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  • October 12th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Every Sunday evening at 7 PM I open a time capsule now more than 40 years old. I do this by turning on the television set to a rerun of Hee Haw from the 1970s, where I can see in living color performances by legendary country entertainers, now mostly pages in history.

An enduring feature of Hee Haw was a segment called Pickin’ and Grinnin’ where cohosts Roy Clark and Buck Owens trade corny jokes interspersed with Clark playing an instrumental break, with the assembled group singing the chorus:

“Going up Cripple Creek, gonna have a little fun”

I never gave much thought to Cripple Creek, although I vaguely knew it was a town somewhere in Colorado, where once miners flocked, high in the Rocky Mountains hoping to strike it rich digging for gold. The town lies at nearly 9500 feet in a broad valley where in 1890 gold was discovered and a gold rush ensued that attracted 10,000 prospectors following their glittering dream. They dug $500 million worth of gold before the riches ran out and the town dwindled to a population of about 100 and became one of Colorado’s many ghost towns. It attracted the hardy few who could stand the altitude for a chance to peek into mining history.

30 years ago it was a crumbling assortment of mostly deserted buildings approaching a century old. There still is an operating gold mine in the area, but now the more than 1000 inhabitants mine their gold from the pocketbooks of tourists who flock to what has become a mini Las Vegas in the mountains— gambling is the main industry anymore and some of the casino buildings cover-up the bed of the Creek that gave the town’s name.

But there is one building that caters, not to hopeful gamblers but to the arts. It is the restored Butte Opera house where recently I saw the finest theatrical performance I’ve ever seen and those include Broadway and regional productions of famous musicals productions by local and national theater groups.

The occasion was my wife, Marty’s, and my 62nd wedding anniversary and we celebrated it by watching a magical two hour production of “Always…. Patsy Cline”, a musical which has sold out off-Broadway and in repertory company productions all over the country as well as in foreign theaters.
The musical features only two performers, one channeling Patsy Cline, the other her devoted fan Louise Seger. Both are on stage virtually the entire performance and in Cripple Creek they were backed by an outstanding cowboy band that had assimilated the Patsy Cline arrangements to the point where I felt trapped in a time warp— listening to radio from the late 1950s late on a Saturday night when the reception was good from WSM in Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry was in its true heyday (not the overproduced, pop diluted crap that passes for country music today).

This was a country music I grew up with, twiddling the dial on the old upright Zenith radio in our ramshackle Missouri home trying from about 5:30 PM to pick up a distant signal, usually contaminated by a.m. radio static, from Nashville. There were early shows in those days, before the Opry began and I remember hearing Hank Williams Senior during his brief stint, both on the Opry and in life. They’re all gone now, those Grand Ole Opry stars of the 1950s—Red Foley, Roy Acuff, Carl Smith, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Marty Robbins and…. Patsy Cline. Not to mention and not to forget Hawkshaw Hawins and Cowboy Copas who died in a plane crash with Patsy Cline.

I would haunt the radio until the closing of the Ernest Tubb record shop show after 1 AM. My high school peers probably were out on dates and few if any shared my enthusiasm for country music. To them Patsy Cline couldn’t hold a candle to Patti Page. As a social life it wasn’t much to brag about, but maybe that intense exposure to classic country in my early life gave me an appreciation for a musical dedicated to the memory of Patsy Cline that few today can share. Consider that most people today were not even born when Patsy Cline died. It is a tribute to the Cline talent that her songs and recordings became more popular after she died than when she was alive and that even today more than half a century after that tragic plane crash her voice still resonates as powerfully as it did for six short years of fame.

Anyone who has even a passing interest in country music knows that Patsy Cline died in a plane crash in 1963 after a brief (six-year) career as a superstar. Her legend now has spanned nearly 60 years since her death and her album of greatest hits has sold more than 10 million copies and continues to sell every day.

Her death, along with those of fellow Grand Ole Opry stars Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas and her manager and pilot Randy Hughes (Hughes was married to Copas’s daughter), was part of a seemingly unending tragedy. Hughes flew into bad weather, which already had canceled the commercial flight that Patsy was scheduled to take, and the plane crashed 85 miles short of Nashville. They were returning from Kansas City where Patsy had done a benefit performance for a local disc jockey (who had been killed in a car wreck). Days later, Jack Anglin, half of the singing dual of Johnny and Jack ( smash hits Poison Love and Ashes of Love) died in a car wreck en route to a memorial service for Patsy Cline.

Patsy Cline spearheaded the Me Too movement long before today’s women coined the phrase. More than just the best female vocalist in any area you care to name, she represented woman power at a time when women still were accessory items in a man’s world. She took no crap from anyone. She knew what she wanted from life and she seized it with authority, yet was beloved by everyone she ever associated with— and that includes two husbands, two children, and every legendary entertainer she worked with.
At one point in the performance, Patsy, spending the night with Louise, sings a lullaby to Louise’s two kids. She is off stage when she starts the song and after she gets the kids to sleep, she appears on stage, in a robe, clutching a teddy bear, and finishes the song. If there was a dry eye in the house it wasn’t mine.

Mixing comedy with heartrending drama, Louise opines that roadhouse dancing is about as much fun as anyone can have and comes off stage while the band is playing a song with a boogie-woogie beat and Patsy is singing. Louise grabs a guy from the front row and they dance. Maybe the guy was a plant who was part of the performance, but if not—if he actually was a local— he was a regular Fred Astaire of the beer joints and the two of them got an ovation when they finished.

Most of those who see the Patsy Cline musical know only the talent of the actor playing the part of Patsy Cline and what they know of her life is what they read about. I was there when it happened. I heard her live (by way of low-fi a.m. radio) on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, standing on the hallowed spot in the middle of the stage where the featured performer was spotlighted. It’s my regret that I never saw her in person the way I have seen, for example, Willie Nelson, perhaps the last legend of that storied era of country music. Most of them now are gone and when I watch the Hee Haw reruns I can tick off the members of the cast who have died and there are more of them than those who are still alive.

According to the story, Louise Seger was so captivated by Patsy Cline’s voice on her radio that she pestered a local disc jockey to play Patsy Cline records so persistently that he finally gave in. And Seger also pursued a meeting with Patsy Cline when the already established star performed at Houston’s cavernous Esquire Ballroom and that’s how they became friends. Seger invited Cline to spend the night with her and the tired entertainer agreed.

On the night that Patsy Cline and Louise Seger stayed at Seger’s house, the story goes they sat around the kitchen table (which is part of the stage set in the musical) until 4 AM and Seger is quoted as saying we were “Talking over broken hearts, husband problems, children problems, love lost, love won. We sounded like two people writing country songs.”

We all know what happened to Patsy Cline but what about Louise Seger? It turns out she died quietly and peacefully October 28, 2004. Patsy Cline’s biographer recalls having met Seger for an interview: “We met in 1980 in Houston Texas. It was quite a scene: Louise showed up in a white Caddy convertible, and a white cowgirl outfit, with holsters of canned Buds on both sides looking every bit like a blonde Patsy!” Patsy Cline’s second husband, Charlie Dick, died in 2015. Her daughter, Julie Fudge, is the caretaker of the Cline legacy with a museum in Nashville.

There is a YouTube video of the entire production, shot from the audience, and of marginal quality but if it were a Hollywood production of the off-Broadway original it would not have half the quality of the Cripple Creek outing featuring Kelli Dodd as Patsy Cline and Rebecca Myers as Louise Seger. These two young actresses may never star on Broadway, but if not it would be a travesty. They are major league performers and outshine a video of the original musical cast. The miners of old may have been looking for gold in them thar hills but today’s theater goers found a pair of diamonds gracing the stage of the Butte Opera house.

Dodd mastered the Patsy Cline vocal sob to perfection and tore my heart out with her re-creation of Cline singing Faded Love, Sweet Dreams and other Cline classics that once came from Nashville through the static into our old Zenith and into my memory and my heart. But if anything, the night belonged to Myers as Louise Seger with more energy packed into her trim frame than a stick of dynamite. If anything, she reminded me of Betty Hutton, the original blonde bombshell of movie fame who created the role of Annie Oakley in the movie version of the Broadway stage production.

All in all, it was a magic afternoon capped off by a drive through the mountains where the aspens flamed against the dark green background of pines and the red rock bluffs added another color to the palette and Pike’s Peak loomed in the background like the massive Rocky Mountain presence that it is.

Marty and I are fans of musical productions and have been to many including The Music Man and the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. We’ve seen South Pacific and Chicago at the Maples Repertory Theater in Macon, Missouri, Marty’s home town, and Mary Poppins at the Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock, Missouri, a rep company which has been in existence for many years and is nationally renowned.

But if we’re married another 62 years we will not duplicate the magical two hours spent high in the mountains of Colorado in what once was the location of a gold mining bonanza, in a venerable opera house, where once grizzled and weatherbeaten prospectors gathered for an evening of rustic entertainment. Some of them found gold in the hills around Cripple Creek. We found it in that old opera house and for two hours our lives were enriched beyond anything those 10,000 miners ever experienced in any given two hours of their hardbitten lives.  

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