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 Ophelia Colley dreamed of becoming a serious dramatic actress. 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.
Sarah’s employer, Atlanta based Wayne P. Sewell Producing Company, specialized in producing amateur indoor shows and outdoor pageants. To promote the company’s presence in towns, Sarah spoke at local civic group meetings. The groups allowed Sarah to pitch the merits of her production company in exchange for a few moments of entertainment.
It was at one such meeting (a women’s group in Aiken, SC), that Cousin Minnie Pearl was born. Sarah’s interpretation of a country girl captivated the ladies in the audience.
Sarah used an elderly lady from Alabama, whom she met years earlier as the inspiration for Minnie. This lady had unique mannerisms and back-country dialect which Sarah incorporated into her act.
Sarah dressed Minnie as if she were going into town on a Saturday for “a little tradin’ and a little flirtin’”. Minnie’s frilly knee-length dress, white stockings, battered Mary Jane shoes and plastic flower adorned straw hat were all purchased at a South Carolina thrift store.
The quintessential $1.98 price tag came along well after Cousin Minnie made a name for herself. One day before a show Sarah forgot to remove the price tag from the plastic flowers decorating the 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.
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 warm-hearted ribbing of her kinfolk and her own self-deprecation.
“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.”
“He ain’t a failure. He just started at the bottom and he liked it there.”
“He’s a boy with excellent aims, but no ammunition.”
Minnie’s popularity continued to grow as she made appearances with Rod Brasfield ABC’s Ozark Jubilee in the 1950’s. Rod’s hapless hayseed character from Hohenwald paired nicely with Minnie’s country girl. They alternated delivering punchlines in their brief bits and neither played the straight man.
As with a lot of its guests, Sarah’s appearance on the show This Is Your Life caught her by complete surprise. At first stunned, Sarah quickly realized this was an opportunity to springboard her career to the next level. She hastily pulled herself (and her act) together using every joke in her arsenal.
She was right. Sarah’s jocular presence on This Is Your Life prompted other variety shows from The Dean Martin Show to The Carol Burnett Show to request her for guest appearances. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s these performances grew her act beyond the country music niche and crossed over into mainstream media.
While a guest on The Jonathan Winters Show, Sam Lovullo, one of the TJWS’ producers, offered Sarah a spot as a cast member 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.
Shortly after celebrating her 50 year anniversary with the Grand Ole Opry, Sarah was abruptly forced to retire her beloved Minnie. Following a performance in Joliet, IL she suffered a debilitating stroke. Sarah was mostly confined to a bed in a Nashville nursing home for 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 autobiography Minnie Pearl, and many 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.