CENTERVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – As you drive into Centerville a familiar face will welcome you. It’s the face of Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, better known as Minnie Pearl.
Pearl is a legendary comedian and musician not only in Tennessee but also across the country.
News 2 spoke with her great niece, Mary Beth Pruett, about Pearl’s legacy in the state.
“She was my grandmother’s sister. Dixie was my grandmother, and they were the ones closest in age. My family were the only ones that stayed in Centerville. Most of them married and moved away. I was the only grandchild of Dixie,” explained Pruett.
Pruett said Pearl wrote her a letter the day she was born, and it is one of her most prized possessions to this day.
“She had four sisters. They dressed her up to sing and dance when she was a baby. I think Minnie Pearl was born right then when she was a baby,” Pruett said.
Brenda Colladay, the VP of The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum shared some of the history of Minnie Pearl’s early life with News 2.
“She was the youngest of the family. She was always really creative and always liked to put on shows for the family. She was extremely independent. She graduated from what was then called Ward Belmont. This was a two year finishing school college for women only. She studied expression which is drama,” said Colladay.
“She really didn’t want to be a comedian. She wanted to be a dramatic actress, but she was just so funny,” said Pruett.
Colladay said after Pearl graduated, she got a job with a theatrical company out of Atlanta. “They would be booked into small towns to carry with them scripts and costumes to help an organization. It could be the local Lions Club or it could be a school or a church group to help them put on amateur plays to help them raise money.”
Pearl would show up by herself in her 20s on a train or bus and get off in a town. She would have to be put up by someone in town at their house. She would rally whoever wanted to be part of the play and would help them put on the production.
“If you can just imagine in the 1930s just traveling through the South, a single woman alone. Having the wherewithal to do that – to work and be focused on your profession is pretty remarkable,” said Colladay.
Colladay said Pearl certainly did not mean to be country’s foremost comedian. She shared a bittersweet story back when Pearl was traveling and performing.
“She was at a theater in the East Coast. It was a matinee. It was poorly attended. She sort of blew it off. She felt she spent more time entertaining the guys in the band behind her and not really playing to the crowd. It’s like nobody showed up who cares. Well, after she finished performing, the promoter asked her why she did it? She said what are you talking about? He said why did you perform such a terrible show? And she said it’s not like anyone was here to see it. He said you don’t understand. It turns out that a producer from Broadway was there to see her to potentially cast her in the musical Oklahoma,” Colladay explained, “He just walked away shaking his head and said ‘I wouldn’t have her.'”
Colladay said Pearl always remembered that as a lesson to never fluff the show, you never know who is there.
Pruett said Pearl’s life changed when she was asked to provide entertainment at a Banker’s convention in Centerville.
“He said, ‘Will you do that Minnie Pearl thing you do?”, Colladay emphasized, “She said ‘yes!'”
Pearl did that performance in plain clothes and unexpectedly caught the attention of a man in the crowd that would change her life forever.
“A man in the audience Bob Turner saw it and called the Opry the next day and said ‘there’s a girl in Centerville you need her at the Opry.’ They called her for an audition. They put her on at 11:15 at night at she got a lot of fan mail. The rest was history,” Colladay said.
Pearl became a hit at the Grand Ole Opry and on the popular television show Hee Haw. She made a name for herself in country music.
“She also was on lots of national talk shows and was involved in lots of charity work,” Colladay continued, “So, she was really well-known. And she was a really great representative of the country music community.”
Pearl was inducted into The Country Music Hall of Fame in 1975. Pruett remembers the moment it happened.
“I always remember she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I know I called her after that and I said ‘I’m just so proud ,and I know my grandma would be so proud.’ It just really struck me then how famous she was. Minnie was sort of her alter ego. As I got older and really understood it; it made me so proud.”
Before her passing, Pearl achieved another milestone. “It’s pretty amazing she was the first woman to be inducted into The Comedy Hall of Fame, even before Lucy.” Pruett added, “She was just a good warm person, and so classy, and sophisticated. Someone to really want to be like.”
Pruett said Pearl acted like anyone else and was always so loving to others. “She was always really gracious and kind to people. One of the things about her that I appreciate so much is that when she was talking to someone she would look them in the eye. It was like she was really the only person in the world right then.”
Today, the community keeps Pearl’s memory alive in Centerville. “We have a historical society here with a lot of things on display about her. And the Chamber of Commerce across the square – they have a case with things on loan from The Country Music Hall of Fame, including one of her dresses,” said Pruett.
A new bronze life-sized statue of Pearl is in the works right now. It will be placed somewhere in the towns square. It is being designed by an artist in Columbia named Jennifer Grisham. It should be ready by Spring of 2021.
Both Pruett and Colladay said Pearl’s legacy will live on forever.
“One of my favorite things that was said after she died was when Dan Miller was still on the radio. He said thank you to Minnie for showing us how to be a star, I will always remember that,” said Pruett.
Pruett said she has heard many stories about how Pearl encouraged the young Opry stars. She told News 2 it’s a great heritage to have. “It was a big impact on Tennessee, and music, and Centerville. We’re just a little town, but we can at least claim Minnie Pearl was from here. So yeah, she had a big impact.”
“On Minnie Pearl’s Hall of Fame plaque there is no death because Sarah intended to be eternal. I think it would behoove everyone to remember her personality, to remember all that she accomplished for herself, all that she did for country music, for Nashville, and beyond,” emphasized Colladay.