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Jurassic Lark
What Do Dinosaurs and the Civil War Have in Common? Mark Cline's Art

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 24, 2006

NATURAL BRIDGE, Va. Mark Cline says his greatest artistic triumph is Foamhenge, a life-size reproduction of Stonehenge that he carved out of Styrofoam and erected in a field here. But future art critics might conclude that Cline's greatest achievement is Escape From Dinosaur Kingdom, a roadside attraction that incorporates two classic tourist-trap themes (dinosaurs and the Civil War) in a uniquely Virginian way -- by having the dinosaurs attack Yankee soldiers.

Right now, Cline, 45, is strolling into Dinosaur Kingdom, wearing his ever-present white fedora because, he explains, "the white hat suggests the hero."

There's nobody around because it's a Monday and the Kingdom doesn't open on weekdays until after Memorial Day. Cline flips a switch, turning on the sound effects, which consist of operatic music and dinosaur growls.

"This is called creating the ambiance," he says. "You set the stage. You hear the screams. You get the feel."

At the Kingdom's entrance, a sign explains the premise: It's 1863 and Union soldiers have discovered a hidden valley filled with dinosaurs. Now the Yankees plan to "use the dinos as weapons of mass destruction against the South."

Cline enters the Kingdom and walks past a fiberglass raptor sitting in an old wagon, past a fiberglass cow surrounded by eight hungry-looking fiberglass dinosaurs, past a fiberglass little girl fighting off a dinosaur who has attacked her treehouse. Then he arrives at the Kingdom's pièce de résistance -- a life-size Yankee cavalryman on a horse trying to lasso a T-rex that's clutching a Yankee soldier in its fearsome jaws.

It's amazing! It's brilliant! It's hilarious!

It's also a real crowd-pleaser. "The Southern people like it," Cline says, "and the Northern people have a sense of humor."

Next year, Cline adds, he hopes to open a Civil War-themed dinosaur attraction in Gettysburg. Up there, he says, the Yankees won't be the bad guys.

"I'm thinking of doing Pickett's Charge using dinosaurs," he says.

"It's an alternate reality."

'When I Grow Up . . .'

One day when Cline was a kid, he was riding in his father's car near White Post, Va., when he spotted a billboard advertising Dinosaur Land. He begged his father to stop, but it was late and when they arrived, the place was closed. Mark peeked through the fence at the ersatz prehistoric lizards.

"Dad," he said, "when I grow up, I'm gonna build these."

And now he does. He builds sculptures of dinosaurs and skulls and monsters and celebrities -- sculptures that are displayed in tourist traps and theme parks and miniature golf courses and haunted houses all over this great land. And he has fulfilled his childhood dream by building dinosaurs for Dinosaur Land.

"He's made, golly, 15, 16, maybe 20 dinosaurs for us," says Joanne Leight, who inherited Dinosaur Land from her father, who created it in 1963. "His faces are so good, much better than the ones we had in the '60s. The eyes seem to follow you. The dinosaurs built for Daddy back in the '60s, they kind of just sat there, but Mark makes dinosaurs that interact with the environment. We have a triceratops that looks like it's gouging into the stomach of a T-rex."

Cline works his magic in a studio near Natural Bridge, about 40 miles north of Roanoke. You can't miss the place: Superman is perched on a tower above a fence lined with Egyptian pharaohs.

Inside the fence, the ground is littered with fiberglass pterodactyls and random pieces of sharks and elephants. "This place is a real mess right now," Cline says.

He points to a huge fiberglass frog. "I made that for a guy who has a day-care center in Alabama."

He points to four fiberglass skeletons. They're destined for Professor Cline's Haunted Monster Museum, which is right next to Cline's Civil War dinosaur attraction.

"These are not just any skeletons," he says. "They're going to be the Marx Brothers' skeletons. Harpo will have a harp and Groucho will have a cigar."

In a storage area, Cline points to a cowboy wearing a hat and bandanna. "He was my Headless Horseman," he says, "so when we rented him to a cowboy-themed dinner, we had to add a head."

On the balcony stands a statue of Michael Jackson that could be described as lifelike except that the real Michael Jackson isn't particularly lifelike.

"I built him in the '80s, when he wasn't so, um, controversial," Cline says. "Since then, I had to make his nose smaller and I had to change his color."

His Purpose in Life

Cline can't sit still. He squirms in his chair like a little boy, then pops up and paces around his office, talking a mile a minute.

"I'm not considered a real artist by other artists," he says. "But neither was Norman Rockwell. Neither was Walt Disney. It doesn't bother me."

Son of an electrician and a secretary, he was born in 1961 in Waynesboro, a town in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. In high school he was a terrible student, he says, and when he got out, he bummed around the country, rafting down the Missouri River like Huck Finn and motorcycling to Key West, where he earned a living taking photographs of tourists sitting on his bike, posing with his homemade statue of a two-headed biker.

Eventually he drifted back to Waynesboro and tried to make a living as a sculptor.

"He stood up at the City Council with a proposal to make a huge Styrofoam statue of Mad Anthony Wayne, for whom the town is named," recalls Doug Harwood, editor of the Rockbridge Advocate, a local tabloid whose slogan is "Independent as a Hog on Ice."

Alas, the philistines on the City Council nixed Cline's proposal.

He traveled to Virginia Beach, hoping to find employment making monsters for that city's many tacky tourist traps. "They laughed at me," he says.

In 1982, he moved to Natural Bridge and opened a haunted-house attraction, hoping to cash in on the tourists who came to see the Natural Bridge, a rock formation once owned by Thomas Jefferson. For a while, his haunted house did fairly well, but by the end of the 1984 season, he was going broke and sinking into depression.

"For four months," he recalls, "the only reason I had to get up in the morning was to struggle through the day so I could go back to sleep."

A few days after Christmas, he recalls, he traveled to a theme park called Holyland USA, in Bedford, Va., hoping to find work sculpting religious statues. Rejected, he drove home through a nasty sleet storm and decided to end his misery. He steered deep into the mountains, then climbed to a high peak, planning to jump off.

"But I hesitated," he says, miming the action of a man about to jump off a mountain. "Instead of looking down, I looked up. The clouds were moving and the sun came through. I took a deep breath and I felt this high I'd never experienced before. I walked down the mountain a changed person. I realized that my only purpose was to help people and make them happy."

So he changed his haunted house into the Enchanted Castle -- a place with fewer monsters and more zany stuff like a bungee-jumping pig. And tourists got to watch Cline create his sculptures, which enabled him to indulge his inner ham and entertain folks with his impressions of Elvis and Mick Jagger and Barney Fife.

It was weird but it worked.

Soon he was winning commissions to build sculptures for other attractions, including eight-foot statues of Yogi Bear for the Jellystone Park chain of family campgrounds.

In the mid-'80s he made a statue of Freddy Krueger, the psycho killer from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies, for a haunted house in Virginia Beach. When businessman Jim Johnson saw it, he was awestruck.

"It was right on," Johnson recalls. "I could tell he was extremely creative, and I went and visited him."

Johnson hired Cline to turn a tired old Virginia Beach wax museum into something with more pizzazz. Cline came up with a ride that took tourists from ancient Pompeii to the Wild West to the Bermuda Triangle to a spaceship full of aliens. To honor its creator, Johnson named the place Professor Cline's Time Machine.

"It was very successful," Johnson says.

Last winter, Johnson hired Cline to come up with a new attraction. Cline created a pirate ride that includes a ship full of skeletons, a giant snake, a giant shark that eats a pirate, a giant octopus that fights a pirate for a buried treasure -- and, of course, dinosaurs. Johnson named it Captain Cline's Pirate Adventure Ride. It opened this month.

"Mark's an artist," Johnson says. "I haven't seen anybody more creative than Mark. And his prices are not out of line."

But not everyone is quite so fond of Cline's oeuvre. Conservative Christians around Natural Bridge denounced his haunted house as satanic.

In 1997, when Cline staged a mock seance designed to end the losing streak of a local baseball team called the Salem Avalanche, a Christian radio station urged fans to boycott the team for promoting the occult.

On April 9, 2001, a midnight fire destroyed Cline's Enchanted Castle. While he watched it burn, he opened his roadside mailbox and found a handwritten note. It began, "In the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit" and ended, "Fire represents God's judgment. Behold -- The Judge is standing at the door."

Virginia State Police investigated the fire but never arrested anyone. Cline rebuilt his studio and kept working.

In 2002, Leonard Puglisi, owner of the Natural Bridge, hired Cline to create Dr. Cline's Haunted Monster Museum in an old farmhouse. Two years later, Cline built Dinosaur Kingdom next to it. Last year, he built Foamhenge nearby.

"I guess he's always wanted to make a replica of Stonehenge," says Puglisi, "so I decided to give him a place to put it."

Cline says he just can't stop creating this stuff. "It's my gift," he says. "I don't know where it comes from. I'm not going to tell you it comes from God or the Devil or Alpha Centauri. But I have been given this amazing gift and I have to use it. I have to."

He's waxing lyrical about creativity when his wife, Sherry, walks into the office.

"I'm the bookkeeper, the secretary, the hairdresser and the housekeeper," she says. "Without me, the show would not go on."

She met him in a bar in 1987, when he was doing his Mick Jagger impersonation with a local rock band.

"He didn't really impress me much," she says.

He asked her to dance and then they talked for hours. "The next day he showed up where I worked," she says, "and brought me a long-stemmed red rose."

They got married in 1992. Now they have two daughters, Sunny, 12, and Jenna, 6.

"Everybody thinks artists are weird and they think he's bizarre because of his creativity," she says. "But we live in a normal house with normal things -- there are no skulls there. And he's a great dad."

Ta-Da!

Cline pulls his pickup off to the side of Route 11 and points toward his masterpiece. There it is, sitting atop a verdant hill in all its fabled glory -- Foamhenge.

He hops out of the truck and starts up the hill. A soft rain is falling from a gray sky.

"It's all Styrofoam," he says, "beaded Styrofoam spray-painted gray to look like stones."

It took prehistoric Brits four centuries to build the original Stonehenge, but Cline works a lot faster.

"I built it in six weeks," he says. "We put it all up in one day -- March 31, 2004. We hung a huge piece of plastic over it and invited people up for April Fool's Day and I unveiled Foamhenge. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a virgin to sacrifice."

He walks into the center of the circle of Styrofoam stones. Up close, Foamhenge is an impressive sight, certainly among the greatest of America's henges. Stand inside it and you can feel its power. Close your eyes and you can sense the presence of ancient Styrofoam Druids.

Perched on this mystical spot, Cline recalls the magical moment he conceived of Foamhenge. "I was in a store called Insulated Building Systems in Winchester and I saw these huge pieces of Styrofoam and I thought: Foamhenge! " he says. "And the idea sort of festered in my brain."

He sold the concept to Puglisi as a freebie that might lure tourists to Natural Bridge's other attractions. But right now, Foamhenge is inspiring Cline to more cosmic thoughts.

"Styrofoam isn't biodegradable, so Foamhenge might outlast Stonehenge," he says. "In 1,500 years, people might stand right here and say, 'I wonder what this was? Probably some kind of calendar.' "

He laughs and heads back down the hill.

"Because I make these things, people think I'm smart, but I just do them to make people happy," he says. "But if people want to think I'm smart, that's fine. I've been called a genius but I don't like that word. It's overused."

He looks down the hill to the road, where two vans have pulled up next to his pickup.

"Look -- people stopping at Foamhenge!" he says.

He jogs down the hill and stops a few yards from a bearded man who has emerged from one of the vans.

"Here to see Foamhenge?" Cline asks, his face is beaming with joy. "I know the guy who made it -- me!"

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