POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 24, 2012
WINCHESTER, Va. » The Patsy Cline Historic House is officially closed on this wintry day, but the door is open. A few garden club volunteers are decorating the squat Christmas tree, and someone has baked a black walnut cake to share when the lights are strung and the delicate ornaments are hung, just so.
Three months ago would have been Patsy Cline's 80th birthday; three months from now is the 50th anniversary of her premature death, at 30. But still the people come, from as close as Culpeper and as far as Tokyo, to visit the hometown that was slow to embrace her and linger in the modest house where she spent several years, harboring dreams as big as her voice.
They say that Patsy speaks to them, giving them strength to carry on through hardship.
"I've seen grown people fall to their knees when they come into the house," says JudySue Huyett-Kempf, the house's executive director.
"Spooky, and almost overboard," adds Mel Dick, Patsy's brother-in-law. "But sincere."
Perhaps the Patsy faithful are responding to the been-there intimations of struggle and heartbreak in her voice, the note of aching resilience that she came by honestly. If that famous Beckettian thought — "I can't go on, I'll go on" — were set to music, Patsy Cline would be the one to sing it.
In this way, the modest tin-roof house at 608 S. Kent St. stands as a monument to the complicated — and therefore authentic — American life. We trip forward through the year with laughter one day and tears the next, then bid it farewell with holiday music and cake, ready to try again.
Huyett-Kempf leads an intimate tour through the house — this lamp is original to the home, Patsy's mother gave that coat to her hairdresser — before telling a life story she knows as well as her own.
"Could you turn Patsy down a little bit?" she calls out to someone near the sound system.
Patsy Cline was born Virginia Hensley in Winchester in 1932, the first child of a 43-year-old blacksmith with his 16-year-old bride. Her mother, Hilda, eventually took her three children and moved into this converted log cabin, keeping poverty at bay by sewing for the rich.
"This is not the nice part of Winchester," Huyett-Kempf says.
Young Ginny left school to help pay the rent, working, for example, as a waitress at the Greyhound bus station and as a soda jerk at Gaunt's Drug Store. She also sang wherever and whenever she could, first in the big-band style of her idol, Jo Stafford, and then in country style, often wearing Western outfits sewn by her mother.
As a dropout living with a single mother, she did not embody the Winchesterian elite's ideal of young womanhood. She was considered to be nothing more than a Kent Street girl who did not know her proper place. That is, until she sang "Walkin' After Midnight" to win a contest on Arthur Godfrey's nationally televised talent show in 1957.
"Cute song," Godfrey said afterward. "A wam-doodler."
With her career in ascent, she helped her mother buy the home at 608 S. Kent and another house down the street. She eventually moved to Nashville with her second husband to record "Sweet Dreams," "Crazy" and other hits. She grappled with marital problems, barely survived a car accident and died in a plane crash in March 1963, just six years after performing her wam-doodler.
Thousands came to Winchester for the funeral, forming a line of cars that stretched for miles. Huyett-Kempf says the turnout stunned the city into realizing: "She was someone."
But the city rarely deigned to recognize Cline, according to Douglas Gomery, a retired professor and the author of "Patsy Cline: The Making of an Icon." Her appearance at Carnegie Hall warranted a two-sentence mention in the local newspaper, he says, and her tragic death received more empathetic coverage in out-of-town papers.
"There were two kinds of people that the elites in Winchester didn't mix with," Gomery says. "Poor white trash and African-Americans. And she was seen as poor white trash."
It took Winchester more than two decades to honor its hometown star, and only after two movies in which she figured — "Coal Miner's Daughter" in 1980, and "Sweet Dreams" in 1985 — had introduced her to a new generation of fans. A road was renamed, and a silent bell tower was erected near her grave site.
But her mother, who died in 1998, always sensed the city's disdain for anything smacking of honky-tonk, no matter that Cline was a crossover star often seen in dresses and heels.
Liz Minor, the city's longtime mayor and a resident since 1962, is an unabashed Patsy Cline fan and supporter of the house. But she struggles to explain why Winchester was slow to celebrate one of its own.
"There are certainly people who didn't appreciate her music," she says. "Who didn't appreciate — I don't know how to put it delicately — her lifestyle."
Enter JudySue Huyett-Kempf, who knows something about resilience. For example, she ended her three-decade career in banking after being held up three times in six months back in the early 1990s, including once by a robber who held a gun to her head, grabbed her hair and nearly dragged her out the door.
"Ruined my white suit," she says.
After joining the staff of the local chamber of commerce in 1994, she noticed that many visitors were inquiring about one famous Winchester resident in particular: Patsy.
"And there was nothing here for her," she says. "Winchester was just sitting on this gem!"
Before long, a nonprofit group called Celebrating Patsy Cline was created. Before long, Huyett-Kempf had developed a tour that included a pause in front of the house, a visit to the cemetery and a stop at the drugstore where a young woman named Ginny once whipped up ice cream sodas.
As with any family, there have been ups and downs: quarrels within the Celebrating Patsy Cline group, disappointment with the "Sweet Dreams" movie, a painful court battle between Cline's brother and sister over their mother's estate. In the end, the house and many prized Cline possessions were auctioned off to pay legal fees, leaving the siblings to split what remained.
But the Celebrating Patsy Cline group salvaged what it could. For example, after the brother died a few years ago, his girlfriend called to ask: "Do you want this Patsy stuff?" With the help of Cline's husband, Charlie Dick, the group bought boxes filled with Patsy jewelry and Patsy shoes, Patsy gloves and Patsy hats, and, of course, some Patsy cowgirl dresses.
The organization also managed to acquire the Kent Street house, renting it out while pursuing plans to open a museum in downtown Winchester. But when those hopes collapsed a couple of years ago, Huyett-Kempf struck on the idea of using the house as both a headquarters and an attraction.
After nine months of renovations, the house opened in August 2011.
"We had 3,000 people come through in less than three months," she says.
On this wintry day, Huyett-Kempf and Mel Dick, the brother-in-law, extend the impromptu Patsy tour to include the rest of the pleasant and tidy city of Winchester, which, more and more, has come to appreciate the self-confident girl from Kent Street. Here's the old honky-tonk she frequented, now called Granny's. Here's the WINC radio station where she got her start. Here's the grave site, on top of which sit two dimes, three nickels and 18 pennies.
People are always leaving money, it seems.
Then back to the old house of an American icon, where the cake is sliced, the tree lights are winking and everything is just so. So homey, so retro, so much the way we wish the holidays always were, that you half-expect Patsy to burst through the door, shouting Merry Christmas and asking where's the beer at.