The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Professor Cline

Hyperkinetic Mark Cline has turned a sleepy tourist town into a home for his kitschy genius.

So you find yourself driving down lonely Route 11, heading into the town of Natural Bridge, perhaps a bit bleary-eyed from traveling. Suddenly, up on a hill, framed by the lush beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, you Experience Something Unexplainable: the circular mystery of Stonehenge.

After you park the car and trudge up the rise to take a closer look, you find out why believing is not always seeing. The real Stonehenge resides in Wiltshire, England, and dates to around 3200 BC. Its stones probably don’t creak and sway with the wind like these do.

Foamhenge, a full-sized replica of one of the oldest manmade prehistoric sites in the world, has captured the imagination of thousands of astonished travelers since local artist and entrepreneur Mark Cline erected it out of molded Styrofoam a few years back. The man the Lynchburg News called “the poor man’s Disney” says he constantly thinks about new ways to thrill people. “If they’ve got a mouth, they can smile, and that’s my goal: to make them smile.”

Cline, who normally works in molded fiberglass, is at the ’henge today to check on the progress of a spray-paint restoration of the Styro boulders. A sign urges, “Please be gentle. It is foam, not stone,” but several kids have clearly had their fun here. “I don’t believe the original Stonehenge had ‘yo mama’ inscribed in it,” he quips.

After recent media appearances (including a Washington Post feature and Today show plug), word is out about the inspired renaissance man who set up shop in the scenic Natural Bridge area more than a quarter-century ago and transformed this sleepy tourist trap into a homeplace for fright museums, dinosaurs and other roadside fun. As he walks around Foamhenge on a drizzly May afternoon—perfectly British weather—several travelers stop to gawk. “Are you Mark Cline?” one lady from Richmond asks. “I saw you on television.”

A wiry and over-caffeinated melding of Indiana Jones and Mork from Ork, Cline, 46, is never hard to spot, decked out in his trademark jungle hat and multicolored suspenders. “I might as well have married Kenny Chesney,” his wife Sherry laments. “People are just drawn to him, everywhere we go. We can’t eat in peace at restaurants.” He’s also the one constantly thinking out loud. Ken Smith of calls Cline—always on the move with various projects, assignments and pranks—“a vortex of creative chaos.”

Thanks to the Natural Bridge Hotel, which donated land and maintenance, Cline’s Stonehenge replica is open to the public every day, free of charge. “Years ago, I walked into Insulated Building Systems in Staunton, where I get a lot of my material,” he says to a young Harrisonburg couple who have stopped to look. “And there were these huge blocks just sitting there, and it suddenly came to me: Foamhenge.”

Kitschy? You bet. Stirring? No doubt. Either way, it seems oddly fitting that a polystyrene knockoff of the earliest flashes of man’s ingenuity would rest just a few miles from a limestone archway considered one of the seven natural wonders of the modern world.

“The druids took, what, 1,500 years to make theirs,” smiles Mark Cline. “I made this in 10 days.”

A few miles away on Route 11, Cline’s Enchanted Castle Studio also stops traffic.

A giant bony hand rises up out of one corner of the yard, which looks like something the special effects department at Universal Studios threw up—a mess of gorilla parts, huge dinosaur husks, scowling tiki idols and half-finished space aliens. Overwhelming as it is, the eye-grabbing work site is said to be a pale reflection of what could be found at Cline’s original Enchanted Castle, burned down in a mysterious fire in 2001.

In a sheltered area, where Cline makes fiberglass figures for parks and novelty attractions across the country, two assistants gingerly polish a plump gargoyle and prepare to mount a large figure of Merlin the wizard. Next door, Cline’s office / warehouse is housed with finished and half-assembled bric-a-brac—a 15-foot Frankenstein with a chicken’s body (“Frankenchicken”), a giant Academy Award, a skull similar to one built for rocker Alice Cooper, and several custom-made Yogi Bear statues molded for nearby Jellystone Park.

The people magnet is being visited by an elderly lady and her two grandkids. They would like “the famous artist” to make them a unicorn. After showing them around the warehouse and energetically reenacting his recent stint as The Grinch in the local Christmas parade, Cline is back in his office, talking about a popular ghost tour that he runs in Lexington. “I just spent the night in one of those haunted houses. I didn’t see anything,” he says.

Does the man who hosts ghosts believe in life after death?

“I’m not going to say I do or don’t. Since I create illusions, it’s easier for me to figure out how they are done. But I do feel that people need to have their haunts, their ghosts and their aliens and things that are a little out of reach for them. It gives them something a little more than the mundane.”

James Johnson, the owner of the Nightmare Mansion funhouse in Virginia Beach, has been on many ghost tours. “I’ve been to one in Boston, Baltimore, South Carolina … Williamsburg. Mark’s in Lexington blows them all away. He takes you on down the alleyways, really twisting and turning through town, and the stories … very, very entertaining. And then the ending, leading you to the cemetery where Stonewall Jackson is buried—truly phenomenal.”

Johnson has used Cline’s detailed fiberglass figures in Nightmare Mansion and the other flashy venues he owns along the Virginia Beach strip—like the 3-D Funhouse and a new Pirate Adventure Ride. The latter replaces a long-running “Professor Cline’s Time Machine” funhouse, perhaps the first real flowering of the artist’s varied talents. “When he and I first met [in the mid-’80s], I had a place called the Haunted Mansion,” Johnson says. “I got him to build a giant skull to go up on the corner of the building and a couple of hands to go with it. Mark is able to visualize and put on paper what he wants, and then take it from there and make it an imageable reality … he’s one of the most creative people I’ve ever known.”

“It’s so much fun to hang around his studio and see him make something out of nothing right in front of your eyes,” says Troy Faries, who has opened up a haunted house in Salem, Dr. Pain’s Haunted Asylum. He travels here regularly to study Cline’s fiberglass techniques and sense of showmanship. “Mark’s deal is, you just wake up every day and try to make the craziest thing in the world.”

“He’s an idea man and he backs it up with action, and I think people like that,” Jerry Clark says. The publisher of the Rockbridge Weekly liked Cline’s free-form ideas and community spirit so much that he invited him to contribute a regular column. “I never know what I’m going to get, and 99 percent of the time I like it.”

One wonders when Cline has the time to write it. In just the past few weeks, he’s made jaunts to Arkansas, South Carolina and Texas to install new dinosaurs and pirate ships. Besides Virginia Beach, you can find his work in Putt-Putt golf courses, Six Flags parks and the Pavilion in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; regionally, he’s crafted a huge dinosaur head for the Luray Reptile Center and mounted a gigantic King Kong climbing a truck stop in Fairfield. For all your fiberglass creature needs … call Mark Cline.

“It’s not like I went into the business and made a fortune right off,” he maintains, almost apologetic for recent success. “I mean, I struggled. I lost my first wife over it. I never went bankrupt, but people were telling me, ‘You need to get a real job. You’re never going to make it doing this stuff.’

Professor Cline gives out copies of a full-color comic book as a promotional tool. Written, illustrated and self-published by the man himself, it’s a fanciful, well-drawn send-up of old E.C. comics like Tales from the Crypt. But there’s also an autobiographical tale called The Strange Life of the Real Professor Cline.

It starts like this: “Because of poor grades and a lack of academic interests in the Waynesboro, Va. school system, Mark was placed in a ‘Special’ class. However, he did excel in shop.” In the drawing, a young Cline is making a coffin. Off panel, a teacher: “Can’t ya build a gun rack like normal kids?”

Born in 1961 in Waynesboro, the third of four boys, Cline loved to draw from the time he could hold a pencil and always looked at things a little differently: “When I was 7 years old, I entered a snowman contest and, instead of a snowman, I built the Statue of Liberty.” He says his Mennonite parents were “very encouraging to me, as far as my art. But my academics were horrible—I did very, very poorly in school. I passed every grade just barely.”

One childhood memory sticks out. “My father and I were traveling, coming back from Baltimore, and Dinosaur Land [in White Post, Virginia] was closed, but I asked my dad to stop there—I’d been there before—and he said, ‘OK.’ I was probably about 12 years old. We stood there together looking through the fence at these huge dinosaur figures, and I said, ‘I’m going to make these when I grow up, dad.’

“And he just said these 11 words to me: ‘If that’s what you want to do, nothing can stop you.’”

Mark Cline not only made good on his vow, he became the guy who designs new beasts for Dinosaur Land. “I’ve never done a dinosaur attraction that was unsuccessful,” the professor says proudly.

He recently opened a regionally flavored dino park like no other, situated next to his Haunted Monster Museum in Natural Bridge. Here, tourists can venture through an ominous wooded area and see full-size Mesozoic-era reptiles fighting for the Rebs during the Civil War, hunting down Yankee soldiers in a series of stunningly macabre scenarios throughout the tangle of a dense forest.

“We are in Civil War territory. I just embellished the story a bit to make it unique,” Cline says of his Escape from Dinosaur Kingdom. “You see, the Union found a lost valley of dinosaurs and were going to use them as weapons of mass destruction against the South,” he explains. “And then the dinosaurs revolted.” Cline says he’s been contracted to design a similar park in Gettysburg, where this time the beasts will chew on Southern troops.

If this sounds more like an elaborate movie plot than a roadside attraction, you are onto something. At one time, Mark Cline wanted to be a film director and worked low-budget magic with the family’s home movie camera. “Me and my friends made Super 8 films, superheroes, western films … I lost them in the fire I had back in 2001.”

Movies were a big influence on Cline’s artistic sensibilities, and his sci-fi and horror favorites aired on Slime Theater, a local creature feature show on Saturday nights at 11 p.m. on Charlottesville’s WVIR TV. “I did some artwork for them—my art work burned up in the fire too. I used to send them this stuff, and they asked me to come on the show—they used my stuff as the backdrop. Then they found out I was 12 years old and said, ‘Hey man, this guy’s kinda cool … .’”

After (barely) graduating high school, things changed. “I had nothing, no career, I wasn’t military or college material, jobs were very limited where I grew up in Waynesboro. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. So … I kept a journal—that burned up too—and hitchhiked across the country.” When he got back, he slept for a time in Staunton’s Gypsy Hill Park. “I was a hobo, a bum. I don’t know any other words for it. I wrote in my journal, ‘I’ve got to find something to do with my life … I can’t be a bum.’”

Cline was fortunate to find not only employment, but also a direction in life. “It was a job at Red Mill Manufacturing in Lyndhurst, right outside Waynesboro … where they [made] little resin figurines. They did minutemen and turtles and all these things made of pecan-shell flour. So I basically became the guy who went there in the morning and mixed this stuff up.”

One day, the owner of the place, John Sewell, asked him to stay after work. He wanted to show Cline how to make a mold of his hand.

“That’s what really got me going,” Cline says, excited, relishing the memory. “I mean, I was like a kid that just—it was a revelation: ‘Wow, I can make all kinds of stuff out of this.’ [Sewell] told me, ‘Yes you can, Mark. Now, here’s a five-gallon bucket. Go home and play with it. Just don’t tell my wife I gave it to you.’”

Red Mill manufacturing is no more, but Cline still keeps in touch with his mentor, Sewell. “I remember the last time I saw him, I told him, ‘I don’t know whether to hug you or hit you for starting all of this.’”

And what did he make out of that five-gallon bucket of resin?

“I started making monsters.”

“It’s the wildest ride I’ve ever been on,” Sherry Cline sighs when she’s asked about being married to a man once referred to as “the P.T. Barnum of the Blue Ridge.” She says she has her hands full just being Mark Cline’s business manager. “He’ll commit to something and won’t tell me about it. I warned him one time, if things don’t change, you may find my car out there on the highway and I’m gone,” she laughs.

The fiberglass wizard says he has no idea how much money he’s got—he leaves it up to Sherry, who also owns the Shear Timing beauty salon in Lexington. Together they have two daughters, Sunny, 13—“born on Friday the 13th,” Cline informs me—and Jenna, 8.

The couple met at a music club, when Cline was moonlighting in a Rolling Stones tribute band (he does a dead-on Mick Jagger). “I didn’t pay much attention to him at first. I thought he was … interesting,” Sherry admits. Knowing his reputation as a fright master, she was decidedly unsure when he asked her out on a date. “My girlfriend said, ‘I bet he killed his first wife.’ So I took my straight razor with me just in case. He asked me to have dinner with him at his Monster Museum, and one of the first things he showed me was a coffin. I said … oh boy.”

Despite the carping over business matters—“He would just give things away”—Sherry is clearly his biggest fan. “He’s very different, but he’s also the most patient, loving man I’ve even known. There’s nobody in the world like him … maybe Albert Einstein would come close, but I never knew him.”

Cline is the first to admit that he needs a good manager like Sherry. He found out early on that he had a gift for sculpting, but not such a great mind for business. “I had this idea that I could take this stuff I was making, these creatures, and put a museum around it and call it the Monster Museum,” he says of his early days. “I tried it and got laughed out of Virginia Beach. I’m on my way back, almost broke, disgusted, I have to go home with my head down—there’s something in my comic book that tells about this—and in Mechanicsville, the radiator blows out in my Rambler Classic.”

Even though the tale sounds like something out of an old Hammer movie, he says he gave his last $5 to a palm reader. “Sister Dora looks at my hand and says, ‘Something didn’t work out for you, a business venture. But if you stick with it, it will become bigger than you could ever imagine.’”

The words encouraged him. When he finally got back on the road, he studied a map of Virginia. “I looked at Natural Bridge and said, ‘I’m gonna go there.’”

Why Natural Bridge?

“It was another tourist area … closer to Waynesboro than Virginia Beach.”

At that time, the early ’80s, the area had little beyond its scenic caverns and a certain rock formation. “Natural Bridge itself didn’t want to have anything to do with me at the time—it had different owners—they thought the stuff I did was beneath them.” The ambitious youngster opened The Monster Museum of Natural Bridge when he first arrived, but it closed within three years. “Nobody wanted to invest in me. I got money off of the tourists, but the locals didn’t come.”

His first marriage closed down too, an event that prompted another cross-country trip, more soul searching. “What I learned from that trip was that I had everything I needed right here to be successful.”

He turned his spook house into a studio tour and entertained tourists with thrill-ride creations and celebrity impersonations. They could also watch Cline mold fiberglass. “It was somewhat Willy Wonka-ish,” he admits. For $5, visitors could enjoy the sight of a bungee-jumping pig, visit a “Tornado Room” or get put in a chair and sent to the Moon, Cline style.

Even with the tour, he struggled. “I didn’t start off doing statues, nobody wanted to buy monsters. I had to start painting signs for people, cheap, to get my foot in the door.” Cline attended trade shows with increasingly ambitious concoctions, resulting in outside commissions from corporate clients such as Six Flags and Jellystone.

“A couple years later, the new owners of Natural Bridge came to me and said, ‘Hey, do you have any ideas for bringing more family units in?’ I said, ‘Yeah, how about a haunted monster museum?’ They said, ‘Yeah! That’s great.’ See, it’s different now. I was 21 when I first got here. I had to gain their trust.”

“Now I do charity events, I help raise money for people, I loan folks statues and donate money or services. People have recognized this now. I’ve sort of become their Disney.”

Today, Natural Bridge’s Disney is in the process of taking down his most ambitious project to date, which cost less than $1,000 to make but generated quite a buzz when it was unveiled last year. Titled “Eleven,” the project involved little more than decorating a pair of 40-foot storage bins that he saw in a neighbor’s yard, but no one who traveled to Buena Vista to see Cline’s homespun tribute to the Twin Towers will forget its stirring simplicity.

“Others see big blocks of foam and he sees Foamhenge,” says writer Ken Smith. “Same thing with those bins and the Twin Towers. He sees things that others don’t, and that’s the definition of an artist.”

Eleven was a change in tone for someone normally known for outsized kitsch. “I think it was a substantial gesture of respect,” Jerry Clark says about Cline’s 9/11-inspired installation. “Thousands of people stopped at Glen Maury Park to see it. He not only put his heart into the creation and the conceptualization of the display, he was able to garner the cash and support and other in-kind services to get the thing erected.”

“Mark’s done a lot, and I mean a lot, from the kindness of his heart, for the community,” says Sheri McGhee, of Open Arms Haven, which donated the two metal storage containers used in the tribute. “Sometimes he’s misunderstood about why he’s doing it. But thanks to him, when you are going down the highway, you don’t know what you are going to see. That’s good for us locals. Tourists don’t see all the things Mark does from day to day, but we do.”

The professor’s community spirit is all the more striking when you consider the still-unsolved fire that destroyed his original Enchanted Castle. In the most striking panel of his autobiographical comic, Cline sets the scene: “At 2 a.m., April 9, 2001, his studio burned to the ground. A letter was found accusing Mark of practicing witchcraft and devil worship. Although arson was suspected, it’s never been proven.” The note read, “God uses fire as his judgment. Behold, the judge is standing at the door.”

He claims that he became a long-standing target for “religious crazies” after getting a call from the Salem Avalanche, the single-A minor league baseball team in Salem, Virginia. “The team was on a long losing streak and asked if I could stage a séance to expel the bad demons of baseball before their game on Friday, June 13th. A Christian radio station and some preachers got hold of it and started protesting. The event went off OK, it was done in fun, but it became a media thing and the religious element didn’t like it. Then, a few years later, the fire … .”

“We were done pretty dirty on that deal,” echoes Sherry Cline. She too blames “religious fanatics” for setting the blaze, people who view Cline’s spook show antics as spiritually sinister. “A couple of churches around here said we were like devil worshippers. I never knew you could be considered a devil worshipper just because you made gargoyles.”

Insurance covered the buildings but not what was inside. “The fire—I looked at it as losing everything we’d worked for,” she says. “He looked at it as a new start.”

Mostly closed until after Memorial Day, Cline offers to open up Professor Cline’s Haunted Monster Museum for … a personal tour. Cue maniacal laughter.

This museum, heavily advertised on passing I-81 and Route 11 billboards, rests near the Natural Bridge Welcome Center and stands as testimony to the close relationship Mark Cline enjoys with the town’s current owners. Housed in the same compound as Escape from Dinosaur Kingdom, the artfully dilapidated Victorian manor was donated by Natural Bridge for Cline to embellish and spookify. “Anyone in the business would die to have a house like that to work with,” says Nightmare Mansion’s James Johnson.

The professor’s own fears involve not monsters but the future of the town. According to Leonard Puglisi, one of the eight partners who own the 215-foot-high limestone bridge and its surrounding tourism apparatus, the place is currently for sale (anyone got a spare $32.5 million?). “I don’t know what new owners would want to do,” Puglisi admits. His guess is that Cline is fine. “Mark’s made a lot of money for Natural Bridge over the years. The relationship hasn’t been totally one-way.”

The world of wacky roadside attractions like the Haunted Monster Museum—a trend that hit a peak in the ’60s—has been on a general decline. “Ninety percent of haunted houses fail in their first year,” Troy Faries says.

“These things have been disappearing over the years, or they’ve consolidated into parks like Busch Gardens,” explains James Johnson. “That doesn’t mean the right idea in the right location won’t still draw people. Everything cycles around.”

Ken Smith, who co-wrote two best-selling Roadside America books, agrees—he doesn’t think this particular American subculture will ever totally die out. “Americans like to go and drive around and look at things on vacation. We love our cars and roads.” Cline’s ventures fit in perfectly with other regional off-road novelties like the John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry, Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach and the World’s Oldest Edible Cured Ham in Smithfield, he says. “Mark’s Haunted Museum is different because he actually put his in an old house. With that long walk up the path and through the woods, he creates a nice atmosphere even before you get there.”

The imposing castle sports a giant one-eyed skull as well as a huge reptilian tail protruding from its upstairs window. There’s a downed airplane and all manner of mayhem on the grounds of the creepy dwelling, which has the faces of writhing spirits protruding from one side of the exterior. An annoying telephone constantly rings in the booth across the lane (don’t answer it!) as eerie music plays throughout the compound.

Cline is approached by a couple of Liberty University students, who stopped at the Mansion not knowing it was closed. They too are invited inside … if they dare.

When the door creaks shut behind us, we ramble through a dark maze that includes a psychedelic room, the skeletal remains of the Marx Brothers and a séance table complete with grisly surprise. The professor himself leads the tour, breaking into his repertoire of voices (Elvis, Barney Fife, Ernest) and instructing his guests not to fear the beeping smoke detector. “He doesn’t get to do these tours much anymore—this is a rare thing,” whispers Faries, along for the tour. We giggle and jump at all the appropriate moments.

The host admits that his haunt is purposefully old-school, tapping into that boyhood Slime Theater vibe. “I can’t really get by with gore because I’m down here with the tourists,” he says as he gives out free passes to the visitors and waves goodbye. “Plus I find it more of a challenge to entertain and scare people another way. Some people come to my monster museum expecting to see Dracula or Frankenstein, but when they get there, you don’t see that. You see bits and parts of these monsters and you fill in the rest with your mind. And it’s even scarier.”

The professor is already planning his next attraction, a historical project designed for children. “I haven’t titled it yet, but it should be educational. It’s about the shelling of Lexington in 1864. I talked to historians about this to make sure it’s right—but, see, this is where I make some people nervous,” he says. “Some purists in Lexington are biting their nails, saying, ‘Is he going to tell the story [right]?’ Well, I believe in educating through entertainment. Kids see what I do—adults don’t get this.

“When children see a frog with a fiberglass mouse on its back, or dinosaurs fighting Yankee soldiers, or Stonehenge off on the side of the road, it opens up their imagination … to different possibilities.”

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