The Forming of a Pearl (Minnie Pearl)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The colorful Alabama farm lady who became the model for "Minnie Pearl"

The Forming of a Pearl

The colorful Alabama farm lady who became the model for "Minnie Pearl"

 

Young Sarah Orphelia Colley's eyes and ears recorded Mattie Burden's lively actions like a movie camera. As the colorful Baileyton, Alabama farm lady relayed family stories and local folk tales, she lit up the room. Her bright-eyed enthusiasm and folksy dialect painted vivid pictures in Sarah's mind. Sarah loved listening to her stories. Somehow, the hopeful actress also knew it was essential that she capture the essence of this wonderful lady.

Why...she wasn't exactly sure. She couldn't hope to use her mannerisms as a character for one of her own theatrical personalities. Sarah, after all, was not exactly a country bumpkin. She had graduated from Nashville's prestigious Ward-Belmont College, majoring in stage technique. She was also well versed in great literature and classical music. She had, in fact, become quite the cultured "southern lady." Obviously, nobody would accept her portrayal of a backwoods mountain character.

Sarah had been working as a show director with the Wayne P. Sewell Production Company based out of Atlanta. She would travel around the south to organize plays using the local town-folk. The play would usually be offered as a fund-raiser by a service club like the Lions or Elks. Since she was a young single lady, local families would offer to host Sarah while she directed the play. This particular stay in Baileyton, Alabama in 1936 was destined to mold the rest of her life. Even after she thanked the Burdens for their kindness and went on to direct plays in other towns, the memory of that spirited old farm lady lingered with her. Sarah knew that even though she would have trouble convincing people that she could play a hillbilly type, she had to give it a try.

Through the months, she began to refine her new character. First, she had to create a fictitious hometown. A railroad switching station near her home had the catchy name of Grinder's Switch. That would be perfect. Then she added family members. As Sarah's imagination went into full swing, she created Uncle Nabob, Brother and the rest. Finally, with another wave of her mental wand, she christened her character - Minnie Pearl.At first, Sarah only let Minnie come out and play a little at a time. She would sometimes slip into her new character for a moment, to promote the play she was directing. Oddly enough, she didn't receive criticism and disbelief, but broad smiles and warm approval. Was it possible that a college-educated city slicker might be able to pull off this salt-of-the-earth country role?

Her first real chance to find out would come when she was producing a show for a local bankers' convention. When a scheduled speaker ran late, Sarah decided to bring out her new friend Minnie to fill in. Once again, the smiles and approval spread through her little audience. In fact, one of the bankers enjoyed Minnie so much, he suggested that Sarah consider auditioning for the local WSM radio show, the Grand Ole Opry.

Sarah was not familiar with the show, but what could it hurt? After all, this new Grinder's Switch lady seemed to be able to fit in anywhere. Like Sarah, the Opry management was a little concerned that the rural listeners might be offended by a cultured college girl playing a "hayseed" character. So rather than bring her out during the main show, they scheduled her for 11:05 p.m., well after the prime-time segment.  The Opry audition was held at the War Memorial Auditorium where the show was then performed. Sarah's mother was in the crowd, and when Sarah finished, she anxiously asked her what the audience thought about her act.

"Several people woke up," her mother replied.  The following Wednesday, Sarah learned what the listening audience thought about Minnie. George D. Hay, the Opry director, asked her to come over to the station. When she arrived, she was greeted with over 300 enthusiastic fan letters - and an offer to join the Grand Ole Opry on a regular basis.  Apparently, several radio listeners "woke up" as well.

For more than fifty years, Sarah shared Minnie with millions of fans. In the mid-forties Rod Brasfield joined the Opry family. He was also from Sarah's hometown of Centerville, Tennessee. During the next decade, they continued to perform separate routines, but also became one of the most beloved comedy duos of all time.  Later, Minnie would often team up with Grandpa Jones.As the years rolled by and the Grand Ole Opry became more and more popular, so did Minnie Pearl. When she bounced on stage sporting her frilly homemade dress, and still wearing the price tag on her flowery hat, the fans knew they were in for a treat. From the first Howdee, she lit up the room for her audience just as that Alabama woman had done for her.

"Well they say a woman is only as old as she looks," she would inform the Opry crowd."Well boys, I'm still lookin'."  As the audience warmed to her homespun stories, she would tell them about her latest trip with Brother and Uncle Nabob, to the city to see a big league ball game. She remembered that they had a lot of trouble finding the stadium.

"When we finally got to the game, I said to Brother, 'What's the score?' Brother said it's the seventh inning and the score is nothing-to-nothing. And I said 'Oh goodie! Then we ain't missed nothin'."

And so it went, for over fifty years. As Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline and all the other Opry legends took their turns, Minnie Pearl was right there with them, and just so proud to be there.In fact, along with Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl would eventually become a beloved symbol of the Grand Ole Opry. Her total acceptance by country fans was demonstrated in 1975 when she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Those fans didn't realize it, but on that day they actually inducted three people. When Minnie gratefully acknowledged the plaque, she also accepted it for a sophisticated young college graduate and a colorful old Alabama farm lady.


Submitted: August 19, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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Serge Wlodarski

She was brilliant and portrayed the best aspects of southern culture with a humorous, self-effacing character.

Wed, August 19th, 2020 1:10pm

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Reply

I agree. I was fortunate enough to see her at the Grand Ole Opry. I remember the audience would fill the aisles to go up and take her picture.

Wed, August 19th, 2020 6:26am

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