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The Pioneer Playhouse;

Theatre with the Stars Under the Stars for Sixty Years!

-By Nic Brown-

When people think of the theatre they often picture the bright lights of Broadway and the glamour and glitz of the many expensive musicals and plays put on there each year. However, there is a place where theatre has lived for sixty years that is far from the streets of New York City. Danville Kentucky, known for its scenic beauty is also home to a living piece of theatre history: The Pioneer Playhouse.

For sixty years the Pioneer Playhouse has been putting on shows under the stars. Built in 1950 by Colonel Eben Henson, the Pioneer Playhouse was Henson’s vision of bringing “Broadway to the Bluegrass” and it was realized through his determination and hard work. Henson used whatever he could to build the theatre; his daughter even jokes that he started recycling before the word was invented as he collected building materials from the local town. Everything from army barracks to movie sets went into the construction. He even traded a fifth of whisky for two-hundred-year old, hand-hewn rafter beams for the main building.  

Even after his passing in 2004, Henson’s vision lives on as the Pioneer Playhouse continues the tradition of bringing entertainment and fun to Central Kentucky through their summer stock theatre programming. A task that grows more and more difficult as technology and changing tastes threaten theatres everywhere with shrinking attendance. Still, the Henson family takes the challenges in stride as they work together to keep the tradition alive and well in the heart of the Bluegrass state. Eben’s wife Charlotte is the President of the theatre’s board of directors, their daughter Holly is the theatre’s artistic director, and their son Robby is the director.

Tonight the theatre is packed with a near capacity crowd to see the final performance of the season’s first play: “M Is For Million” starring Leslie Easterbrook (The POLICE ACEDEMY series and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS). Holly Henson is a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm as she prepares for the show. The visitors to the Pioneer Playhouse may not realize how much work putting on production involves each night, because Holly’s smile never wavers as she greets guests and directs a myriad of activities before the show. During a brief moment of downtime, Holly Henson sneaks away from for a few minutes to talk with us about the Pioneer Playhouse, some of the theatre’s famous alumni and why, thanks to her Father, Danville was once called Hollywood USA.


Nic- Holly, can you tell us a little bit about The Pioneer Playhouse?


Holly- No, I can only tell you A LOT about the pioneer playhouse! (Laughing) This is our 60th year and we were the first outdoor theatre in Kentucky and the first theatre to be given the status of State Theatre by the state legislature. We also pioneered the outdoor theatre movement in this state.


When I say “We” I mean my father Colonel Eben Henson, I wasn’t born yet! He was quite the pioneer in the outdoor theatre movement and we’re proud to still be here carrying on his legacy!


Nic- I know that the Pioneer Playhouse has a number of historic buildings on site, what can you tell us about that?


Holly- Well now we call them historic and we are a Kentucky State landmark. But back then when my father built them they were made with recycled bits and pieces that he had to beg, borrow or kidnap wherever he could! He would go to buildings when they were tearing them down and ask for whatever he could get; door frames, windows, lumber; and he would bring it all back here. He used to joke that out here are pieces of early downtown Danville and if you want to see historic Danville, well it’s right out here!


Nic- I understand that this was the setting for a famous movie as well, is that true?


Holly- My father was very instrumental in luring MGM studios to bring their most expensive domestic movie production here, so in 1957, for six million dollars they made RAINTREE COUNTY here in Danville. It was such a big deal,Danville and central Kentucky were known as Hollywood USA and it was an incredible experience for this whole area!  We have all the memories and pictures that we’ve assembled and a wonderful RAINTREE COUNTY display here at the Pioneer Playhouse capturing that moment in time!


Nic- Have there been any other major productions like that filmed here in Danville?


Holly- Not of that note. In fact our current box office was a railway station in RAINTREE COUNTY that my Dad drug seven miles and put up in its current location. The other movies made here were not nearly as famous.

Nic- Speaking of famous, I understand that the Pioneer Playhouse has been the starting point for a number of stars.


Holly- YES! We’ve had quite a few. Including Lee Majors, A.K.A. the Bionic Man. We were his first professional stage debut. In fact he led a horse on stage and that’s why I remember him as a little girl because I remember the horse! (Laughing) He was very nice.


Jim Varney from EARNEST GOES TO CAMP and other films was here for two summers. My father said he was his favorite actor. He said that he was better than Laurence Olivier at playing Shakespeare or whatever! He was a great, wonderful actor.


We also had John Travolta here when he was fifteen years old. He worked as an intern, but he was very lazy. Evidently he didn’t like to work that hard. He’d taken some modeling classes, like a Barbizon course, and he just liked to walk around and pose.


Nic- Has the Pioneer Playhouse been running continuously for its entire sixty year history?


Holly- That’s right. Five shows a summer, every summer, for the past sixty years!


Nic- So what’s going on for this year’s productions?


Holly- Well we’ve extended our season and that’s exciting! As I mentioned, we normally do five plays. All summer long we’re doing productions, every two weeks it’s a different play, but this summer we’re closing with stand-up comedy and a live music event. So in addition to our five fabulous productions we have comedy and music at the end!

Col. Eben Henson pictured with Zsa Zsa Gabor and Lex Baxter

Nic- You actually wrote one of this year’s plays didn’t you?


Holly- One of them is! I had never written a play before and I understood from a town leader that this year is the two hundred year anniversary of Dr. Ephraim McDowell and no one want to write the play so I said I’d do it. At first I really wasn’t too excited about it. After all Ephraim McDowell is known for performing an ovariotomy, he removed a 22 pound cist so I’m like “Yeah, that’s exciting, writing a play about a cist removal.”


But the idea grew on me, no pun intended, and now we are getting ready to open next week and it’s the thing that I am the most proud of! It is a very exciting and uplifting story because this pioneer woman didn’t know if she was going to live or die. She came across rugged terrain lugging this huge tumor and was operated on not know what would happen. It was the first successful abdominal operation in the world and so it really was a big deal. Ephraim McDowell was a light in the wilderness and it is such an uplifting story of hope. I like to say it has the happiest ending of them all: life!


Nic- Holly, what do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the Pioneer Playhouse today?


Holly- Well there are a few challenges facing us now; The economy, the weather, and people today just don’t go to the theater as much as the older generations have done and I think that this new generation wants to do everything in front of their computers. Hopefully they’ll outgrow that and realize that nothing beats being Earth’s first special effects: the stars! If you want real high definition then that is sitting outside with the wind blowing on your face, the stars overhead and listening to a great play!


Nic- You can actually make quite an evening out of coming to the Pioneer Playhouse because you guys also serve dinner here is that right?


Holly- That’s right! Dinner is optional. It’s catered by Toy Box and it’s a delicious pulled pork or chicken dinner and that’s served at 7:30 and my mother, Charlotte Henson, sings and plays the guitar for our guests. She’s been performing live for our customers for, Oh boy, 54 years! Then at 8:30 you can see the play! Of course you can arrive early and see our RAINTREE COUNTY DISPLAY and the village that my Dad built out of early downtown Danville.

Nic- I understand that you have an acting internship program here. What can you tell us about that?


Holly- That’s right we do! It was one of the first summer internship programs at a summer stock theatre in the country. Every summer people come from all over the country to participate in it. It is pay to attend, but you get hands on instruction, class work and the opportunity to be part of a professional summer stock theatre.


Nic- So where do your actors come from? Are they all from across the country or is there a lot of local participation as well?


Holly- In addition to the internship program we do hire some local actors. We also hire them from New York and from Minneapolis. The time when we’re looking for actors is in April and you can go to our and see the information about when and how to audition.

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