob
“He ain’t a failure. He just started at the bottom and he liked it there.”
An audience favorite was her act with Rod Brasfield. His luckless bumpkin character paired nicely with Minnie’s country girl. They alternated punchlines in their brief bits and neither played the straight man.
With the dawn of television, Minnie and Rod spread their act to ABC’s Ozark Jubilee.
As with many of its guests, Sarah’s appearance on the television show This Is Your Life caught her off guard. While first stunned, she soon recognized her chance to move her career up to the next level. She quickly engaged her act using every joke in her arsenal during the show.
She was right. Sarah’s jocular presence on This Is Your Life prompted appearance requests from other variety shows such as The Dean Martin Show and The Carol Burnett Show. Throughout the 1960’s and ’70’s her performances on these shows grew her fan base beyond the country music niche and into mainstream media.
While a guest on The Jonathan Winters Show, a producer offered Sarah a part on a new project. It was a little show called Hee Haw set to begin in the summer of 1969 on a Saturday night prime-time television spot.
Minnie’s appearance on Hee Haw is where most of America met and fell in love with the gossiping spinster from Grinder’s Station.
Sarah remained with the cast of Hee Haw for 20 years while continuing to appear on the Grand Ole Opry.
Good-bye Dear Cousin
In 1990, Sarah celebrated her 50 year anniversary with the Grand Ole Opry. Unfortunately, a short time later, she was forced to retire her beloved Minnie. Following a performance in Joliet, IL she suffered a debilitating stroke. She was mostly confined to her bed in a Nashville nursing home the next five years.
Sarah died at the age of 83 in 1996, but future generations can still enjoy the humor of Cousin Minnie Pearl through her delightful book Minnie Pearl: An Autobiography and numerous comedy albums.
Today Pearl’s iconic hat is among the treasures of American history at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.
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Pearl, Minnie (1980) Minnie Pearl: An Autobiography. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Holden, S. (1996, March) Minnie Pearl, ‘Grand Ole Opry’ Star for 50 Years Dies at 83. The New York Times.
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Sawyer, J. Just So Proud to Be Here: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Minnie Pearl. Retrieved from http://www.wideopencountry.com/just-proud-celebrating-life-legacy-minnie-pearl/.