Dino-might: 'Professor' Cline revives the roadside
PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO JEN@READTHEHOOK.COM
Remember American highways in the 1960s, before the Interstate system stole their thunder? Remember speeding by– maybe stopping at– magic castles, haunted houses, and enchanted forests stalked by goblins?
This is a story about a fedora-wearing 43-year-old who's doing his part to scare up new attractions. His name is Mark Cline, and the Lynchburg News and Advance calls him the "poor man's Disney." The Roanoke Times dubs Cline a "fiberglass wizard." But three years ago, someone decided this roadside artist was a menace– and may have added fire to a message of brimstone by burning down his "Castle."
If anyone thought Cline would fold up his fiberglass, they obviously hadn't met this P.T. Barnum of the Blue Ridge.
Who is this guy?
How did a wiry man in a muscle shirt wind up becoming the undisputed king of dinosaurs and horror in Rockbridge County? How did he snag the contract to supply 10-foot-tall Yogi Bear figures to every one of the country's 75 Jellystone Park campgrounds?
The answer to the second question is easy: "I met one of them at a trade show– I can't remember if it was William Hanna or Joseph Barbera– and they liked my bears."
The first is a bit trickier to answer, but those who know Cline say it wasn't dumb luck.
"He's very creative," says Joann Leight, owner of Dinosaur Land near Winchester. After the death of her father in 1987, Leight decided to buy a few Cline dinos to add some pizzazz to the attraction her father founded in 1963. She's glad she did.
Whereas the original dinosaurs "just sit there," Leight says, one of Cline's eats from a tree. Another he designed devours a pterodactyl while two triceratops busily gouge a T. Rex.
"Mark makes them look like they're part of the environment, says Leight. "The kids just love them."
A freebie on the highway
"Anybody can throw up a roadside attraction," says Cline, gesturing with pride toward his latest spectacle: a full-scale, blemishes-and-all replica of Stonehenge. "I'm trying to take roadside attractions to a higher level."
We're standing at the base of "Foamhenge"– perhaps the world's lightest monument. On April Fool's day of this year, just a mile or two north of Natural Bridge, Cline unveiled this wonder-of-styrofoam. Although still unfinished, the replica of the mysterious Bronze Age original in England is already causing the curious to pull over.
"I'm into all that mystical stuff," says Karen Ghaul, touring with her husband, Melvin. The Franklin County couple says their curiosity was piqued on one of their frequent visits to the Saturday night races at the nearby dirt track.
Cline, pretending to be a visitor, asks the two twenty-somethings what they think of his other nearby attraction, the Haunted Monster Museum.
"Cheesy" they declare without hesitation. Melvin, who sports a Celtic design on his black t-shirt, says he prefers dragons. Undeterred, Cline tells them he knows the operator and hands them a free pass to check it out again.
It's a different response an hour later at the Museum. In the séance room near the end of the tour, a 9-year-old child is sobbing: "I just want to leave– pleeeeeease." (The wish is granted.)
Outside can seem creepy too, with a downed plane, some wolves, and the obligatory fiberglass tombstones scattered about. Up in a tree, a parachutist– about to be devoured by some unidentifiable beast– is barely visible through the foliage. "I want to make people work a little for their rewards," says Cline.
A mother and daughter briskly exit the haunted house. "We went though the 'chicken' door," says the mom. "We heard screams," the daughter explains. "So, goodbye!"
Tour guide Eric Nold claims that 80 percent of visitors make it all the way through the 10-minute tour. Eighty percent!? "Okay, 79," he concedes.
"We're here to entertain people– not scare the crap out of them," offers Eddie Howard, another guide.
Cline learned the hard way that his monsters don't arouse fear and respect from everyone. In 2001, he lost his fiberglass-manufacturing studio and a big Natural Bridge-area attraction in a blaze that's considered arson.
"This is where the bungee-jumping pig used to bounce," says Cline, strolling the former grounds of the Enchanted Castle. Two nondescript steel structures, one new, one old, are all that remain after the fire, but inside is anything but nondescript: The place is loaded with projects-in-progress. It's a museum of the American roadside– and of Cline's mind.
On one table, a well-worn edition of the Weekly World News bears this blaring headline: "Saddam's weapons of mass destruction– killer dinosaurs."
Kitsch is everywhere. Cline pushes aside a giant replica shark head originally made for a surf shop but now slated for a private preserve. Several fiberglass pharaohs stacked in a corner glower impressively.
The Enchanted Castle must have been a fantastic funhouse, a throwback to the myriad magic castles that became extinct with easy travel to Orlando. Space Mountain quickly eclipsed the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe for generations of children with no idea of the nostalgia of "Route 66."
An old brochure indicates that Cline's Enchanted Castle had its share of fairies, leprechauns, and a giant-sized Jack-in-the-Beanstalk. But there was nothing nostalgic about some of Cline's other creations.
His off-beat sensibility produced a huge blood-engorged tick, a winged bovine called the "Holy Cow," and– at the entrance– a 15-foot-tall devil's face. That, says Cline, is where the devastating fire began. He believes it was set by a religious zealot.
The pig no longer rebounds, but Cline did– and regrouped. But instead of rebuilding the Enchanted Castle, he set his sights on a closer relationship with Natural Bridge. When he first landed in the area, 22 years ago, Cline created the first version of his Haunted Monster Museum.
"Natural Bridge totally shunned it," he says. "They didn't like that somebody was coming in and opening something they thought was beneath them."
Visitors shunned it too, and it closed after three seasons. In 1993, Cline retooled the building into the Enchanted Castle.
A couple of weeks before the blaze, Cline played a prank on the neighborhood by scattering a handful of "flying saucers" and "aliens" along Route 11, the main drag through Rockbridge County. In the spirit of the neighborhood, the saucers were crafted from discarded satellite dishes. In the spirit of a true entrepreneur, they were subtle lures to his ill-fated tourist attraction.
On April 1, 2001, the stunt and its maestro were revealed (as if there were some doubt) in a story with color photos on the front page of the Roanoke Times. The blaze occurred eight days after the story was published.
In Rockbridge County, Bible stories aren't confined to church and home. Even tourist attractions spread the Word.
The county's most famous privately owned natural wonder, the million-years-old Natural Bridge offers an experience not available in attractions run by the National Park Service.
Consider "The Drama of Creation." Every evening after the sun sets, multi-colored lights bathe the Bridge and classical music booms above Cedar Creek as a narrator reads passages from the book of Genesis.
Bridge spokesperson Anita Aaron says the religious light show has been a Natural Bridge staple since 1927.
At the adjacent but independently owned Natural Bridge Wax Museum, life-size figures of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are only a short walk from pair of burping moonshiners and a chilly Civil War scene. But the grand finale of the self-guided wax tour is Jesus with all 12 disciples.
Not that Cline begrudges his religious friends in tourism, but he's been hit hard by someone claiming to act on behalf of the Man Upstairs.
Since the October before the fire, Cline says, he had been finding religious tracts tucked under the wiper blades of his pickup truck– including the famed "This Was Your Life" message by apocalyptic cartoonist and proselytizer Jack Chick.
On the night of the fire, Cline says, he went out to his mailbox to find a more ominous tract.
"We have prayed for you," read the hand-written letter, which also accused Cline of "darkness" and "beastly madness." The writer warned that "the wrath of God is very fierce." Included was a burnt-around-the-edges copy of Cline's photo clipped from the Roanoke paper.
"Fire represents God's judgment," the letter closed. "Behold, the judge is standing at the door."
"I read this as I was watching the castle burn," says Cline. Besides losing his roadside attraction, many of his molds, and several works in progress, he lost his $400,000 chance to supply the "PandaMania" exhibition that put 150 panda sculptures on the streets of Washington, D.C. earlier this year.
Cline, who received an insurance settlement for his buildings but not for the contents, readily concedes that he was a suspect. He says that before the flames were fully extinguished, he and his wife were separated and interrogated.
"I know who left me the messages," says Cline. "But there's no proof they actually set the fire. It could have been oily rags or lightning– I believe in coincidences too."
Cline says a prominent Lexington businessman confessed to sending the letters on behalf of someone in Glasgow.
"Arsons are tough cases," says Captain George Austin, the commander of the Salem office of the Virginia State Police. "The owner is always considered a suspect in the early moments," he adds, "but [Cline] has been ruled out." Because the Enchanted Castle fire is an open criminal investigation, Austin declined to divulge or confirm any details.
Life o' Cline
Cline grew up in Waynesboro, the third of four boys in a Mennonite family. Although he bristles at being called an artist ("I'm an entertainer"), clearly he was something of an artistic prodigy. He began making headlines in 1975 when the Charlottesville Daily Progress introduced him with this zinger: "Youth has talent for art."
As his art progressed, so did the headlines. During his senior year in high school, after he began shooting horror movies on 8mm film, the Staunton News Leader declared, "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's superboy– the amazing Mark Cline."
Cline has not ducked the limelight. At age 13, he became the artist for "Slime Theater," NBC29's late-'70s horror movie party that featured a now nearly forgotten character named "Bowman Body" who rose out of a coffin to introduce the next film. Cline would occasionally ride his unicycle during intermissions.
The spotlight grew brighter in 1979 when a group of Cline's latex monsters captured second place in the sculpture division of Waynesboro's Fall Foliage Festival. (Those award-winning pieces, along with all his 8mm films, were destroyed in the Enchanted Castle blaze.)
Cartoon panels in the front and back covers of a comic book available for $5 on the front porch of the Haunted Monster Museum depict important moments in Cline's life. One panel shows a raft trip he took down the Missouri, where Cline notes, "Like the song says, people really are happy to give."
There's also a scene of a fortune teller advising him– after a failed attempt in 1982 to set up a tourist attraction in Virginia Beach– to "stick with" his project. He wound up in Natural Bridge because that's where his car fortuitously ran out of gas on his way home from the Virginia Beach flop.
"I believe everybody has to be the hero of their own adventure," says Cline, "or the comic book ain't worth reading."
To some folks in the nearby town of Glasgow, Cline is a business hero. Others are not so sure they want to support his antics.
The town that time forgot?
Six miles south of Natural Bridge, Glasgow is "the town that time forgot"– or so say the 50,000 copies of a brochure Cline designed for the town.
He may have a point. The current population of about 1,046 has dipped below its historic peak of 1,200 set in 1893. Like nearby Buena Vista, Glasgow was one of those Virginia towns created out of whole cloth by Northern speculators.
According to Glasgow, Virginia: One Hundred Years of Dreams, by Lynda Mundy-Norris Miller, the town sprang up in 1890 with seven miles of streets– including "broad avenues, well-graded boulevards, and handsome drives." Robert E. Lee Jr. was the first bank president. Capping this auspicious birth was the Rockbridge Hotel, "a glittering reflection of those exciting times."
But the boom quickly went bust. On the very night the hotel opened in 1892, says Miller, a team of receivers arrived armed with a foreclosure notice. After sitting vacant for over a decade, the unused hotel was sold in 1904 for less than a tenth of its construction cost. Before it was demolished in dribs and drabs by mid-century, it spent most of its life as a hay barn.
According to Cline's brochure, "This quaint little town has sat quietly for years until, on April Fool's Day, 2003, they mysteriously appeared!" They are fiberglass dinosaurs.
Until Cline, the only scary beasts surrounding Glasgow were the cougars lurking around Salling Mountain, the monolithic peak that is Glasgow's Matterhorn.
Declining to approach town officials, Cline had quietly gone from shop to store to Moose Lodge– over a dozen local institutions in all– with a novel bit of bait: How would you like a fiberglass dinosaur in your yard?
The townspeople bit, and a new day dawned: Glasgow awoke on April 1 with a new look.
Within a month, Cline had persuaded the town fathers to contribute $1,830 to cover half the cost of his brochures as well as a billboard to lure visitors to the town.
Stanley Wright, the "pop" in Mom & Pop's, Glasgow's only full-service restaurant, isn't sure whether the dino in his front yard really helps. "We've had more tourist people stop and take pictures," says Wright, "but as far as actual business, I don't know."
But Roger Funkhouser, chatting with a reporter while ringing up purchases at the town's lone grocery store, has seen some spikes– and not just on the fiberglass triceratops in front of his Grocery Express. "It gets people to stop," says Funkhouser, "and they'll end up buying stuff."
Over at the town library, "They're certainly a draw, and the children love them," says the librarian, Barbara Slough.
At the Balcony Falls B.P. market, cashier Christy Wright reflects on the Jurassic incursion while ringing up a Gatorade purchase.
"I bet 10 people come in here every day asking questions and taking pictures," she says. "I think it's pretty nice for the kids." Her colleague suddenly adds: "And there's nothing here for the kids– this place is dead."
So it puzzles these two why the town recently let the brochure contract expire.
"I think the slogan's bad," says Katie Shepherd, a Natural Bridge native who now lives in Charlottesville. "If kids want to travel to Glasgow to see dinosaurs, I think that's great; but the slogan definitely portrays Glasgow in a negative way. No one's ever forgotten Glasgow."
Perhaps that sentiment was shared by the six members of the town council who unanimously voted in February not to continue to fund the brochures.
"The town got involved just to give the project a little boost," says the town manager, Drew Havens. He acknowledges that the brochures "worked pretty well," but any future funding, he says, must come from Cline and the business owners.
Mayor Sam Blackburn explains the fiscal theory behind the town's decision to hold onto its $1,830. "The only thing we'd get out of it is sales tax," says Blackburn. "I know we didn't get our money back on it."
Heads in beds
According to the Virginia Tourism Corporation, travel is a $14 billion a year business in Virginia, third behind healthcare and business services.
In recent years, as attendance at such world-renowned historical mainstays as Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello has dropped, there's a never-ending quest for new lures. Virginia tourism bosses have long smiled on novelty. After all, these are the folks who shocked puritans 35 years ago with the "Virginia is for lovers" campaign.
"There's never too much," says Martha Steger, spokesperson for the Virginia Tourism Corporation. "Entertainment is an important component of this industry."
Steger says she finds no fault with go-karts in Williamsburg– or Foamhenge near Natural Bridge. If Foamhenge becomes the Holy Grail for American Celt-lovers, that's fine. Because the holy goal for tourism officials is "heads-in-beds," says Steger.
"We're always interested in the addition of attractions that make any destination an overnight destination," she says.
The owners of Natural Bridge probably wouldn't mind more of those either.
On a recent Saturday night in late June, with no advance notice, a reporter was able to land an $89.95 room in the Natural Bridge Hotel. According to Natural Bridge spokesperson Anita Aaron, annual visits to the rock wonder once owned by Thomas Jefferson, then memorialized in a painting by Hudson River School artist Frederic Church, now run from 200,000 to 250,000– a respectably tally, but about half the published figures of Luray Caverns and Monticello.
Cline says that when he first arrived in the Natural Bridge area in 1982– three years before the current Bridge owners– he tried to swing some deals with Bridge brass. No deal.
Now, tickets to Cline's Monster Museum are sold in the main gift shop ($6 each). Not only did Natural Bridge rent him the moldering mansion for the Haunted Monster Museum, but also offered the site of Foamhenge.
The Bridge may need some good news. Five years ago, it suffered what must rank among the most bizarre accidents in tourism history.
On October 26, 1999, Georgia resident Louise R. Cathy arrived with a group who had stopped on their way to Cape Cod. As Cathy paused to read a historical marker under the 215-foot high landmark, a rock suddenly dislodged, striking and killing the 83-year-old visitor. A lawsuit ensued, but tourism marches on.
Natural Bridge recently unveiled its new promotional campaign: "Natural Bridge Rocks."
Since the 1986 publication of the book he co-authored, Roadside America, Ken Smith has been considered an expert in the study of travel kitsch. Smith denies the notion that the golden age of the American roadside has ended.
"You just have to get out there and see it," says Smith. Last month, he saw Mark Cline and filed a glowing report at roadsideamerica.com.
"He's got a sense of theater," says Smith. "It's rare to find someone as young as Mark Cline who has so much sway in his arena."
Smith says he's seen literally dozens of American cities decorated with fiberglass cows and pigs, but Smith says Cline's creations boost Glasgow to a unique level.
"Wouldn't you rather see a dinosaur than a pig?" asks Smith. "I'd stop and buy gas in that town."
And for his next act
Fiscal conservatism isn't limited to downtown Glasgow.
In one of the two spartan steel structures that now hold Cline's studio, a little corner has been turned into an office. It's here that he and his wife, Sherry (who he met when he fronted a Rolling Stones cover band), run the business that supplies all those Yogis to Jellystone. It's here that he takes orders for Galaxy Golf in Nags Head and the Six Flags theme parks. It's here that he fields repair questions, and here that he plans the next round of dinos for Dinosaur Land.
A room with tan walls and discount linoleum covering the concrete floor, it's the only air-conditioned space on the property. A combo fax-copier-printer is the apex of the office equipment. Back outside, the only hint of the fanciful former life of the site is the wall of the compound along Route 11 that includes several Oz-like trees with faces– and, at the corner of the wall, Superman soaring skyward 20 feet off the ground.
Gone is the devil's head where the fire may have begun. But the ideas are still clicking.
For his next act, Cline plans to unveil a system of eight infrared cameras inside the Haunted Monster Museum to offer visitors a video of themselves ($14.95) being scared witless in the dark.
Then, he wants to round up 15 Lexington business owners who will buy fiberglass likenesses of themselves to put out in front of their shops. As for Cline himself, he wants a little time at home with his two daughters, ages 10 and 5, because he's just a regular guy at home. "If you went through my house," says Cline, "you probably wouldn't know I make all this wild crazy stuff."
"He's only one guy," says roadside expert Smith. "And he's working himself to the point of exhaustion now. When his Enchanted Castle got burned, he could have packed up."
Cline hints that he'd eventually like to get away from dealing with the resins and the fumes of fiberglass. But he wouldn't mind catching up to his idol– in some ways. "P.T. Barnum got burned down at least twice," says Cline, "and I've had one major fire. So I'm behind him."
Note to arsonists: That's not a challenge.
The Rockbridge County treats offered by Cline
Other stuff to do around Clineville
Natural Bridge is just over an hour from Charlottesville.
"It was good, but also scary, says 9-year-old Rachel Waymack of Prince George.
Cline's Enchanted Castle, which opened in 1993, was burned to the ground in 2001.
The heat-seeking missive
Foamhenge stands on a glorious hilltop offered by the Natural Bridge owners.
"He makes a good King Kong and a good dinosaur, so all power to him." – Ken Smith of Roadside America
In 2002, Cline adorned the outside of an actual turn-of-the-century mansion with an array of gargoyles, a one-eyed skull, and a giant python slithering around the roof to create the Haunted Monster Museum.
The world o' Cline
Some attractions operated or primarily created by Cline
Haunted Monster Museum - Natural Bridge
The Town that Time Forgot - Glasgow
Haunting Tales - Lexington
Professor Cline's Time Machine - Virginia Beach
Foamhenge - Natural Bridge
April 1 in Cline-ville
2001 - space aliens along Route 11
2002 - busy working on Haunted Monster Museum in Natural Bridge
2003 - dinos in Glasgow
2004 - Foamhenge
2005 - "it'll have something to do with the water"