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A Crowd of Patsys 

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Her hair is bouffed, her lips pursed, bright red. Her face is full and powdery; she's wearing an ankle-length brown skirt and a big-shouldered cowboy shirt with brown trim. She's pacing up and down the halls of the Fine Arts Building humming "Crazy," and she wants to be Patsy Cline.

Her friend comes out of the bathroom looking anxious. The friend is taller, and her hair isn't teased. Under a brown overcoat she's wearing a pink dress. She's humming "Sweet Dreams": she also wants to be Patsy Cline. "It won't be our turn for a while," she says. They saunter over to the glass front of the elevator and look at their reflections. The elevator pulls up, and three women, all dressed like cowgirls, step out. The two friends get in, along with another Patsy, and head down ten stories.

"I want a cup of tea," says the short Patsy when they reach the ground floor.

"Just wait, I need to make a phone call," says the tall Patsy, in a southern accent.

In the lobby, another Patsy is practicing. "I'm back in ba-bee's arms..." echoes down the hall. The tall Patsy heads for a pay phone and places a collect call to Tennessee.

"Hello, mom, it's me. I'm here with my friend Mary. We feel really good about everything. Uh-huh. We went to our makeup artist this morning. I'm wearing my pink chiffon dress. Yes, we registered. We haven't gone yet. Everybody is really talented, but I think I've got a good chance. Hey mom, I feel really good, but I just wanted to let you know....I know, mom...if there are callbacks, we'll get called back. I love you, mom. Pray for us."

Mary the friend leans into the phone. "Pray hard!" she yells, and laughs.

It's Monday afternoon, and about 100 women are auditioning for Always--Patsy Cline, a biographical musical being staged this summer at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the stage that once housed the Grand Ole Opry. Auditions are being held in Los Angeles and Nashville later this month. The Chicago Patsys range from about 18 to 60. Some are professional singers and actors, others are not. Some are done up in full Patsy, others look vaguely country, while the rest remain basically city.

The show's producer makes a short speech before auditions begin in the Fine Arts auditorium. "We're not only looking for the vocal and physical resemblances," he says, "but we're also looking for an essence, the spirit and the joy of her singing. So I want you to breathe deep, have fun, and have Patsy's good wishes on you. So bring joy to your music, bring heart to your singing, and good luck." The Patsys applaud.

Jamie Miller, who looks more like Patsy than most of the others, has been doing a Patsy Cline tribute show in Minneapolis for the last four years. She has flown into town for the day. Miller is wearing a red dress studded with stars and a jet black wig. Each person auditioning gets one song to prove her Patsyness, but Miller has brought an extensive playlist that shows she has an hour and a half of Patsy in her repertoire. The list reads, in part:

STOP, LOOK & LISTEN C

NEVER NO MORE C

FOR RENT G

SAN ANTONIO ROSE E

LONELY STREET E-flat

SWEET DREAMS G

I LOVE YOU HONEY A

BACK IN BABY'S ARMS A

"She was real, and her songs were real, and she sang 'em from the heart," Miller says. "I always call her the female Elvis. She's gone beyond. She died when she was 30 years old. She lived way beyond her music."

The audition begins, and the first Patsy takes the stage. She reads the lyric sheet while she sings "Sweet Dreams." A woman in a green-and-purple cowboy shirt and a cowboy hat sways along in the audience, mouthing the lyrics. "Boy, she's got a good voice," she says.

Over by a coatrack, two potential Patsys commiserate. "Should I do 'Sweet Dreams' or 'Walkin' After Midnight'?" one whispers.

"I don't know," the other whispers back. "Jesus, I don't know."

By this time three Patsys have come and gone and another woman is onstage singing "Crazy."

Soon it is Miller's turn. As she walks toward the stage, people gasp at the resemblance. Miller hands the accompanist her list; he looks it over as she positions herself onstage, ready to sing any song he chooses. He hits the first note--it's "Crazy" again. Miller attacks the song gamely. "She's so good," someone says. "She's an awful lot like Patsy."

After about 15 contenders the audition starts to drag, and the people running it start to speed things up. Patsys are cut off in the middle of their numbers now, their sweet dreams shattered. They are lined up three abreast on one side of the stage. Outside Patsys mill around, looking for something to do. The air is full of song fragments and sweet perfume.

One of the waiting Patsys is Debbie Wilcox, who has come from western Wisconsin for her audition. She has short blond hair and is wearing a denim shirt, only vaguely Patsy-like. It's her first time in Chicago; some friends from Eau Claire persuaded her to make the trip. "I loved Patsy Cline when I was little," she says. "I told my mother, when I grew up I wanted to be Patsy Cline. She said, 'Well, you're a little late for that.' Patsy Cline, I think, was the greatest singer that's ever been. She always seemed really real to me because she was kind of wild, she drank, she smoked, drove fast cars. Just everything about her was fun, it seems like, except for her husband."

Kathy Hunsley from Frankfort, Illinois, came to the audition, she says, "because I had eight friends bring me the clipping. It's worth the shot." Eight months ago, Hunsley says, she didn't know who Patsy Cline was. Then Hunsley, who sings primarily at weddings, funerals, and banquets, got a request for "Walkin' After Midnight." "Pretty soon all I was getting requests for was Patsy Cline. The music is very emotional. Pain songs, particularly, speak to the heart. I think it's a universal appeal. It's my most requested music, Patsy Cline. Once they get Patsy Cline, they don't want anything else."

Hunsley has already auditioned, so she's waiting to see about callbacks. An older man in a baseball cap and a Bears jacket comes up to her. "I loved you," he says. "You sound just like her. Boy--you really do. Wow."

"Well I hope so," she says. "Eight people sent me the clipping."

Inside the cutoffs are getting shorter and shorter. Some women only get one verse; the atmosphere is getting tense. But through the weariness, Patty Louise Pearson is a perky island. Pearson has brought her guitar. She's wearing a white cowboy shirt, tight brown pants, and big cowboy boots. She's sitting in the front row, guitar splayed out in front of her, head nodding to each version of "Crazy," each take of "Back in Baby's Arms." When Pearson likes a particular Patsy, she bounces in her seat.

Pearson, who's originally from Tennessee, only recently became a professional country singer in Chicago, having previously been a singing waitress at the Gaslight Club and once a Playboy bunny. "I came because my peers said I sounded like her," she says. "I didn't used to know I could sing, but I picked up the guitar and started playing the guitar. It's what I love to do. I used to go down to honky-tonks down in Tennessee when my dad came on leave from the Army. He'd give me quarters and tell me to go play Patsy Cline, so I did. I kinda grew up on country music, because my daddy wouldn't let me listen to anything else. But Patsy Cline is definitely the best female singer of our time. Turned it into something real classy. I feel like God gave me a gift, and if I don't use it, it's a sin. That's how I feel. And it makes me high. When I sing, I get high. That's how I feel."

Pearson's turn comes up pretty soon, and she bops onstage with her guitar. "Hi," she says. "I'm Patty Pearson, and I'm a-gonna do 'Why Can't He Be You.' Mind you now, I just got over a cold, so here goes." She sings, and gets almost three verses into her piece before the casting directors cut her off. She bounces offstage.

The crowd of Patsys is beginning to thin. A few latecomers are straggling off the elevator; there's still time to audition. "My God," says a middle-aged woman, looking around. She is wearing a bright blue cowgirl dress. "I've never seen so many wigs in all my life."

Pearson's not asked to stick around; only about 20 of the Patsys get called to the table and told to come back later. "I just figured that they were pretty sick of Patsy Cline by the time I got up there," she says as she gets on the elevator. "It's just my luck. But that doesn't mean I'll quit singing. No sir, nothing can do that, make me give up country music."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Peter Barreras.

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