THE DAY THEY BURIED Patsy Cline -- March 10, 1963 -- her home town of Winchester, Va., came to a virtual halt. For nine of her brief 30 years, Patsy Cline had crooned her country tunes at every church, armory, Moose Club, American Legion Hall, outdoor park, race track, drive-in, beer joint and radio station from Winchester to Washington before moving to Nashville to become America's number one female country vocalist. Her fans from Maryland, West Virginia and Washington -- the ones who loved her before the rest of America discovered her -- had come to say goodbye in person.
Jones Funeral Home in Winchester, where her body, or what remained of it, lay in state was so crowded that they had to close the doors to a thousand fans out on the street. The casket was locked tight and a photo of Cline lay on top. As the maroon hearse wound its way five miles to Shenandoah Cemetery that cold, clear day, the road was lined with people, heads bowed. Men removed their hats. "It was tremendous," recalls the Rev. Nathan Williamson, who conducted the services. "It was something very unusual: all those crowds, and so respectful, too." One pallbearer told reporters at the time: "Patsy was like a religion with them."
Just before her violent death, Cline had made it big -- real big -- in Nashville. She had hits like "Walking After Midnight" and "Crazy" and even bigger ones like "I Fall to Pieces" and "Sweet Dreams," which ran to the top of the country charts before crossing over to the pop charts. In 1962 she had been named Top Country Female Singer by the music vendors of America. Music Reporter dubbed her Star of the Year.
There were enough flowers at the grave site to ransom a queen. Jack Cummins covered the funeral for the Winchester Star. After the final benediction, he reported, a few people reached out for flowers from the grave site to take home as souvenirs. "The effect of the first stolen flowers hit the crowd like an electric shock," he wrote. "The people -- jammed in close to the small tent over the grave -- began snatching literally from the side of the grave, everything and anything they could lay their hands on, short of the gold finished coffin."
The passion of Cline's fans, who responded both to her success and to her unexpected death, was rekindled by a Hollywood crew that returned last fall to the singer's old haunts in Virginia and West Virginia. Twenty-two years after Cline's dramatic burial, her memory will be rejuvenated in a major Hollywood production, "Sweet Dreams," starring Jessica Lange and Ed Harris. The movie, based on Cline's life, is a romantic saga directed by Britain's Karel Reisz, and produced by Bernard Schwartz.
In Winchester they'll be wondering how the movie, to be released next month, will treat Cline, because folks there remember that she was nobody's angel. She was a great and lively soul -- an inveterate flirt who from time to time spread consternation among her fellow churchgoers in Winchester. She was full-figured, dark-haired with coarse features, and she was just as likely to be found down on the dance floor mixing it up with the audience as she was to be on stage singing. "I hope they'll be honest," says Susan Marlowe of St. Albans, W. Va., who used to baby-sit for Cline. "When Hollywood gets hold of something, they're not happy with what has really happened."
An editorial last fall on Winchester's WINC radio where Cline used to play live on the Saturday morning talent show said, "With the gorgeous Jessica Lange set to play Patsy, you know it's going to be another one just like all the rest. Jessica Lange can't sing 'Happy Birthday.' And Patsy, for all her singing talent, was no Jessica."
SHE WAS BORN Virginia Patterson Hensley in Winchester, a sleepy southern town at the time where the biggest thing to happen all year was the Apple Blossom Festival. "It was mainly hard-working people who looked after their own and kept to themselves without any idea of doing anything real different," recalls Cline's old friend Phil Whitney, who was a popular deejay on local WINC radio and who produced Cline's first demonstration tape. "That's what made Patsy stand out," he explained. "She wanted to go places."
She lived much of her early life on South Kent Street where families left the land during the Depression looking for a living on the railroad, at the textile mills or in the apple packing plants. "Unless you were compelled to, you wouldn't want to have lived on South Kent back then," says Rev. Williamson. "The people there did not have much of this world's goods." Cline's mother, Hilda Hensley, once told the Winchester Star, "I was 16 years
old when Patsy was born. All my life, I'd had hand-me- downs. But when she was born, she was mine. We grew up together. We were hungry together."
Winchester in the days when Patsy was growing up was a town where country music reigned supreme, dominating local radio, regional television and entertainment spots in a way that it never has since. When you talked music, you were talking country: Patsy Wells, Don Gibson, Tennesee Ernie Ford. If you were a teen-ager, you wanted to be in a band. And Cline, whose father used to pluck the guitar around the house, was drawn to music from the start. "She loved singing," her mother once said, "and it was one thing she could do that wasn't going to cost us."
Only a few days after Cline started high school, her father left home for good. To help support the family, she quit school to work the soda fountain at Gaunt's drugstore. From 1948, when she was 16, to 1957, when she finally had a national hit, Cline worked her way up the greasy pole of success the hard way: one-night stands at beer joints, $8-a-night barn dances, live Saturday morning music shows on the radio and two-bit road trips in a three-state area.
Cline worked places like Mount Jackson in Virginia, Hagerstown in Maryland and Berkeley Springs in West Virginia. She wore western costumes with spangles and rhinestones her mother sewed on by hand. "She never knew a note of music," her mother once said. "She was gifted -- that's all."
"It was in her heart to sing," remembers Sheila Hansen of Winchester, "And she sang everywhere." During summer months, Cline was a regular at Watermellon Park in Berryville, Va. She played with the Kountry Krackers. Hansen's most vivid memory of Cline was when she played on the roof of the cement block refreshment stand at the Royal Drive-In between features. In full western costume and with a two-person back-up band, Cline sang her heart out for people who had come to watch a movie through windshields. "I was transfixed watching her," Hansen says. "I wouldn't let my parents take me home until she was finished."
Cline got her first big break when she sang with Bill Peer and the Melody Boys, a respected group from Charles Town, W. Va. They played at the Moose Club in Brunswick, Md., on Saturday nights for three years. You had to get to the Moose an hour early in those days if you wanted to get in at all. "She could really put it out to a crowd," says Harry Kees of Jones Springs, W. Va., who was a regular at the Moose. "Usually you've got them up there moaning and groaning and no one cares. But when Patsy got up there, everyone listened."
It was with Bill Peer and his band that Cline began playing Saturday nights on the Jimmy Dean Show at the D.C. Armory. "She spent all her spare time in rehearsal and developing her own style," WINC's Phil Whitney recalls. "We thought that if anyone was going to make it, she would."
JESSICA LANGE is at the mike on a small stage in a tiny, smoky room. On her head is a hideous brown wig that serves successfully in mitigating her sometimes fragile beauty. She stomps around the small space in western dress complete with fringes, billowing scarves and a cowboy hat perched on her head. She is not shy as she lip-syncs to Cline's music. Planting her feet firmly, she thrusts her hip out with the suggestive aggression of a Mae West.
The location is the old Orchard Inn on Rte. 340, smack in the middle of nowhere between Charles Town and Berryville. The environment is authentic West Virginia, a place of substantial local color, which, for the purposes of this film, the moviemakers have dubbed "The Rainbow Road." It is a hangout where Patsy Clne once played.
The room in which they are filming is full of artificial smoke. About 50 extras in costumes from the 1950s sit at tables in the front of the room with their eyes glued to Lange. The small, honky- tonk space is ringed with millions of dollars worth of light, sound and camera equipment that technicians man from crowded positions against the wall. The area is packed in a way that makes it difficult to move five feet in any direction. Yet there is a constant, well-organized flow of activity under the supervision of director Reisz.
Lange leans into the mike seductively. She has spent several weeks in Nashville prior to this studying how to lip-sync and to move with the music. Her teacher is Owen Bradley, who used to produce Cline's music. Owen is also reproducing the Cline music used in the sound track for "Sweet Dreams." Lange lip- syncs with such skill that, unless you had been told, it would be easy to think the Cline music that fills the roadhouse is actually being made on stge.
As Lange works the mike silently, Ed Harris, playing the man who was to be Cline's second husband, stomps into the room in an alcoholic daze. He does a double-take in the direction of the stage and hollers, "Goddam, that bitch can sing!" His role is that of the lovable, but largely uncontrollable Charlie Dick who, in passion and argument, sweeps Cline off her feet and out of her unsatisfactory first marriage to Gerald Cline of Frederick, Md.
"We just lived life and had good times and bad times," recalls the real Charlie Dick in his husky, bass voice long distance from Nashville where he lives today. "We were both crazy. We went on at each other all the time, like cats and dogs. But five minutes later, it was over. We had as much fun fighting as anything else."
Cline was playing with Bill Peer in 1956 on Jimmy Dean's live country music television show when Arthur Godfrey tuned in from his country estate not far away in Leesburg, Va. Iwas the culmination of years of lobbying Godfrey by Peer and others in the area who believed in Cline's talent. Godfrey was sufficiently impressed to invite Cline to audition for his "Talent Scouts" show, the premier television program of the day. It was the beginning of Cline's takeoff.
When Cline got to New York for her long-awaited audition, Godfrey's people were impressed neither by the music she wanted to sing nor by her extravagant cowgirl costumes, including the one with 3,000 sequins her mother had individually sewed. There was one song they thought she might do, a piece Cline herself did not particularly like. It was called "Walking After Midnight." If she sang that song, they said, and got out of the western costumes and into a cocktail dress like a civilized creature, they might have a spot for her on the Godfrey show.
When Cline finally sang "Walking After Midnight" for Godfrey's 10 million home viewers in her snug cocktail dres in January 1957, the studio audience froze the applause meter at high. "I stood on the side of the stage, my heart just about bursting," Cline's mother told reporters at the time. "She was on the far side, and tears were running down our faces." "Walking After Midnight" became Patsy Cline's first country music hit.
She soon became a regular on regional TV shows like "Old Dominion Barn Dance," "Louisiana Hayride," "Ozark Jubilee," as well as the "Jimmy Dean Show," now bygone relics of country culture, archetypes replaced by MTV. In the fall of 1957, Cline married the free-spirited Charlie Dick, who was working then as a linotype operator at the Winchester Star. They moved to Nashville that year, and eventually bought a ranch-style house with a huge red bar in the basement that had "Patsy and Charlie" written across it in silver studs. Although she had one hit in hand, she was still struggling, making arduous 20- and 40-d road-trip tours in an era that largely predated the Interstate highway system.
A new wave of hits started rolling in about 1960, when Cline became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. Songs like "Heartache" and "Strange" got her on the country music charts again. But "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy," perhaps her best known works, did even better -- crossing over from country to pop charts. Describing her own style, Cline once told a reporter, "Oh Lord, I sing just like I hurt inside." The girl who used to wait in line to play on Phil Whitney's Saturday morning live radio music show was now singing with Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny Cash, Gene Autrey and other lions of country music.
PATSY CLINE was portrayed in the movies once before in a cameo role in "Coal Miner's Daughter." She was played by the earthy Beverly D'Angelo. Cline's friends say D'Angelo played her perfectly as the big-hearted songstress who, at the peak of her career, reached out to give a helping hand to the struggling Loretta Lynn, played by Sissy Spacek.
Bernard Schwartz, who produced that movie, is also the moving force behind "Sweet Dreams." Sitting on a folding chair in the greasy kitchen of the Rainbow Road during a shoot, Schwartz describes the evolution of "Sweet Dreams."
It started, he says, with a chat with Ed Tannin, then head of Universal, who asked Schwartz, after seeing "Coal Miner's Daughter": "Hey, is there a story in this Cline woman?" Schwartz went to Nashville and Winchester. He developed an 800-page "bible," as he calls it, of interviews and information. "I have to know the 80 percent of the iceberg that's underwater," he says. "If you stay in Hollywood, all you get is fluff."
Schwartz took his "bible" to scriptwriter Bob Getchell, who specializes in working- class sagas. Getchell's credits include Academy Award-nominated screenplays "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "Bound for Glory." Getchell says he was hooked by two simple photos of Cline. One shows her in full cowgirl regalia -- fringes, 10-gallon hat and fancy western boots. The other is of a slinky sophisticate in a tight cocktail dress. "The photos were taken only three years apart," Getchell recalls. "I wanted to know how she got from here to there."
Jessica Lange agreed to the part only days after Schwartz sent her the script. "We all know each other," the silver-haired producer says airily. After that, British director Karel Reisz, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his direction of the steamy, erotic classic "The French Lieutenant's Woman," agreed to make the film. "Karel has never before wanted to do a script that came to him in the mail," says his wife, Betsy. Reisz's other credits include "Morgan!" which launched Vanessa Redgrave's film career, and "Who'll Stop the Rain?" which showcased Nick Nolte.
Finally, Ed Harris, who was selected by Esquire magazine as one of the 10 outstanding actors of his generation, was chosen to play the winsome Charlie Dick. Harris, who played John Glenn in "The Right Stuff," was most recently the lead in Louis Malle's "August Moon," which dramatizes the impact of Vietnamese fishermen on the shrimping industry on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Such were the events that led Lange, Harris, Reisz, Schwartz, Getchell and their sizable Hollywood crew to descend last fall on the little Shenandoah valley town of Martinsburg, W. Va. Only 25 miles from where Cline was born, Martinsburg provided the film makers with streets, neighborhoods and even some residents virtually unchanged from the 1950s. "The faces of these people!" Schwartz says. "We couldn't get them at Central Casting in Los Angeles. Everyone's got a $20 haircut out there." The Martinsburg community, Cline's old stomping grounds, embraced the members of the production crew with enthusiasm as they plied their trade in their midst for six weeks, dropping about $1 million into the local economy. Six hundred linear feet of trucks bearing equipment, wardrobes, food, dressing rooms and sundries were usually in place during the location shots. A small, momentary city sprang up, necessitating complicated arrangements between the local residents, police and traffic. In one shoot, the filmmakers even had to negotiate with the B&O Railroad to have trains held back. "There wasn't this much fuss when the president came here to visit," sniffed a resident in reference to Jimmy Carter's popular visit to Martinsburg.
While the movie makers were at work, the energy level was palpable. Patsy Cline would have loved the commotion. Louis Rufner, the middle-aged owner of the old Orchard Inn, which he now intends to rename The Rainbow Road, had occasion to observe the film makers at work for the four days they used his place. "They're like a bunch of ants," he said in wonderment. "They don't stop working. They're a different kind of people."
The locations were not crowded with onlookers. Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds might draw a crowd there, but not Ed Harris and Jessica Lange. "I ran right into Jessica Lange and nearly knocked her down," says Richard Bagent, the dishwasher at the Orchard Inn, "but I didn't know who she was. I guess I saw her in 'King Kong,' but I was more worried about the ape."
"Sweet Dreams" will deal with neither Cline's youth nor the early years of her struggle for recognition in and around the Washington area, in the way "Coal Miner's Daughter" chronicled Loretta Lynn's life from childhood. The movie begins with Cline's first meeting with Charlie Dick just before she made it big on the Arthur Godfrey Show. The movie follows Cline's departure from Winchester for Nashville, just as "Walking After Midnight" was making the charts. It concentrates on the relationship between Cline and Dick. "It's full of love and arguments," says scriptwriter Getchell, "they come together and then fly apart and come back together again."
The movie concludes with Cline's tragic death and her funeral. It is ironic that although Hollywood often aggrandizes reality, Cline's funeral is diminished in the movie. The real funeral was a Hollywood type of event with a cast of thousands. In the movie it is a quiet, low-key occasion attended by about 75 relatives and friends. It was filmed on a bone-chilling day in a Martinsburg cemetery after the extras were fed box lunches from Kentucky Fried Chicken at tables set up next to tombstones.
Cline was killed, as her husband Charlie Dick says, "just when things were starting to really pop in her career." It was March of 1963 and Cline was in a single-engine Piper Comanche that crashed nose down and throttle wide open into a desolate hillside in western Tennessee in the middle of the night. She was returning from a benefit performance in behalf of the widow of a popular disc jockey known as Cactus Jack. Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, Ole Opry regulars, were also killed, as was the pilot.
The wreckage of the plane wasn't discovered until 6 the next morning, following an all-night search. It was in a remote area of woods, hills, hollows and swamps. The bodies, according to newspaper accounts at the time, were scattered and broken beyond recognition. Asked if he could account for all four persons aboard, Lye Furr, sheriff of Benton County where the crash occurred, told newsmen, "There's not enough to count." All they found intact was a silver belt buckle engraved with Hawkins' name and a woman's bright red slip hanging from a tree.