Marianne Van Osch

Marianne Van Osch

Country singer found heaven in the Cariboo

Marianne Van Osch guest column.

Pat and Juanita Corbett were named Citizens of the Year last week for their outstanding work in the development and promotion of the 108 Mile Ranch community. From their early years, when they built the Hills Health Ranch into a world-class facility, to their present enterprise, Canadian Natural Oils, they have promoted the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle in the Cariboo.

Juanita Corbett grew up in Kentucky. Her father, Jack Suttles, was an accomplished musician and composer who played several instruments and had his own country band. By the time she was six, Corbett and her older sister Berdenia were well-known entertainers at local functions.

The family moved to California. Soon the sisters were singing at events held around the state. For a year they were regulars on “Town Hall Party,” a country program. The following year they sang on “Hometown Jamboree,” another popular weekly show.

Suttles realized his daughters’ talents could be profitable so he decided to take the family on the road during the summers. Corbett recalled touring from California to Nashville throughout the 1950s, staying in cabins and motels, and singing late at night in small clubs. She remembered doing shows in places such as Armarillo, Texas and singing with Red Foley in Springfield, Missouri. In Nashville, their uncle Stringbean, who was a regular on Hee Haw, would join the girls for a song or two.

READ MORE: Peg legs and prosthesis don’t stop Caribooers

When Corbett was 13, they made an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. On stage that night was Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Marty Robbins and Kitty Wells. They also performed at other venues along with Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson and Jerry Lee Lewis.

When Corbett was 14, the girls sang at a barbecue put on for a group of stars such as James Cagney. A producer, Ivan Stouffer, invited the girls to have lunch at the MGM Studios commissary.

Corbett said, “It was actually a test so Stouffer could see how well we reacted to situations and how easily he could make us laugh or cry. Eleanor Parker and Charleton Heston joined us for lunch. He was making Ben Hur at the time and was a magnificent sight in his Egyptian costume.

“Following that interview, MGM Studios offered me a three-year, $300 per week contract. But by then I had been observing what went on backstage at shows and clubs. I had seen too much of the bad side of show business. Drugs and alcohol were always available for everyone and it seemed that anyone who was famous was miserable. Besides I knew that if I signed on with a studio I would become their property and would have no life of my own.”

Corbett noticed the only cheerful, contented people backstage were the ones working behind the scenes, She had always admired make-up artists and hairdressers who seemed to enjoy their careers and took pleasure in working with everyone. She decided to study cosmetology as a way of doing the same.

Although her memories of singing for appreciative audiences and meeting famous people are good ones, Corbett regrets losing a large part of her childhood during the summers on the road.

“My mother and the boys were free to roam and explore the countryside. But Berdenia and I always had to practice our songs with our father for hours, and prepare our outfits for the evening’s performance. We had no time to relax. When I was 10, I told my mother that someday I would get married and have kids and they would not see a suitcase until they were in high school.

As for leaving her singing career and possibly fame and fortune behind, Corbett said, “I describe it like this. An apple pie is good for you. But if you put 10 per cent arsenic in it, that pie is going to kill you. I loved the singing but what would have killed who I am is the bad stuff – the drugs, alcohol, the politics and the criticism.”

Corbett first visited the Cariboo in 1967. She described how she felt at that time and ever since then.

“We came over the hill near Clinton and there was this beautiful green valley, with a gorgeous blue sky and the whitest of clouds. I said ‘this is Heaven.’”

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