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Groundbreaking Becoming Patsy Cline exhibition opens at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley
This Singer sewing machine, ca. 1938, is among the objects included in Becoming Patsy Cline opening at Winchester ’s Museum of the Shenandoah Valley on August 30. Hilda Hensley, the singer’s mother, used this sewing machine to earn a living as a seamstress and create many of Patsy Cline’s famous cowgirl outfits. Photo by Ron Blunt courtesy of the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.

WINCHESTER, VA.- Opened at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley on August 30, 2013, and on view through February 2, 2014, the new exhibition Becoming Patsy Cline tells the story of Virginia "Ginny" Patterson Hensley before she became music icon Patsy Cline, the Shenandoah Valley's most globally recognized personality and an American music legend.

Acknowledged by many as the most popular and influential female country singer in recording history, Patsy Cline (1932–1963) was the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Despite a career that was cut short by her tragic death at the age of 30, Patsy Cline recorded 102 songs and three, full-length albums. Her recordings have sold millions of copies worldwide; she has a star on Hollywood Boulevard and her own stamp with the U.S. Postal Service. Patsy Cline also has received numerous posthumous honors and has been the subject of biographies, musicals, plays, and a feature film. Fifty years after her death, the popularity of her hit recordings, such as “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Sweet Dreams,” endures today.

Though Patsy Cline lived only 30 years, she spent most of her life in the Shenandoah Valley. There she dreamed of becoming a professional singer and began to realize that dream. Organized by the MSV in partnership with Celebrating Patsy Cline, Inc. (CPC), Becoming Patsy Cline uses objects, rare photographs, video and audio recordings, and clothing—much of which is on first-time public display—to illustrate Patsy Cline’s Shenandoah Valley story. The exhibition describes the singer’s family history, examines her early influences, and introduces the people whose support and guidance helped Patsy realize her dream.

According to MSV Executive Director Dana Hand Evans, Becoming Patsy Cline is the most ambitious exhibition the MSV has organized to date. Evans notes that the Museum has wanted to tell Patsy Cline’s Shenandoah Valley story since opening in 2005 and adds that the exhibition has been three years in the making. Becoming Patsy Cline is the first museum exhibition to focus primarily on the singer’s early years. Filling the MSV’s newly redesigned, 2,600-square-foot Changing Exhibitions Gallery, it is also the largest display about Patsy Cline ever presented in her hometown of Winchester. Evans credits the Museum’s partnership with Winchester-based CPC and the support of Patsy Cline’s husband Charlie Dick and their son and daughter, Randy Dick and Julie Fudge, as key elements in making the groundbreaking exhibition possible. Evans also notes that the MSV received critical underwriting support for Becoming Patsy Cline from Grove’s Winchester Harley–Davidson, Shenandoah Country Q102, and Winchester Printers, Inc.

The not-for-profit CPC organization, which owns and operates the Patsy Cline Historic House in Winchester, has provided its extensive collection of artifacts for display in Becoming Patsy Cline. In addition, members of the singer’s family have loaned objects, clothing, and rare photographs to the MSV for the exhibition.

The Exhibition Experience
Becoming Patsy Cline illustrates the singer’s centuries-old Valley roots, details her childhood experiences, and emphasizes the devotion and determination of her mother, Hilda Hensley, as key factors in Ginny’s ability to achieve her dream of becoming a successful singer.

In the exhibition’s first room, visitors see the Singer sewing machine that Hilda Hensley used to earn a living as a seamstress and create many of Patsy Cline’s famous cowgirl outfits. A large mural, “Virginia’s Virginia,” illustrates the many places Ginny’s family searched for work following the Great Depression. During the first 16 years of her life, Ginny’s family moved at least ten times and to six different counties in Virginia, four in the Shenandoah Valley. A large map shows these places and includes the Virginia towns and cities of Elkton (1934), Grottoes (1936), Lexington (1937), Winchester (1941 and 1948), Portsmouth (1943), Edinburg (1945), Middletown (1946), Gore (1947), and Round Hill (1946).

Exhibition vignettes highlight Ginny’s time in Lexington and the family’s 1948 move to Winchester, where she began to achieve her dream by singing in area amateur contests, minstrel shows, and with Big Bands. Objects on display from these early years include a copy of her report card (showing she received a “C” in music), the porch glider from the family home, and two cowgirl outfits that Hilda Hensley sewed for her daughter. Visitors also will see the suit and boots of local county DJ and bandleader Bill Peer, who renamed Ginny “Patsy” in 1952.

In the next gallery room, visitors learn about Patsy’s career milestones, her 1957 marriage to Charlie Dick, and the image that Hilda and Patsy created for Patsy through a custom-tailored wardrobe. The RCA microphone Patsy sang into throughout her career when she visited Winchester radio station WINC is on view, as are seven of the singer’s outfits, several pairs of shoes, and two cowgirl hats. Patsy’s Billboard Award for “Most Promising Female County and Western Artist of 1957” is displayed near the ledger in which Patsy and her mother tracked the payment schedule for the Winchester house Patsy purchased for Hilda after the success of “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Patsy and Charlie Dick’s wedding attire is displayed here, too, as is the ID bracelet Patsy gave to Charlie. There is also a letter that Patsy wrote to her Aunt and Uncle Patterson in 1961; in it, she reveals her joy at achieving her dream and her wish that her father would have lived to witness it.

As visitors walk into the exhibition’s final gallery room, they will see the handkerchief that Hilda Hensley carried during Patsy’s funeral in Winchester on March 10, 1963, a funeral card issued by Jones Funeral Home for Patsy’s burial, and an original copy of the March 6, 1963, edition of the Winchester Evening Star with coverage of Patsy’s death.

In the final gallery room, visitors experience the moment that Patsy Cline became a national star. The event occurred on January 21, 1957, when Patsy competed on a nationally televised show, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. In this complete audio recording of the occasion, Hilda, posing as Patsy’s agent, chats for several minutes with Godfrey, who does not realize the “talent scout” is actually Patsy’s mother. Visitors then hear Patsy sing “Walkin’ After Midnight” and witness her joy at winning, her mother at her side. With no video footage of this television event known to exist, a montage of rare photographs and other video of Patsy Cline provide a powerful companion viewing experience. This final gallery room also pays tribute to Patsy Cline’s legacy through the display of several large images and dozens of her framed records and albums.

Becoming Patsy Cline features activities to engage visitors of all ages. Visitors will create their own stage names, design their own unique, star-appeal looks, and then select from prop instruments to pose on a stage for a souvenir photograph. Visitors also will share their thoughts about Patsy Cline on a postcard for display in the gallery or on the Museum’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Other activities include a listening station of Big Band music and an area where visitors may browse through books about country music, Patsy Cline, and more.

Douglas Gomery, CPC historian and author of the 2011 book Patsy Cline: The Making of an Icon, served as the exhibition’s guest curator. The author of 21 books and more than 500 academic articles, Gomery has taught the history of mass media at a number of universities, including the University of Wisconsin, Northwestern University, New York University, the University of Utrecht (the Netherlands), and the University of Maryland. He retired in 2005 to become the official historian for Celebrating Patsy Cline and Resident Scholar, Special Collections, Mass Media and Culture for the Library of American Broadcasting, located at the University of Maryland.

MSV Exhibition Manager Corwyn Garman also served in a curatorial capacity for the exhibition and drew from Guest Curator Gomery’s scholarship to develop the exhibition’s narrative. According to Garman, Patsy Cline’s story is the embodiment of the American dream, and he hopes that the exhibition will share new information with Patsy Cline fans about her Shenandoah Valley roots and make her story relevant to a new generation.

“Anyone who has ever had a dream or any parent who has a child with a dream can relate to Patsy’s story,” Garman adds. “I hope visitors will leave knowing how hard Patsy Cline worked to achieve her dream, how strong the bond was between mother and daughter, and that her mother was at her side every step of the way,” he says.

Deborah Hilty, MSV curator of education, assisted with the research and planning for Becoming Patsy Cline. The Design Minds, Inc. of Fairfax, Virginia, served as exhibition designer.

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