Minnie Pearl on the Appalachian Theatre Stage, August 1945

Advertisement from Watauga Democrat, August 2, 1945, page 7.

By Dr. Gary Boye

The Watauga Democrat from August 2nd, 1945 gives a glimpse of a small town easing back towards normalcy in the final days of the Second World War. Half the front page is dedicated to the war and international news, half to local news. Germany had been defeated earlier in the year, and now the "Big Three" of Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Harry S. Truman were outlining the world's future at the Potsdam Conference. In the Pacific, the war was turning strongly against the Empire of Japan, but no immediate end appeared in sight. An ominous headline stated that "12 Japanese Cities Are Warned of Destruction"—six had already been destroyed in conventional bombing raids by long-range Allied aircraft. More such raids were promised in leaflets dropped by air, although there is some disagreement now as to exactly which cities were warned and which weren't.

In local news, citizens were beginning to plan for a future free of rationing and manpower shortages. Local farmers were bringing lambs to the market; victory gardeners harvested green beans for canning at a local school. There were plans for a new tobacco warehouse—Boone's third—to be built across from the bus terminal (on the current site of ASU's Walker Hall). The entertainment world was awakening as well: opera notables Anna Kaskas and William Hain were planning a concert at Rumple Presbyterian in Blowing Rock. It was announced that football and other intercollegiate sports would return to Appalachian State Teachers College that fall, after a two-year hiatus. And there was big news on page 7, where a live show of Grand Ole Opry performers was advertised at the Appalachian Theatre.

Surrounding the live show on August 6 was the film, One Mysterious Night, another in the "Boston Blackie" series, starring Chester Morris and his pencil-thin mustache. The live show featured accordionist and bandleader Pee Wee King and country comedian Minnie Pearl, as well as the usual mix of dancing and country-style entertainment.

Advertisement from the Watauga Democrat, August 2, 1945, page 5.

The radio had brought these stars into homes every Saturday night for years, as it had news of battles where loved ones and friends fought in far-off corners of the globe in places unheard of just a few years before. And August 6, 1945 would go down in history not for a country music show in a local theater, but for a single bomb exploded above the city of Hiroshima. In local time, the atomic bomb was dropped around 7:15 p.m. on August 5. No press releases were made available until hours after the planes returned from their target—roughly around noon on August 6, just a few hours before the scheduled show.

Of course the show went on as planned that night. It is doubtful that many locals grasped the full implications of a single bomb that could destroy a city. Even the following week's paper, issued on the day the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki (Watauga Democrat 8/9/1945) but too early to bring any notice of it, seemed to imply that life and war were continuing as before in small town America. And it was a slice of small-town America that local theatergoers would see that night, forgetting the war and the dawn of the Atomic Age for a few hours at least.

Minnie Pearl, circa 1965. Public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon (1912-1996)

Born in Centerville, Tennessee, a town of about 1,000 just outside of Nashville, Sarah Ophelia Colley was a natural entertainer from the start. She majored in theater and dance at what is now Belmont University in Nashville. In the late 1930s, Colley toured the Southeast producing amateur plays and musicals for civic organizations in small towns. It was in one of these small towns in Alabama that she met a local mountain woman who inspired the character that would come to dominate her stage life: Cousin Minnie Pearl. Initially, as Cousin Minnie, Colley was able to appeal to local sponsors in a down-to-earth, self-effacing manner that proved irresistible in person and, perhaps, even more so on the radio when she became a regular on WSM's Grand Ole Opry in November 1940.

Colley crafted the Minnie Pearl persona carefully: a delicate balance of well-meaning rube and nobody's fool, of a spinster who was seemingly always the bridesmaid and never the bride and a surprisingly aggressive and independent woman, always on the lookout for a "catch" of a husband. Boone audiences would have seen a character they knew well from radio come to life on stage, telling stories about her fictional hometown of Grinder's Switch, Tennessee—which had obvious similarities to real-life Centerville—and a host of characters they had heard her describe so many times before: Uncle Nabob, Miss Lizzie Tinkum, her unnamed Brother, and a host of other stereotypes familiar to all small-town Southerners. All with a gauche $1.98 price tag hanging from her long-out-of-style hat.

The main musical act that evening was band leader Pee Wee King, still a year away from recording the monumental first recording of "Tennessee Waltz," the song that would propel him to national stardom. Born Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski (1914-2000) in Wisconsin, King and his lead singer Redd Stewart would craft the song in imitation of Bill Monroe's "Kentucky Waltz" and begin a craze for similar state waltzes. Still lacking a recording contract in 1945, King and His Golden West Cowboys played a new sound only starting to reach Nashville and the Opry at the time: Western Swing. Developed by Texans Milton Brown and Bob Wills in the 1930s, the big band style combined Western music and jazz swing. True to his Wisconsin polka origins, King thought of the band first and foremost as a dance band. So on that uneasy August night in 1945, the Appalachian Theatre audience witnessed an odd combination of old and new: old-time, pre-war humor mixed with up-to-date, swing-influenced ensemble music complete with fiddles, electric guitars, a drum set…and an accordion.

A 1947 recording of "I Hear You Knockin'" gives a good sample of King's complex style:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-c-O7-34TA

A later video of Cousin Minnie with Carl Smith on a Grand Ole Opry TV show from the 1950s gives an idea of the character's wit and energy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ksjWJDAYzk

The transition to television was an easy one for Minnie, where she remained an Opry mainstay until the early 1990s. Colley kept her private life firmly separate from the Minnie Pearl character, marrying Henry R. Cannon, an Army Air Corps veteran, in 1947. Mr. Cannon ran an air charter service out of Nashville, catering to the biggest stars of the day, no doubt with help from his well-connected wife. As a cancer survivor, Sarah—as Sarah Ophelia Cannon, not as Minnie Pearl—became an active advocate for breast cancer research. Although the Cannons never had children, Sarah mentored many of the younger Opry stars and was a steadying influence on their careers and personal lives. Through the years, she would come to think of Minnie Pearl not as a character so much as an old friend—someone who remained unscathed in a time of change and turmoil.