Book about Danville's Pioneer Playhouse helps mark theater's 65th season

jbrammer@herald-leader.comMay 18, 2014 

Pioneer Playhouse in Danville has offered entertainment for tens of thousands of people under the stars in late spring and summer since 1950.

On June 6, Kentucky's oldest outdoor theater will kick off its 65th season, and a new book about its colorful history is available.

Also on tap for the season is a new play written by Robby Henson, the theater's artistic director and a son of the playhouse's late founder and patriarch, Eben Henson.

The accomplishments and struggles of the legendary summer-stock theater, whose stage has featured such future stars as John Travolta, Lee Majors and Jim Varney, are chronicled in a new book by Robert A. Powell, a former director of development for the non-profit playhouse.

The 120-page book, Pioneer Playhouse: A Kentucky Treasure, is a collection of tidbits and dozens of photos. Among them are pictures from productions dating from the first one, Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit at Kentucky State Hospital in Danville on May 31, 1950, through last season's offerings.

The stars of the book are playhouse founder Henson and his family.

Powell notes that Eben Henson, known as "The Colonel," promoted the theater "with every breath, in his determination to keep it afloat."

After his death in April 2004 at age 81, his daughter, Holly, "followed suit by continually striving to better the Playhouse even on the afternoon she died" in May 2012, at age 51.

The theater remains a family affair, with input from Eben's wife, Charlotte, who continues to serve as president; and her children Robby, Heather and Eben. Heather is managing director and Eben is involved in production design.

Powell, an author and publisher who grew up in Powell and Fayette counties and now lives in Hudson, Fla., worked for the playhouse from 2000 to 2004.

He said he first came into contact with the theater in 1969 when he was sent there to produce a documentary about it for the U.S. Office of Education. The playhouse had received a federal grant for a six-week summer-theater workshop for 100 students and 20 teachers from across the state.

Powell met founder Henson and assisted him in many ways over the years. From 1977 to 1987, Powell's printing company in Lexington produced the theater's playbills for free.

While Powell served as development director, Henson urged him to research and write a history of the playhouse.

"His idea was more of a memoirs concept, and I interviewed and taped his story extensively. It was a sideline venture that I was not able to complete before his death in 2004," Powell said.

Two years ago, Charlotte Henson told Powell that she would like him to continue the book project. He said he worked with her to complete it.

The book's tidbits are mostly in chronological order. A reader can go straight through the book or jump around because each bullet item stands alone.

Powell said that 10,000 to 15,000 people visit Pioneer Playhouse each season and that almost half of each audience is made up of first-time visitors.

"It is quite obvious as time passes that even the most loyal patrons have less and less knowledge about how the playhouse started and how it evolved. This book will help," he said

The book, a paperback that sells for $10, will be available at the theater's gift shop and in area bookstores. It also is available at Amazon.com or Kyhawke.com

Robby Henson said each of this season's five plays will be special but he has a key interest in the one he wrote. He has written movie screenplays, but this is first effort for the playhouse stage.

The Wonder Team is about Centre College's undefeated 1921 football team that beat Harvard by six points, still considered to be one of the biggest upsets in college sports history. It is scheduled to run July 8 to 19.

"It's an amazing story of a leather-headed David kicking the stuffings out of the Goliaths," Henson said.

For more information about this year's lineup at the playhouse, go to Pioneerplayhouse.com.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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