For over fifty years she was an integral member of the Grand Ole Opry, and today, Minnie Pearl would have been 100 years old. In honor of the most beloved character in country music this side of Little Jimmy Dickens, here are ten essential facts you should know about the Gossip from Grinder's Switch.
10. Sarah Ophelia
Born Sarah Ophelia Colley on October 25, 1912 in Centerville, Tennessee, "Minnie" was the youngest of five daughters born to a prominent lumber magnate, who lost his fortune during the Depression. She knew early on she wanted to be an actress, and eventually attended Ward-Belmont College (now Belmont U), where she studied theater before embarking on a career as a dancer, dance instructor, producer and director.
9. The Birth of Minnie Pearl
While on the road working as a director for the Atlanta-based Wayne P. Sewell Producing Company, Colley met an elderly mountain woman in Northern Alabama whose country-fied mannerisms and way of speaking inspired the character of "Cousin Minnie Pearl." Colley's first appearance as Minnie was in 1939 at a women's club function in South Carolina, and she was discovered in the fall of 1940 by WSM Nashville executives while performing at a convention in Centerville. She soon made her debut on the Opry, and within the week over three hundred cards, telegrams and letters addressed to "Minnie Pearl" came pouring in from adoring listeners, who over time would come to love her for her self-deprecating, spinster hillbilly humor, her stories about ne'er-do-well kinfolk, and catch phrases like "How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E! I'm jes' so proud to be here!" and "I love you so much it hurts!"
Colley's cheerful hillbilly get-up -- a frilly gingham dress with puffy sleeves, white stockings under Mary Janes and a straw hat decked out in plastic flowers -- was a costume she dreamed up herself, inspired by clothing she picked up for less than $10 one afternoon in a South Carolina thrift store. "I dressed 'Minnie' the way I thought a girl would look who came to town from the country on a Saturday to do a little tradin' and a little flirtin'," Colley would explain.
As for the $1.98 price tag hanging from her hat? The gag got its start when she forgot to remove the tag from the dime-store flowers she put in the hat, and it popped out during an early show; it's said she was embarrassed, but the audience loved the gag so much that it became an essential part of her routine. Colley would later have this to say about that tag: "The price tag on my hat seems to be symbolic of all human frailty. 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."
7. Grinder's Switch
A colorful hillbilly's gotta have a colorful hometown; Colley derived much of her material from her own hometown of Centerville, a town of just a few thousand located southwest of Nashville. But as many artists do when dealing with autobiographical material, she changed the name of her town to Grinder's Switch, the name of a railroad switch outside of town. Residents of Centervile no doubt knew which of the town's characters had inspired her own, but so many fans went out looking for Grinder's Switch, that the highway department had to change its sign to "Hickman Springs Road."
6. Giddyup Go
Most folks listened to her howling voice via the Opry, but Minnie Pearl also released a number of raucous records, including a number of duets with Grandpa Jones, Chet Atkins and Ernest Tubb. The only one to chart? A mild-mannered 1966 answer song -- a response to Red Sovine's Number One hit -- entitled "Giddyup Go Answer," which hit #10 on the Country Charts.
5. Any pal of Pee-Wee's...
Oh, we don't mean the flamboyant country star Pee Wee King, though she knew him, too; not long after his infamous 1991 appearance in a Sarasota porno theater, Paul Reubens made his last public appearance for fifteen years as Pee-Wee Herman at a Minnie Pearl tribute concert at the Grand Ole Opry. The two became friends after meeting at Comic Relief in 1986.
4. And any friend of fried chicken...
Kenny Rogers (of Kenny Rogers Roasters) once sang, "If a man's gonna eat fried chicken, he's gonna get greasy." Minnie may not have gotten her fingers dirty in this deal, but her own fried chicken no doubt left a bad taste in her mouth. The late 1960s was a time rife with celebrity restaurant chains -- Tex Ritter's Chuck Wagons, Hank Williams Jr.'s BBQ Pit, Tennessee Ernie Ford Steak 'n Biscuits - and in 1969, Nashville entrepreneur John Jay Hooker persuaded Colley and "Queen of Gospel" Mahalia Jackson to lend their names to a fried chicken chain, set to compete with Colonel Sanders' own. "Howww-deeee-licious!" was to be the slogan, and there were even spin-off plans for the franchise: Minnie Pearl's Roast Beef, Minnie Pearl's Ice Cream Parlor. But after developing a fan in Keith Richards (see below), the chain folded amidst allegations of accounting irregularities and stock price manipulation. Cannon and Jackson were both cleared of wrongdoing, but embarrassed by the whole thing nonetheless.
Here we have Minnie pitching not for her fried chicken, but for Spic and Span, another company with a name cloaked in controversy. As for the fried chicken? Keith Richards will have to sell that one for her.
3. Minnie's move to TV
Minnie Pearl became as beloved by television audiences as by radio after a 1957 appearance on NBC's This Is Your Life. From there she showed up on Tennessee Ernie Ford and Dinah Shore's variety shows, as well as on The Tonight Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Jonathan Winters Show. Come 1969, she was recruited to the cast of Hee Haw. Oh, and who can forget that in an age of variety shows, someone gave Liberace one, too?
2. Minnie in the movies
Alongside Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl was one of the legends to appear as themselves in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter, which also featured Levon Helm as Loretta's father.
2. The Quotable Minnie
Want to be the life of any party? Learn how to holler a hearty How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E! and add these jokes to your repertoire.
Kissing a man with a beard is a lot like going to a picnic. You don't mind going through a little bush to get there!
The doctor must have put my pacemaker in wrong. Every time my husband kisses me, the garage door goes up.
Getting married is a lot like getting into a tub of hot water. After you get used to it, it ain't so hot.
1. Minnie's Legacy
Minnie Pearl was the first comedian elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1975, after providing inspiration to countless country comedians and artists (and continuing to do so to this day). After successfully battling breast cancer through aggressive treatments, including a double mastectomy and radiation therapy, she became a spokeswoman for the medical center where she was treated. It was later renamed the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center in her honor (her married name), and a foundation was established in her memory to fund cancer research. In 1987, she received the American Cancer Society's Courage Award, and in 1992, the National Medal of Arts.
Sarah Colley Cannon suffered a serious stroke in 1991, effectively bringing her public career to an end. After residing in a Nashville nursing home for five years, she died on March 4, 1996 at the age of 83. However, folks in country still celebrate both Minnie Pearl and the woman who created her, as some two hundred of her friends and fans did Monday night at the Opry, where Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Brenda Lee, Hee Haw's Roy Clark and LuLu Roman, and others gathered to celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday, and raise money for her cancer foundation.
Happy birthday, Minnie - we love you so much it hurts!
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