The first night of the 24th annual Big River Chautauqua, the theme of which is "A Night of Laughter, Gossip and Magic," started off with a bang as Colorado entertainer and educator Elsa Wolff barnstormed the stage with a startling accurate portrayal of beloved country comedian Minnie Pearl.
The evening started off at 5:30 p.m. with a delicious selection of barbecue, desserts and beverages served by the Samaritan Lodge, St. Joseph Catholic Church and the Lively Stone Tabernacle youth group, respectively. At 6 p.m., guitarist Darren Thomas entertained the crowd with his impressive musical talents prior to Wolff taking the stage at a little after 7:30 p.m.
Wolff began her portrayal of Minnie Pearl with a backstage interview of the “real woman” behind the loud and uninhibited character, Sarah Colley Cannon, who was born into a conservative home in Centerville, Tennessee, where ladylike conduct was the rule rather than the exception.
Traveling the southeastern states for the Wayne P. Sewell Production Company helping to put on plays and musical shows using local talent in the 30s, she arrived one night at a town tucked away in the mountains of northern Alabama in the middle of a snowstorm.
“They didn’t expect for me to arrive,” Cannon said. “So, when I got there, the principal was so surprised. He didn’t have any place for me to stay. He said, ‘I’ve got an idea,’ and we drove me up the mountain and I never will forget the scene. We were standing in front of this little house and he knocked on the door.
“This woman came to the door. She was thin as a rail and had a thin cotton dress on although it was so cold. Her hair was all up in a tight bun. She looked a little like Granny on 'The Beverly Hillbillies' — if you can imagine that. She said, ‘What do you want?’ and the principal said, ‘This here is Miss Sarah Colley and she’s come to work with us for 10 days. We were wondering if she could stay with you.’
‘You want her to stay here? Well, I suppose she could sleep in brother’s room and he could sleep in the lean to by the kitchen. Heavens, child, come on in! You look freezing cold!’
“Well, I stayed with that family for 10 days and they were so charming. They weren’t trying to be funny, but they just made me laugh so much. I studied them, and I listened to them and I chuckled to myself. I had no idea that I was looking at the woman who would provide the framework for Minnie Pearl.
“Oh, no, no, no — her name wasn’t Minnie Pearl. I grew up in Centerville, Tennessee, where there was always an Aunt Minnie or a Cousin Pearl somewhere, and they were just two good southern names, so I just put them together and I created Minnie Pearl. But this woman paid me the nicest compliment when I left. She looked at me and said, ‘Lord a mercy, child, I hate to see you go! You’re just like one of us.’”
She hadn’t worn any special clothing when performing as Minnie Pearl until when she traveled to a convention being held in South Carolina.
“My friend and I got off the train and my friend said, ‘Let’s get you dressed up.’ I had never done that before. So, we stopped by a little department store and bought a cheap cotton dress. I bought some white stockings and a little straw hat with some flowers on it. I’ll never forget that moment. I entered in from the back of the room and for the first time, I wasn’t Sarah Colley. I was Minnie Pearl.”
The clothes she performed in that night were the same ones she wore the night she first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and she continued using them until she wore them out.
“After my job with the Sewell Production Company dried up, I returned home to Centerville,” she said. “I didn’t want to be there. Now, don’t get me wrong — I loved Centerville. It’s my hometown, but I didn’t want to be there. I was a complete failure, by my estimation. I was 28 years old and no job, no prospects and no man — so, I was an old maid. I was just so disappointed I had failed.”
Invited to perform her Minnie Pearl routine for a bankers convention, Colley finally got the break she was waiting for.
“Sometimes in life there’s these little moments that are much bigger than you can ever imagine,” she said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but there were a couple of representatives from the Grand Ole Opry in that crowd. They called me, and I was invited to audition and the next thing I knew, I went to there. Was she an immediate success? I don’t know about a success, but she wasn’t surprised.”
She worked with some of the greatest names in show business at the time and even had the opportunity to perform in Hawaii with Elvis Presley. She admitted that the large crowds who came out weren’t there to see Minnie Pearl — they were there to see the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
On Feb. 23, 1947, Colley married Henry R. Cannon, who took over management of the Minnie Pearl character. She said she couldn’t have made it without him.
The second part of the program was Wolff performing a sample of Minnie Pearl’s stage act.
“Kissing a man with a beard is a lot like going to a picnic. You don't mind going through a little bush to get there!”
“My brothers got a new dog he calls careless because he got him for a hunting dog and he cares less about hunting than any dog he's ever seen.”
“Getting married is a lot like getting into a tub of hot water. After you get used to it, it ain't so hot.”
Following her performance, Wolff said that Minnie Pearl wouldn’t have been a success in show business today.
“She basically did the same act with the same jokes for years,” Wolff said. “Audiences loved her back then and let her get away with it, but that wouldn’t work today.”