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Minnie Pearl dead at 83

Minnie

Country Music Hall of Fame comedian delighted audiences for more than 50 years

March 5, 1996
Web posted at: 10:10 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Mark Scheerer

(CNN) -- Some celebrities are known by a single name. But worldwide fans of country comedian Minnie Pearl will remember her for a single word, said as only she could: "Howdyyyyyyy!" (160K QuickTime movie) (26K AIFF sound or 26K WAV sound)

Her other trademark -- a wide-brimmed straw hat with its dangling $1.98 price tag. Pearl died Monday night at Columbia Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. She had been unconscious for a week, following a February 25 stroke. She was 83.

How "Minnie Pearl" was born

As a regular performer with the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Sarah Colley Cannon delighted audiences for more than 50 years.

Opry

But hardly anyone knew her by her real name. On stage in her cotton stockings, gingham dress and dime-store hat, she created a silly country girl character called Minnie Pearl. She laced her jokes with references to "Grinder's Switch," a railroad switching station near her hometown of Centerville, 50 miles southwest of Nashville.

The entertainer, the youngest of five children, came from a well-to-do family in Centerville. Growing up, she dreamed of appearing on Broadway. After college, she accepted an offer to travel from town to town, directing amateur plays.

It was during a 1936 stop in the mountains of northern Alabama that she met a "funny old lady" -- age 70 -- that she decided to imitate. (230K AIFF sound or 230K WAV sound) The Minnie Pearl character, a composite of several people she met, was born.

The price tag trademark came later. Prior to one performance, Miss Pearl, as she was also known, put on a new hat. The price tag slipped down into view but the accident was a hit, as was her signature greeting: "Howdyyyyyyy! I'm just so proud to be here!"

Her career takes off

Pearl was the only female member of the Grand Ole Opry when she joined in 1940. At the time, the weekly live radio show was the premier showcase for country music talent. As an entertainer, her travels took her from World War II Europe to the White House. By the late 1940s, she was a major draw. Miss Pearl also appeared on the syndicated TV show "Hee Haw" for 20 years.

In 1966, Pearl was voted Country Music Woman of the Year and in 1975 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame -- unusual honors for an entertainer whose piano playing and singing were not the reason fans loved her.

She was best known for her humor, which focused on a long- standing search for a "feller." A typical quip: "Kissing a feller with a beard is like a picnic. You don't mind going through a little brush to get there."

One of her favorite jokes was about being accosted by a robber: "I said, `But I haven't got any money,' so he frisked me and said, `Are you sure you ain't got any money?' I said, `No sir, but if you'll do that again I'll write you a check.'"

More than an entertainer

White House

Pearl was diagnosed with cancer in 1985 and underwent a double mastectomy. As she recovered, she continued to perform and did volunteer work on cancer awareness. A Tennessee medical center was named after her. In 1987, Miss Pearl received the American Cancer Society's Courage Award at the White House. In 1992, she was among 13 recipients of a National Medal of Art.

One of her late career triumphs was an appearance on "Comic Relief" in 1986, where she got a standing ovation performing with Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and other comedians. A show honoring her in 1992, the year after her first stroke, featured tributes from country stars Johnny Cash and Dwight Yoakam and Hollywood stars Pee-wee Herman and Burt Reynolds, among others.

Pearl's advice to all performers on connecting with audiences: "Love them and they'll love you right back."

She married her manager, Henry Cannon, in 1947. In addition to Cannon, Pearl is survived by a sister, Mary Colley Kershaw of Hendersonville, North Carolina, and several nieces and nephews.

Funeral services, open to the public, are set for 2 p.m. Wednesday at Brentwood United Methodist Church in Brentwood, just outside of Nashville.

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