Pioneer Playhouse director Holly Henson dies

rcopley@herald-leader.comMay 28, 2012 

Holly Henson, who grew up at her father's Pioneer Playhouse in Danville and eventually succeeded him as director of the historic theater, died Sunday after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 51.

Ms. Henson began performing on the 62-year-old theater's stage as a child and went on to study drama at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., and the Drama School of London. She then lived in Los Angeles and Minnesota, pursing a career in film and stand-up comedy. But she usually came back to Danville and the Pioneer Playhouse in the summer, eventually succeeding her father, Eben Henson, as director of the theater as his health declined. He died in 2004.

Following in their father's footsteps was a tall order, particularly when Eben Henson, known as "The Colonel," was still around, Holly's brother and sister said Monday.

"They were so alike," Heather Henson Ungs said. "They had such strong personalities and strong ideas."

Those personalities were preserved for the world to see in the documentary Summerstock, which brother Robby Henson, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, made in 2002. It has aired nationwide and is regularly reshown on KET.

"She was the one that was closest to my father in that she was a natural-born showwoman," Robby Henson said. "She was a charismatic performer and a charismatic leader."

As its director, Ms. Henson continued an ongoing struggle to keep the theater going despite finances that were perpetually thin. She told the Herald-Leader in 2004 that after her father died, she discovered how much he did in manual labor and to pinch pennies to keep the theater going.

"We could have all had easier lives if Dad wasn't spending so much to keep the theater going," she said. "Generations of Hensons will pay for my father's folly. ... Is it fate or is it madness? I don't know. We've never really cared about money."

The Pioneer Playhouse was always a Henson family operation, and while Ms. Henson assumed direction of the theater, her mother, Charlotte, and brother Robby also were instrumental in keeping it going. The other siblings, Ungs, a children's book author, and Eben Henson, a graphic artist, also were involved in the theater, as were other members of the extended Henson family.

Ungs and Robby Henson said that one of Ms. Henson's proudest accomplishments was the growth in attendance at the theater during the past several seasons.

Under Ms. Henson's direction, Pioneer Playhouse worked to form a stronger bond with the Danville community and instituted an annual local history play. That included staging a 2007 celebration of Raintree County, the 1957 Elizabeth Taylor movie filmed in Danville. The centerpiece of the Raintree County celebration was Catherine Bush's A Jarful of Fireflies, a comic play about the filming that was commissioned by the theater. For the 2009 season, Ms. Henson rewrote her father's play about local hero Ephraim McDowell, considered the father of abdominal surgery.

"That was a great accomplishment for her," Robby Henson said. "She took my dad's source material, but she had a new vision for it and made it fresh."

Herald-Leader theater critic Candace Chaney wrote that the play, The Infamous Ephraim, "is a highly enjoyable, entertaining show whose strength lies in its chronicling of local history as only a local could."

Ms. Henson also instituted school and prison outreach programs, and she saw the theater through a flood that threatened to derail the start of the 2010 season. She viewed the outpouring of volunteer help to clean up the damage as affirmation that there was deep affection for the theater in the region.

For much of her tenure, Ms. Henson battled breast cancer, occasionally having to hand over the theater's direction to Robby Henson. Earlier this month, the theater sent out a news release saying he would be running the theater this season, which is scheduled to open June 8 with a production of Dracula Bites.

In April, Ms. Henson went to Minnesota to audition the cast for this summer's shows at the Playhouse, and she quickly became sick after she returned to Kentucky, Robby Henson said. That cast arrived in Danville this weekend to find the director who hired them was gravely ill, although she worked up until Sunday afternoon, giving instructions on how to brief the actors on the theater's rules and policies. She died early Sunday evening in her trailer at the theater, a few hundred yards from the stage.

"The cast Holly assembled is here, and we will have a memorial season in her honor," Robby Henson said, adding that the show would go on come June 8.

"The family plans 100 percent on keeping the theater going and growing," he said.

In addition to her mother and siblings, Ms. Henson is survived by her husband, Tom Hansen.

Visitation will be 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Pioneer Playhouse. Services will follow. Arrangements are being handled by Stith Funeral Home, Danville. Memorial gifts may be sent to Pioneer Playhouse, 840 Stanford Road, Danville, Ky. 40422.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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