Perhaps one of the biggest cultural icons to come out of the Shenandoah Valley was Patsy Cline, who skyrocketed to worldwide fame as a country singer from the late fifties to 1963. She was living in Winchester, Va. when she got her big break on national TV. And now she's at the center of a brand new exhibition at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, also located in her home town.
“Becoming Patsy Cline” follows the singer's life, from when she was born Virginia Patterson Hensley in 1932 with deep Shenandoah Valley roots, to her climb from obscurity. She ultimately records a string of hit country music songs, and becomes the first female vocalist ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She died in a plane crash in 1963 at the age of 30.
“Patsy Cline is one of the the greatest of cultural icons to come from our region,” says Cory Garman, exhibition manager. “She sold millions of records worldwide. And she's really beloved by fans, past and today. So as you go to the exhibition, you see that.”
Patsy's story is about how a young lady – “Ginny,” as she was known to her family – grows up with a dream of being an entertainer. She realizes that dream after emerging as Patsy Cline.
We get glimpses of her life during the hard Great Depression years, and follow as she continues through significant periods until she becomes a singing star who's known worldwide.
The exhibition has been the museum's most ambitious project ever, according to the museum director Dana Hand Evans. It's been three years in the making, clearly a labor of love honoring one who spent years living in Winchester. The downtown house she lived in at the time she was discovered on national TV has also been restored as a historic attraction in recent years.
The exhibition fills four rooms of an enlarged and redesigned Changing Exhibition Gallery, and features items such as the 1938 Singer sewing machine that her mother and unfailing champion, Hilda Hensley, used to create many of Patsy's stage outfits that also are on display. A mural shows the many places the family had lived throughout the Shenandoah Valley as they moved from place to place to follow farm work.
On display is the school report card with the “C” in the music class that she chose to drop. Several poignant artifacts can be seen, such as the the wedding outfits worn when she married Charlie Dick, emotional family letters and the handkerchief her mother carried at her funeral.
Her 1959 Billboard award as “Most Promising Female County and Western Artist of 1957” is there, along with an audio-visual presentation of her breakthrough appearance on the Arthur Godfrey TV show.
Visitors also get a chance to “follow your own dream” as part of the visitor experience, thanks to interactive activities that include the creation of one's own stage name and appearance style, a way to share thoughts on a postcard for display in the gallery and on social media, and even an opportunity to ham it up for a photo op behind an old stage microphone using prop musical instruments.
Until one really gets to know about the life of Patsy Cline, it may be easy to assume that it was about a lucky girl with amazing voice, one who was quickly discovered and immediately became a star. But it didn't happen that way, says Garman.
Patsy Cline starts out as a teenager, singing in local amateur contests. And then she becomes a big band singer. And then she becomes a country singer. She took advantage of every opportunity she had to perform. At some point, she learned how to work smart.
“She was always business,” he says. “And because it was a business, and because it was essential for her to earn income, to help support her family, her mother and her siblings, she always approached it as such.”
A full decade of hard work would pass before Patsy Cline would achieve her first hit recording. And then came the tragic plane crash at the height of her stardom.
“Ultimately, this exhibit is for anyone that ever had a dream of being an entertainer, or making it as an entertainer, or any parent that ever had a child that had that dream,” Garman explains. “And I think that's one of the big underlying themes as you go through this exhibition. Her dream. And how that relates to your dream.”
The initial Becoming Patsy Cline exhibition schedule has been extended to run through July 6, 2014. The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley is located at 901 Amherst St., easy access from Interstate 81 via the Winchester bypass Route 37.
The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Daytime admission includes access to beautiful museum gardens as well as the galleries and costs $10, $8 for seniors and youth ages 13 to 18. Free admission for ages 12 and under and for museum members. Free admission to all every Wednesday from 10 a.m. until noon.
The museum always hosts a full schedule of special events, including ones directly related to the Becoming Patsy Cline exhibition. Current museum event listings are always included here on ShenandoahValley.com.
For more information, visit www.theMSV.org or call 540-662-1473, ext. 235.
Story and photos by Shenandoah Valley Productions LLC, all rights reserved.