DANVILLE, Ky. (FOX 56) – Preshow warmups are a ritual at Danville’s Pioneer Playhouse, a place that’s full of traditions, such as giving a wave to a cutout of the founder, Colonel Eben Henson, or listening to his widow, Miss Charlotte, sing folk songs during the dinner that precedes the plays.
This has been one family’s labor of love since 1950.
Eben Henson, a Danville native, started the theater when he was in his 20s after serving in the Navy in World War II. Under the GI Bill, he was able to study acting in New York.
His daughter, Heather Henson, said, “Some of his classmates were Tony Curtis, Bea Arthur, and Harry Belafonte, so he rubbed shoulders with some up-and-coming people.”
And over the years, some up-and-coming people have performed on the outdoor stage in Danville, such as a teenage John Travolta, Lee Majors, and Jim Varney. A summer stock playhouse is not the same as a community theater. The actors and actresses are professionals who come from all over the country to live and work here for a season.
Patricia Hammond, an actress from Pennsylvania, has worked here for more than 20 summers.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s a family to me after all these years. One reason I come back is just to see everybody.”
Aiden Chapman, an actor from Richmond, Virginia, is in his third year at Pioneer Playhouse. “It’s one of the oldest summer theaters for a reason. They have a formula, they stick to it, and it works.”
That formula relies heavily on comedies, such as “Dracula BItes,” a play about a play that goes wrong. Pioneer Playhouse does three plays each summer (it used to do five), which means actors are performing one play at night and rehearsing for the next one during the day.
Just before Eben Henson died in 2004, there was a lot of discussion about whether the theater would die with him.
Son Robby Henson said, “When he was getting ill at the end, he said, ‘It’s so much work. I don’t know if you kids want to do it.’ But we do want to do it and continue what he started and make it go into the future.”
So, Robby, a filmmaker, moved back from Los Angeles, to be the artistic director. And daughter Holly, a standup comedian, moved back from Minnesota to be the manager, a role she filled for eight years until losing a battle with breast cancer. Now, her sister Heather is the managing director. A second, son, Eben David, is a jazz musician, who returns when he can. None of the Hensons are surprised to find themselves back where they grew up.
“I kind of feel like I grew up in a small town but in a magical world,” Heather said. “I liked school OK, but I would really wait for the summer because that’s when the magic happened.”
And at age 91, Charlotte Henson feels the need to still be here, too. She helped her husband build his dream over the span of a 60-year marriage, though she liked to avoid the spotlight.
“I was more interested when they asked for props or physical things,” she said. “I would help get those things together.” Also, she said, “I put on coveralls and painted every window, every piece of wood that was here.”
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In 1950, Broadway came to the Bluegrass. Heather said her father embraced the “Kentucky Colonel” title given to him by two governors and it worked to his advantage when he went to New York to recruit actors to come to Danville. He wore a white suit with a string tie to fit the image.
“He was compared to P.T. Barnum,” she said. “He had a way of convincing people to try new things and give him things.”
She said many of the building materials at the theater were recycled from other places. For example, the box office was originally built to be a train station on the movie set of “Raintree County,” an MGM movie partially filmed in Danville in 1957. When he learned the production crew was going to have it torn down, he asked for it and had it moved to the theater grounds.
Robby Henson believes the theater will be around for many years to come. It saw an uptick in attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many indoor activities were closed.
“It’s not Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall,” he said. “It’s a very Kentucky theater under the stars. Audiences really engage with that and tend to come back.”