Belmont University exhibited its party-throwing abilities on Thursday evening (Jan. 19) with a three-hour gala to salute NPT’s new documentary about the legendary Minnie Pearl.
The event featured the screening of excerpts from Facing the Laughter: Minnie Pearl, the first film to explore the life and legacy of the Country Music Hall of Fame comedian. Staged at the school’s awesome new Fisher Center performance hall, the bash also included Minnie-inspired art, cuisine, music and reminiscences.
The Fisher Center’s marble lobby held displays of 35 colorfully elaborate, sculptural and floral hats designed by the university’s fashion students. These were inspired by the star’s trademark straw hat topped with fake flowers and a $1.98 price tag.
Guests sampled from a buffet that featured several dishes that can be found in Minnie Pearl’s popular cookbooks — chicken-salad tea sandwiches, deviled eggs, coleslaw, beef skewers, pork sliders, melon & berries, truffled mac & cheese bites, loaded fingerling potatoes, apple-crumb tortlettes, pecan tassies and chocolate torts.
Working the room were Dan Rogers, Demetria Kalodimos, Dave Pomeroy, Sarah Cates, Amy Smartt, Doug Howard, Brenda Colladay, Erin Morris, Kent Oliver, Ellen Pryor, Mike Martinovich, David Ewing, Greg Hall, Jules Wortman, Glenda Harper, Lisa Harless and Metro’s First Lady Laura Cooper. Belmont president Greg Jones greeted the throng, saying, “Tonight’s event celebrates the legacy of Sarah Colley Cannon, an alumnus of Ward-Belmont. She had a spirit [as Minnie Pearl] we want our students to emulate.”
He encouraged us to enter the fabulous concert hall, where we were serenaded by the school’s fine bluegrass ensemble — Billy Ayers, Justin Blanner, Ky Brandes, Marissa Colter and Jonathan Horne, plus its female-trio vocalists Elizabeth Dewey, Sydney Lee and Michelle Raybourne. They performed next to a mini “Grinder’s Switch” set designed by their fellow student, Susie Konstans.
Sylvia Harney, also a Belmont alumnus, came onstage in full Minnie Pearl regalia to do a short stand-up set of the legend’s jokes. Nashville’s Deputy mayor of Community Engagement Brenda Haywood brought greetings from Mayor John Cooper and offered a brief bio of the country superstar.
“She was a trail-blazing woman who changed comedy,” said Haywood. “She became a uniter here in the Athens of the South.”
NPT president Becky Magura presided. “What a tremendous night,” she exclaimed. “Thank you Belmont; you sure know how to throw a party.” She brought on the film’s producer/director, Barb Hall.
“I just hope I have done justice,” said Hall. “I hope you enjoy it.” She screened a brief segment of the 90-minute documentary.
Rodney Crowell, Kathy Mattea and John Jorgenson performed Crowell’s song “It’s Time to Go Inward,” which was inspired by Minnie’s wisdom. Mattea remained on stage to take part in panel discussion with filmmaker Hall, Joanne Berry and Don Cusic.
Pam Tillis shared a story of how Minnie had mentored her Hall of Fame dad, Mel Tillis. Minnie encouraged him to talk and be funny, assuring him that audiences would laugh with him, not at him, when he stuttered. Pam then performed her superbly written “Two Dollar Hat,” a song in the legendary lady’s honor.
Amy Grant shared stories from her girlhood growing up in Music City that involved her interactions with Sarah Cannon (Minnie Pearl). “I don’t remember one thing she said, but I remember how she made me feel,” said Grant, adding that one of her daughters is named in the star’s honor.
“Hasn’t this been a wonderful night?” asked Brenda Lee. “I began touring with Minnie when I was 10 years old. I learned so much from her. Not as an entertainer, but as a good person.
“Miss Minnie, I wish you could be here tonight. Because you can still fill up a room.”
A second segment of Facing the Laughter was screened, spotlighting Minnie Pearl’s tenure on Hee Haw. Then Sarah Cannon Cancer Center leader Jonathan Tinker told of the her philanthropy, stating that 2/3 of the recently approved cancer-treating drugs were in clinical trials there. Sarah/Minnie’s largess also extended to Belmont, which was the recipient of some of her estate. Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon received an honorary doctorate from Belmont in 1989.
Facing the Laughter: Minnie Pearl officially premieres on Feb. 6 in area theaters. This is NPT’s first theatrical film.