There’s a fascinating through line to get to Miss Lillian.
It leads from the dawn of television through classic characters like Betty Boop and larger than life icons like Judy Garland. It crosses paths with Carl Perkins, Minnie Pearl, Ray Stevens and Harvey Keitel.
Along the way there’s a Prince and, eventually, there’s even a Country Queen.
And there are chickens. Lots and lots of chickens.
Miss Lillian, the proprietor of Miss Lillian’s Smoke House and one of Dollywood’s most popular characters, is simply an effervescent source of zany humor dialed up to 1,000 and multiplied by 10.
Better known as The Chicken Lady, she brings joy to thousands of people each year with her unbridled enthusiasm and improvised songs played on a banjo-ukulele hybrid.
Kids love the gung ho, hi-brite intensity she brings. They love hearing their names in her made-up-on-the-spot songs.
Adults love her, too. They can’t help it. She makes them feel like a kid again.
Who is Miss Lillian, aka The Chicken Lady?
Miss Lillian is a character played by Connie Freeman Prince in the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
In 2004, park officials were looking for the right person to portray Miss Lillian, the owner and proprietor of Miss Lillian’s Smoke House, one of the most popular and best, in my opinion, restaurants in the park.
They found Prince working at Dollywood’s sister park Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., and brought her on board.
Over the years, Miss Lillian – who in many ways is the heir to popular southern personalities like Minnie Pearl – has developed into a Dollywood icon.
She sings, plays music, dresses like Dollywood’s version of a chicken-obsessed hipster and entertains the crowd with humor, frequently involving her conversations with a tiny rubber chicken she keeps in her pocket called Chicken Little.
Prince is Tennessee entertainment royalty
Prince is the daughter of Doris Freeman, a West Tennessee radio and television icon.
Freeman was a pioneer in radio as well as workplace leadership and management, a member of the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame and was a civic icon, raising money for special needs children nearly all her life.
In the 50s, when television stations were responsible for some of their own programming, Freeman created the character Cousin Tuny, who wore a red checkered dress and had two front teeth blacked out and entertained West Tennessee children Monday through Friday on WDXI television.
She raised money alongside Carl Perkins and Minnie Pearl.
And at the age of one, Freeman’s daughter started joining her on air, debuting as Baby New Year.
Her mother’s daughter, Prince received her BFA in performance from Memphis State and worked at the renowned Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Along the way she began impersonating characters from Shirley Temple and Betty Boop to Marilyn Monroe, Mae West and even Dolly Parton.
Her ability to play Judy Garland earned her a role in the Harvey Keitel vehicle “Finding Graceland.”
She was the female lead in Ray Stevens’ “Get Serious” which featured a vignette with Prince and Stevens performing “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens” while wearing chicken costumes, a scene she finds ironic now.
“I never knew that I’d end up with a chicken on my head, but the good Lord, he has a great sense of humor, he do,” she said during a recent Facebook live performance.
She worked cruise ships and amusement parks around the world and found her way to Branson where the Herschend Family, Dollywood’s co-owners, operates several venues.
“I started with Herschend Family Entertainment 18 years ago,” she told TheSmokies.com.
“I was hired to play all these characters in a park called Celebration City. Then they put me in Silver Dollar City portraying Mary in the Christmas show.”
Then she got the call to go to Dollywood in a fitting homage
“God has a wonderful sense of humor from Betty Boop to the Virgin Mary to the Chicken Lady at Dollywood,” she said. “They were looking for a Miss Lillian.”
She’s following quite literally in her mother’s footsteps, creating an iconic character who has entertained generations of children. It is, in many ways, a fitting homage.
She sings, dances, jokes and brings a silly joy to her work. She hands out Magic Pennies that are guaranteed to bring results when chucked into the nearby Wishing Well.
Prince praises Dollywood for letting her create the character her way.
“They let me loose and let me play,” she said. “A lot of what I do is improv. That’s what’s so fun, you see a child light up with their name and that’s my great joy.”
And that freedom has paid off with something of an ethos, which Prince calls the Chicken Lady spirit.
It’s about love and joy and finding the inner child within. It’s a connection from Cousin Tuny to Miss Lillian through all the characters in between.
“No matter how you’re feeling, you call upon that little child within you and brings you joy,” she said.
Prince is more than just The Chicken Lady
When Prince sings, you can catch glimpses of the talented performer under the chicken hat. You hear the performer that can credibly impersonate one of the most legendary talents to ever live, Judy Garland.
Miss Lillian has serious pipes, y’all.
“Judy was very close to me growing up,” she explained.
“I grew up performing Judy Garland songs. When most kids were out playing in the yard, I would be in my bedroom pantomiming into a hair brush. I would rehearse every moment from the Carnegie Hall album. She has always been in my soul.”
Prince has learned from the strong women performers. Some of those like her mother and Minnie Pearl, quite literally in person. Others like Garland and Dolly Parton from a distance. But the lessons run deep.
“I learned from Judy and the great Minnie Pearl, you always give love. You always sing from your soul,” the five-foot-one dynamo explained.
“Dolly does that. Never do anything in this life that doesn’t bring you joy. I always say ‘life is short and so am I.’”
‘Chicken Lady for the Soul’
Along the way, Prince met her soulmate.
A hall of fame video game composer and sound designer, Bobby Prince’s work on games like the Duke Nukem and Doom franchises earned him a lifetime achievement award from his fellow game composers.
He and Connie, who learned by ear from her mother, have made beautiful music together.
“My mother used to say we play between the cracks,” Connie explained. “He’s an incredible musician. We’ve written music together. We’re musical partners, we create together.”
One of those creations is a musical children’s book, “Elvin the tiniest Elf.”
Connie also has a new book out: “Healing Rhymes For Human Kind: A Heart Handbook Sent To The Sensitive Soul.”
It’s a book of poems designed to lift the spirit, bring light. It’s the Chicken Lady for the Soul.
“This is a labor of love,” she said. “Everything you wanted to know about the Chicken Lady but were afraid to ask but it is from my soul. I wanted to bring to light how my spirituality brings me through.”
The poems are indexed by the mood or feeling they’re meant to address.
“I’m a great believer in angels,” she said, explaining that when she needs an extra jolt of motivation, she turns to the book.
“I say ‘Did God give me a message today?’ and I’ll thumb through the book for inspiration. My prayer is, it brings light. That’s my dream to be a light worker.”
“I’m at a place in my life I want to inspire and give back,” she said.
The ride continues for Connie Freeman Prince, actress, author, composer, singer and musician. In addition to performing in the park, The Chicken Lady has done a series of live videos on her Facebook page.
She has hoped to again follow in her mother’s footsteps and land a television gig.
“I still have huge dreams in this world,” she said.
Miss Lillian’s appearances are not at any scheduled time or date and she’s listed as a roaming character. If you see her in the park, stop and say hello. She might put your name in her next improvised song.
Have you seen The Chicken Lady perform at Dollywood? Let us know in the comments.