NATURAL BRIDGE, Va. — As he remembers it, Mark Cline wasn’t much of a student when he was in elementary school, so as a matter of survival he became the class clown: funny and fast-talking with a gift for drawing and a flowering imagination. Resourceful, too.
“A clown needs props, but props are expensive,” he said, “so I started making my own props.”
Such as the time he pretended to be Stan Laurel — of Laurel and Hardy fame — for a show, and he needed a derby to wear. Where did a kid in Waynesboro find a derby in the 1970s? In the kitchen cabinets!
“I took my mom’s mixing bowl, spray-painted it black and put cardboard around it to make the rim,” he said. “People were laughing.”
As he recalled, the admirers gathered around him after the show, congratulating him on his performance, made it easier to break the news to his mother about her bowl.
Who said he wasn’t smart?
Not his fourth-grade teacher.
“He was most creative and probably the most artistically talented student I ever had,” said Sallie Hickok Spiller, who taught Cline at Berkeley Glenn Elementary during her career as a teacher and guidance counselor that covered almost 30 years. “I remember he was so talented. There’s not much outlet for people like that.”
So, like with props, sometimes you have to make your own outlets. Cline has done precisely that for the past three decades: planting a monster in a local lake, stationing Batman atop a courthouse, constructing a reproduction of Stonehenge out of beaded foam blocks. Foamhenge. And that little list barely hints at the career he’s built pulling stunts and making people laugh all over the map.
His latest masterpiece is a roadside attraction tucked in the woods along U.S. Route 11 behind a palisade of utility poles that tells the untold story — untold for a good reason — of the time when dinosaurs changed the course of the Civil War. It’s called Dinosaur Kingdom II, a 16-acre stroll through Cline’s rollicking imagination featuring fiberglass dinosaurs and soldiers that is as silly as it sounds, though it is presented with such flair and humor that you can’t help but laugh out loud or at least shake your head in amazement.
“He just has this wonderful, wacky sense of humor,” said Doug Harwood, founder and publisher (and editor, reporter and circulation manager) of The Rockbridge Advocate, a monthly news magazine that also articulates a singular view of the world, stating on its nameplate, “Independent as a Hog on Ice.” Harwood has known and covered Cline for years. “The community is a lot richer for his being here, and just because he does some things that make everybody smile.”
As Cline was about to lead our little group into Dinosaur Kingdom II for a personalized tour, we encountered Philip and Laurie Muzzy of Durham, N.C., exiting the attraction. They were delighted to discover that the trim man with the wild hair in the white fedora and red suspenders passing them in the parking lot — Cline — was the mastermind behind it all.
“This was really cool! Awesome job! Thank you!” said Laurie Muzzy.
Turns out, the Muzzys, both 36, are fans of Atlas Obscura, a “guide to the world’s wondrous and curious places,” according to the publication. They noticed a reference to Dinosaur Kingdom II on the Atlas Obscura website and immediately thought, as Philip Muzzy said with a laugh, “Absolutely, we’re going to this.”
They arrived on their way home after visiting friends in Virginia and were not disappointed.
“It’s great to be involved in the stories,” Philip Muzzy said. “It’s fun. How the scenes are revealed and how the pieces play together; it’s just brilliant. It’s fabulous.”
Cline opened Dinosaur Kingdom II in mid-summer 2016 on land owned by the Natural Bridge Zoo across the road. He transformed the remnants of an old motor court on the property into a mining town in his story and otherwise carved a meandering path through the woods that serves as his stage. It has the kitschy feel of a 1950s mom-and-pop roadside attraction, but Cline likes to think of it as less of a throwback and more of a “thrust forward.”
“They popped up in the ’50s and ’60s and even into the ’70s,” Cline said of such attractions, “and the in the ’80s, they really started going by the wayside because of interstate traffic. People started getting caught up in the modern world, so to speak. Now, I think people are coming back to this kind of thing.”
While the public may be coming back, Cline never really left.
Even as a kid, Cline, now 56, remembers insisting to his father that they stop at Dinosaur Land in White Post, a roadside attraction featuring reproductions of dinosaurs near Winchester, even though it was closed, so he could peer through the fence. He remembers telling his father, “I’m going to build these one day.” He also remembers his dad responding, “If that’s what you want to do, Son, there’s nothing that can stop you.”
When he was about 12, Cline built a dinosaur and persuaded a friend to let him put his creation on his boat. Then they climbed inside the creature and floated on the South River, bumping into rocks and enchanting everyone they passed along the way — at least he figures everyone was enchanted. Cline couldn’t see much of anything from inside the dinosaur.
“It was probably the most unsafe thing anyone could have done,” he said. “I did a lot of incredibly unsafe things back then in search of adventure, and I did get hurt once in a while. Tales of Huck Finn and the Hardy boys were my envy. The adventure for me was real.”
Cline might have been inspired by dinosaurs he saw as a kid and the fantasy movies he watched — such as “The Valley of Gwangi,” the tale of a valley of dinosaurs discovered by cowboys in Mexico at the turn of the 20th century — but the public’s reaction has always factored into his motivation and gratification.
“He’s a showman,” Harwood said. “Nothing seems to please him more than making people smile or go, ‘Wowee! Look at that!’
“And he certainly knows how to get people’s attention. I get the feeling he’s not doing this to get rich or famous. He’s doing it because he loves doing it.”
Cline has always considered himself more of an entertainer than an artist. He guides ghost tours in Lexington and authors and illustrates comic books, performs Houdini-like escapes and has himself shot out of cannons (sort of), and has pedaled his unicycle through a ring of fire blindfolded (three times). He’s ridden that same unicycle, dressed as Uncle Sam, leading a Fourth of July children’s bicycle parade in Lexington. He’s already planned his funeral: His magician buddies will carry in his casket, set it down and an appointed spokesman will tell the gathering — “Of course, they all paid five bucks to get in,” Cline says — that Cline wanted to perform one last show. “Saw, please.”
(Cline acknowledges that his wife insists this wish of his will NOT be fulfilled.)
But he’s wavering on the Entertainer vs. Artist categorization, particularly since 2012 when Roanoke’s Taubman Museum of Art curated an exhibition of Cline’s work that it called “Blue Ridge Barnum.”
P.T. Barnum? You like that comparison?
“It’s sort of an honor,” Cline said.
Cline is on 24/7/365, but April Fools’ Day seems to bring out the best in him.
In 2003, he arranged to have dinosaurs pop up around the Rockbridge County town of Glasgow and even printed brochures labeling it “The Town Time Forgot.” The following year brought Foamhenge to a hilltop near Natural Bridge, taking him and his crew about six weeks to do what it took builders of Stonehenge about 1,500 years — plus, he built another for a private client in Alabama. Bamahenge.
Foamhenge became such a worldwide sensation that he abandoned his plans to take it down after a few weeks and left it up until 2016 when he had to remove it as Natural Bridge became a state park. He found a new home for it at Cox Farms in Fairfax County, where it is scheduled to make its debut in September.
On other April Fools’ Days, he’s stationed a herd of elephants near Waynesboro, flying saucers in a field near Lexington and a giant pair of hands coming out of a hillside near Daleville. Another year, he launched a 50-foot-long Russian submarine in a lake in Staunton’s Gypsy Hill Park. In 2016, he planted a giant octopus named Ivan — Loch Ness monster-like — in Rockbridge County’s Lake Robertson.
“I got a bunch of calls from people going, ‘Doug, there’s something awful happening out in Lake Robertson!’ ” said The Advocate’s Harwood with a laugh. “All I could say was, ‘I bet that Mark Cline did something.’ “
Cline has performed as Mick Jagger and Willy Wonka, and it’s doubtful anyone can do a better Barney Fife. His strongest role is playing himself.
He created Professor Cline’s Haunted Monster Museum at Natural Bridge in 2002 and added the original, much smaller Dinosaur Kingdom to occupy patrons as they waited in line. The museum burned in 2012, and he salvaged what he could. It was his second major fire. In 2001, his Enchanted Castle Studio went up in flames. For Cline, rising from ashes seems to be just another trick to perform, another way to amaze audiences.
“P.T. Barnum had three (fires), so at least I’m one behind him,” Cline said.
His studio is practically an attraction in itself with works in progress for theme parks, miniature golf courses and other clients, past works and weird odds and ends that bubbled up from his imagination: pigs, monkeys and oversized insects, Elvis, a big orange cow, the requisite shelves of disembodied heads you would expect to find in the workshop of a mad genius, and Frankenchicken (Frankenstein head, chicken body). Cline says, “He came from a bad egg.” Cline hops on a stationary bike that bears a sign: “Kickas Exercise Co.” As he pedals, a pair of oversized clown shoes goes round and round, booting him in the rump.
In his office, he proudly pulls out newspaper clippings from his past, including one from when he was 7. The Waynesboro newspaper published a photo of Cline and his brothers with a snow sculpture they built in their yard. A common snowman? Hardly. They created a Statue of Liberty.
“I’ll tell you, this has been my ticket to the world,” Cline said. “I was just a kid from Waynesboro who had a dream. If I told you a thousand of my dreams had come true, that would be the truth.
“But it’s really not about me. It’s about what we can do as humans to inspire other people . to get people’s emotions going, hopefully, in a positive way.”
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com