“Minnie Pearl: Facing the Laughter”, directed by Barbara Hall, an 89-minute 7-year labor of love, screened at the Nashville Film Festival on Monday, October 2nd, 2023. Those singing the praises of Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon were a Who’s Who of Country Music. Minnie Pearl as a character appeared on the Grand Ole Opry from 1940 to 1991. She was invited to become a member after her very first appearance on the show. She appeared on the television show “Hee Haw” from 1969 to 1991. Her early education at Belmont College and her years spent traveling a rural circuit in 7 rural areas and performing for as little as $50 a week, often with Roy Acuff, were described.
Who was Minnie Pearl? What was her “brand?”
Today’s youth—[much like those who have no idea who Shere Hite of “The Hite Report” was]—-don’t know Minnie Pearl. We learned this from an instructor at Belmont during the Q&A. However, her unique branding of the straw hat with the price tag still attached remains. Some in their tributes to what a nice person she was said they felt she would be better recognized than Carol Burnett or Mary Tyler Moore. They quantified that comment, saying she would be better identified in profile, with the omnipresent price tag still hanging from her hat. Comments that she didn’t want the same kind of fame as those better-known female pioneers should be taken with a grain of salt.
The Minnie Pearl of the Grand Ole Opry was described as “a transformative figure.” Barbi Benton (better known as Hugh Hefner’s long-time girlfriend), who knew Sarah from appearing with her on “Hee Haw” said, “She was a woman who had absolutely no style.” That was meant in a flattering way. Minnie Pearl gave voice to country women who were ordinary looking and considered hillbillies. She was a pioneer for future female comedians, using racy, sexual innuendo and dressing her intelligence and beauty down with a hearty “How-dy!” greeting, while attired in the plain cotton sun dress and straw hat that became her tademarks.
Minnie Pearl as a “Real” Person
What came through most clearly is that Sarah/Minnie was a very nice person. She was inclusive when it was not the norm. She comforted other country performers when they were at their lowest. One, in particular, who choked up when offering his opinions on the woman was Dwight Yoakam. Garth Brooks also seemed to have forged deep bonds with Sarah/Minnie.
Among the more interesting testimonials was that of the recently deceased Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), who pointed out that Sarah and he had alternate personas. The fame of her alternate persona Minnie Pearl sustained her for decades. The filmmakers said that the problem was not getting famous people to sing her praises, but trying to accommodate all of those who wished to participate. She was described as having “befriended everyone” and praised as someone who showed many other people how to be genuine, sweet and amazing. Paul Reubens, in particular, cited Minnie Pearl’s “realness, believability, and genuineness.”
The real Sarah was said to exhibit elegance, grace, kindness and humility. Her longstanding marriage to a pilot, Henry Ripperton, was covered, with director Barbara Hall saying, “It’s so hard to tell a whole life in 90 minutes.” Ms. Hall added, “I felt she was really an open book about her life and there were really no deep, dark secrets.” She described her part in the production as being “an honor” and said she was “very grateful” to have been part of the project.
Interesting Things Learned Accidentally
Paul Reubens—better known as Pee Wee Herman—was a close friend of Minnie Pearl’s. Also, Paul Reubens has a sister in Nashville who is a prominent civil rights attorney.
Dwight Yoakam gave praise for as long as 2 hours. Many Kleenex helped him through his emotional testimony. Indeed, he paused so long at one point in his effusive memorial to Minnie Pearl that we thought he had fallen asleep.
Garth Brooks really, really liked Minnie Pearl. He said that, from her, he had learned how to treat his fans. Not sure if Garth is held in as high esteem in country music circles since the beer can female impersonator incident (look it up), but he was very eloquent in his praise of Minnie Pearl as a female pioneer.
Other luminaries offering praise: Amy Grant (who named her daughter Sarah after Minnie Pearl); Dolly Parton; k.d. lang;Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson; Tanya Tucker; Reba McEntire; Brenda Lee; Ray Stevens; Roy Acuff; Barbi Benton and many, many more.
Sarah’s only education was at the finishing school in Nashville known then as Ward-Belmont School. Belmont had a strong drama program, and Sarah’s original goal was to be a dramatic actress. It is known today as Belmont College and is my daughter’s alma mater.One of Sarah’s early instructors at Belmont told her: “You’ll bruise the tips of your fingers on the tips of stars, but you won’t ever be a star.” [So much for the prescience of his or her crystal ball.]
Sarah’s health declined as her career wound down, with a breast cancer diagnosis and strokes. She donated the money to found the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute. The documentary makes the statement that she was one of the few, aside from Betty Ford, who allowed her name to be used to help others with their disease. I immediately thought of several others who have done the same: Olivia Newton-John, Danny Thomas and celebrities like Michael J. Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, Nick Jonas, and Halley Berry who have lent their name or star power to helping others suffering from the same disease. Not every celebrity started an actual hospital (although Olivia Newton-John did) but there are many instances of famous folk supporting research aimed at their disease.
Well-done archival footage that will help introduce younger generations to a pioneer female comic. Interesting and entertaining. I am old enough to remember Minnie Pearl and rural enough (Iowa) to feel her brand of humor was aimed at me, but I was more of a “Laugh In” girl. It is a well-done puff piece, in large part because so many celebrities sincerely liked the real person.
Minnie Pearl’s advice to other performers (“Love them and they’ll love you back.”) is much needed today.