October 26, 1987 12:00 PM

With the vestiges of stage makeup beginning to cake in what she calls the “gullies” of her face, Minnie Pearl finally sits down for dinner at a restaurant around 9 o’clock on a Friday night. She has performed this evening on both the Nashville Now TV show and the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast, and she appeared at a convention earlier in the day. Now she orders a vodka martini and animatedly assesses the day. “I work so hard because I like it. Not like it,” she clarifies, “love it! These were good shows, happy shows. They popped.”

Minnie pops as well. At 9:30 the next morning the phone rings in a Nashville hotel room, waking a visitor who’s been run ragged for three days trying to keep up with the 74-year-old country comedienne. The caller is Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, also known as Minnie Pearl, the gal famous for the $1.98 price tag swinging from her straw hat. She is worried about having ordered that drink last night. “I was still in costume and I should have changed,” she says, her voice tinged with worry. “I’ve never done that [ordered a drink while dressed as Minnie Pearl] before,” she explains, “but I was tired. See, Sarah Cannon may take a drink now and then, but she never does. Even a glass of wine isn’t in character for Minnie Pearl.” Cannon is protective of Minnie, and grateful to her. Minnie Pearl has, after all, been her alter ego ever since she first stepped out on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1940. “I just don’t want anything to hurt her,” she says.

In fact, Minnie Pearl seems indestructible. There may be newer and hipper characters, but for 47 years now the nation has settled back happily and laughed every time Minnie has barged onstage with a bellowed “Howdee!” and a saucy flip of her size 12, full-skirted gingham dress. A raucous rural maid, she proudly tells audiences she is from Grinder’s Switch, Tenn., a town so small, “You don’t read the paper to find out who is doing what—you already know that—but to find out if they got caught.” Cornball, but funny. Many of her jokes are based on sly observations about modern life (“I ride jet planes. Yeees, I do, only I don’t put my weight down”). Then there’s her constant longing for a feller (“They named the fire engine in Grinder’s Switch after me. Yeees, they did. Named it the Minnie Pearl. ‘Cause just like me, it’s always ready but seldom called”). And her observations on hillbilly family life (“Mrs. Tugwell just had her 16th young ‘uns, She’s had so many young ‘uns, she’s running out of names—to call her husband, that is”).

The jokes are old. Real old. Some date back 40 years. Cannon often forages through her classic routines for material, with many of the best jokes coming from her set of bound Opry scripts for shows broadcast on the NBC radio network from 1947 to 1953. “All those old dumb jokes,” she says fondly. “They’re all old. They’re all dumb. The minute I look at a joke, it comes back to me.” Roy Acuff, 84, the Grand Ole Opry’s “King of Country Music,” has been straight man to Minnie’s punch lines since her Opry debut in 1940. “It don’t make no difference if you’ve heard them a hundred times,” he says, “it’s still a laughable joke.”

In real life, Sarah Cannon is in many ways the antithesis of Minnie. Cannon is a leading doyenne of Nashville society and charity circles, a happily married woman who lives next door to the Governor’s mansion in a large, well-furnished house with a tennis court and a swimming pool. A daily reader of the New York Times and slave to its formidable crossword puzzles, she is an articulate and precise speaker.

What has happened, though, after all these years, is that Sarah Cannon and Minnie Pearl at times merge. Cannon steals Minnie’s best lines, sidestepping an excessively analytical conversation by saying, “Of course, I’m about as deep as a biscuit” or, muttering about her own advancing years, “I don’t buy no green bananas anymore.” Conversely, Cannon’s life keeps shoehorning itself into Minnie’s act, with frequent mentions onstage of husband Henry Cannon. She sees one common trait in her two personae. “I’m crazy, and it don’t matter whether I have a costume on or not,” she explains.

Although in the last decade she has cut back her touring schedule, Cannon still clamps on Minnie’s hat and hitches up her white stockings an impressive four or five times a week for Nashville Now and the Opry, and does 20-minute stand-up routines at conventions in Nashville and elsewhere. She also co-writes a weekly Minnie’s Memories column for the Nashville Banner. Her husband, Henry, 70, urges her to ease up, but Cannon says she can’t stop. “I guess it’s ego,” she says.

Sarah Ophelia Colley was born Oct. 25, 1912, in Centerville, Tenn., the last of Fannie Tate and Thomas K. Colley’s five daughters. Her father owned a lumber business, and the family was well-off by small-town Tennessee standards. Their house had the town’s first indoor plumbing, and their father justified staying home from church on Sundays because, living with six females, he said it was his only day to use the bathroom. The house also featured the town’s best-stocked library, and Cannon says her parents stressed the value of education. “It was drilled into my bones when I made a grammatical error,” she says, “and then I go into a business where I commercialize on nothing but grammatical errors. It’s kind of a paradox.”

When she was 8, Cannon overheard a friend of her mother’s describe her as “a plain little thing.” That remark, she claims, was the start of her career as a comic. “I didn’t think I was very pretty and I did it to get attention,” she says. At 18, she went to Nashville and enrolled in the dramatic expression department at Ward-Belmont College, an upper-crust finishing school. Cannon planned on being a dramatic actress but found that her natural comic flair kept sabotaging her forays into serious plays. “Even when I did serious parts I got laughs,” she says. After graduating from the school’s two-year program, Cannon dreamed of becoming a Broadway star but found herself returning to Centerville. She was only 20, and no respectable girl left home until she was 21, so she opened a small studio and taught drama, dance and piano. “Teaching? Well, I was taking the money,” she says now.

Two years later she signed on with the Wayne P. Sewell Production Co., which produced amateur theatricals throughout the rural South. Sewell hired about 100 young women—” ‘winsome directors’ as he put it in his literature,” Cannon recalls. They traveled to a new town every 10 days to recruit local dramatic hopefuls and direct them in second-rate musical comedies written by Mrs. Sewell. “My check, as a rule, ran around $10 or $15 for the 10 days work,” says Cannon, who spent six Great Depression years on the road for Sewell.

She listened hard to the country expressions and stories she heard, not realizing she was gathering the bricks to build the foundation for her career as Minnie Pearl. “The Lord was taking me in that direction. I was supposed to be collecting that stuff. To be Minnie Pearl, that was my destiny,” says Cannon, a strong believer and regular attendee at the Brentwood United Methodist Church. It was in Baileyton, Ala., that she actually hit upon the Minnie Pearl character while boarding at a small mountain cabin with an old woman. “I started imitating her and people started laughing. I already had this incipient comedic frame, and here was the vehicle for it,” she says.

In 1940, her father having died and the family being in reduced circumstances, Pearl moved back home with her mother. She got a Works Progress Administration job as a recreation director. “Was I blue! I loved Centerville; I love it yet. But I’d had a little taste of independence and I wanted to stay that way,” Cannon says. “There I am, back in the country. If you weren’t married at 28, you were just an old maid, as in capital letters.”

Minnie Pearl came to her rescue. Three years earlier, Cannon had named the character (“Everyone has a cousin or an aunt named Minnie or Pearl,” she says), put her in costume and been paid $25 for performing before the Pilots Club in Aiken, S.C. Now, back in Centerville, a local banker asked her to “kill time” as Minnie Pearl at a convention. A Nashville banker saw her there, called a buddy who managed the Grand Ole Opry (then as now broadcast on weekends by WSM radio), and she was asked to audition for the show. “I been killing time ever since,” Cannon jokes.

In those early days at the Opry, Oannon performed there every Saturday night and then took to the road for one-night stands the rest of the week with other Opry stars, all men. “A lot of times, they thought I was asleep when they’d be driving along after performing. They’d drink some and talk, and I learned about a lot of things I never did know before,” she says. One of those things was the low regard many of her traveling companions had for women. “I became wary. Very. From 28 to 34, I just kind of wondered if I was ever going to get married.”

She knew she didn’t want to marry a fellow performer. “You cannot make blanket statements about who is a good risk and who isn’t,” she says, picking her words carefully, “but some careers or professions are just better risks than others, and I don’t think, as a rule, show people, unfortunately, can devote as much time to the nurturing of a marriage or a love relationship as someone perhaps in a less fragmented profession.” Susan Quick, 28, the Nashville Banner reporter who co-writes Cannon’s weekly column, says Pearl dressed her down earlier this year for dating a musician.

Maybe that’s why when her own husband, Henry, is asked how he feels about playing second fiddle to Minnie Pearl, he replies, “But I don’t play the fiddle.” Henry, a retired pilot, is her business partner (“We’re selling a product and a business and it’s Minnie Pearl,” she says). They were introduced in 1946 by a friend of hers and married in 1947, when she was 34 and he was 29. She had planned on having children and settling down but says the Lord apparently didn’t mean that to happen. Instead, for the next 27 years, they spent much of their time on the road, with Henry flying her, and many other country music stars, to concert dates all over the country.

Cannon says her fame had intimidated a lot of men before Henry, but Henry isn’t impressed by much and he took the crowds and autograph seekers in stride. For her part, she says, “I never could count, I never could fly a plane and I never could find directions to go anywhere. I never could do so many things Henry does, that I always think of Henry as being superior.” Henry does not discourage her in this impression, but if she brags too long about him, he says, “Now, honey…”

Cannon and many of her friends consider Henry, who is a charming mix of Southern gentleman and curmudgeon, to be the truly funny half of the couple. Cannon says Henry’s humor and support were crucial to her recovery, two years ago, after a double mastectomy. (She is an active American Cancer Society volunteer and last April was presented with the ACS’s Courage award by President Ronald Reagan.) She particularly remembers looking over silicone implants with Henry, and his volunteering, “Honey, now you’ll look like one of those Hee Haw girls.”

In a backstage room of the Opryl and Convention Center, Sarah Cannon is putting the final touches on her Minnie Pearl costume while she waits for her cue to go out and tell jokes to a room full of grocery store executives. She tugs at her white stockings, which are in danger of falling down. “Oh well,” she says, giving up on the stockings, “Minnie never was supposed to be elegant. If she was, she never would have made it.” She pulls her straw hat out of a plastic bag, only to discover that the trademark $1.98 price tag is missing. “I can’t go out without the tag,” she says. “It just wouldn’t be Minnie.”

Almost 50 years in show business have taught her not to panic, and she doesn’t. Instead, she improvises. Using a piece of white cardboard, a pair of manicure scissors and a string recycled from a used tea bag, Cannon fashions a new price tag and marks it $1.98. Half a minute later, the new price tag bobbing from her hat, she strides onstage and cries, “Howdee!” The grocery executives stand and cheer. From the back of the room one yells, “Minnie, we love you.” Yes, and he’d probably love Sarah Cannon too, even if he has no way of knowing it.

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