Charlotte Henson, Pioneer Playhouse producer and president, passes at 93

Charlotte Hutchison Henson, producer, and President of the Board of Directors of Pioneer Playhouse of Danville, passed away peacefully on February 13 at her home on the grounds of the historic theater she spent a lifetime championing. She was 93 years old.

When Charlotte Hutchison married Colonel Eben Charles Henson (a man The New York Times once called “a small-town P.T. Barnum”) in 1955, she may not have fully realized that she was also marrying into his dream of bringing “Broadway to the Bluegrass,” but soon she embraced his vision, and continued his legacy after his death in 2004. Pioneer Playhouse is Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theater and will be celebrating its 75th season this summer.

Charlotte Cline Hutchison was born on January 3, 1931, and raised on a farm on the Mercer/Boyle County line. From a very early age, Charlotte was recognized for her beautiful singing voice. She graduated from Burgin High School and went on to study music at Transylvania University in Lexington. After college, she taught music in North Carolina and was later the choir director of the First Christian Church in Danville. The noted folk singer and archivist, John Jacob Niles, called Charlotte’s voice one of the purest he had ever heard.

Charlotte first met Eben Henson when she attended an early performance of his fledging theater at Darnell State Mental Hospital, where he had use of a free auditorium and where Northpoint Training Center is now located. Later, Eben sat down at a drugstore soda fountain booth on Danville’s Main Street where Charlotte and her mother were lunching, and boldly asked Charlotte on a date. A misaimed kick to Eben’s shin under the table made it clear that Mother disapproved, but since Charlotte hadn’t gotten the hint, she said yes. Eben and Charlotte were happily married for nearly half a century.

In the early years, Charlotte witnessed the arrival of big-name movie stars and a large movie crew to film MGM’s Raintree County in which she was a featured extra; the rapid expansion of the Pioneer Playhouse complex; and later, during the summer months, the influx of hundreds of young actors such as John Travolta, Lee Majors, Jim Varney, and Bo Hopkins.

Charlotte worked alongside her husband, mainly behind the scenes, but she was also a dedicated mother raising four children, all of whom grew up at the theater helping their parents, all of whom were encouraged from a young age to follow their dreams and artistic passions.

When Eben C. Henson died in 2004, there was never a question of Pioneer Playhouse closing.

“My mom said we would keep going, and we did,” says Heather Henson, youngest of the children, and now managing director of the Kentucky Landmark theater. “My older sister became artistic director to Mom’s producer, and they were a terrific team. When Holly lost her battle with cancer, the whole family pulled together again. Mom would not let the Playhouse fade away.”

“I think after our father passed, Mom was forced to step into the spotlight, and she did so beautifully,” says Robby Henson, son and current artistic director. “She was, by nature, a shy person, but she transitioned into someone more comfortable with people and crowds.”

“She did it all, from picking plays to cooking and cleaning to working on set design to putting a brand-new coat of paint on everything each spring,” says Heather. “We called her the Energizer Bunny.”

Another nickname -“the Iron Butterfly” – was given by Mike Perros, former mayor of Danville and long-time board chairman of Pioneer Playhouse in recognition of Charlotte’s beauty and her gentle nature, but also her undeniable strength and determination to get things done.

Charlotte Henson was named Danville’s Arts Citizen of the Year in 2006. She was a beloved part of the community and donated space in the old Henson Hotel building so that the Danville/Boyle County African-American Historical Society would have a home for its meetings, exhibits, and archives. She was a lifelong member of the First Christian Church of Danville.

Charlotte continued singing and playing guitar for dinner guests at the Playhouse each night in the summer – even through the 2023 season. Her repertoire never varied, and she would start off her set with Follow the Drinking Gourd.

Charlotte Henson is survived by her children, Eben David Henson and wife Jan, Robby Henson and wife Lin, Heather Henson, and husband Tim Ungs, all of Danville; by her three grandchildren, Daniel, Theo, and Lila Ungs; and by her former son-in-law, Thomas Hansen. She was preceded in death by her daughter, Holly Henson, and by her husband, Eben C. Henson.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Charlotte’s name to Heritage Hospice of Danville or to Pioneer Playhouse, both of which are 501 c 3 non-profit organizations.

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Pioneer Playhouse Celebrates 75th Anniversary Season! 

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville will be celebrating its 75th anniversary season in the Bluegrass in the summer of 2024. Founded in 1950 by Danville native, Eben C. Henson, Pioneer Playhouse is Kentucky’s oldest outdoor summer stock theatre, and one of the oldest continuously operated summer stock theatres in the United States.

Robby, Charlotte and Heather Henson

“When my dad was a young man, summer stock was this exciting new movement. It was a way to get plays and actors and directors out of cities and into the rest of the country where arts experiences were limited,” says Heather Henson, daughter to founder Eben and now one of three Hensons who together run the historic theatre. “My mother, Charlotte, my brother, Robby, and I – – we all feel a deep commitment to continue this tradition and ‘bring Broadway to the Bluegrass,’ as my dad always called it.”

“We grew up doing this,” says Robby Henson, who serves as artistic director. “Creating magic every summer, and sharing that magic with our audiences. We have incredibly loyal patrons and also loyal veteran actors who have returned year after year to make our theater experience a special kind of homecoming. And we have new blood too – – younger audiences who realize how unique professional theater under the stars can be.”

“It took us some time to settle on the perfect line-up for our 75th, and we’re thrilled to finally announce it,” adds Heather, who serves as managing director. “This summer, we’ll be keeping to the three-play format we’ve adapted since Covid-19 plus a special final weekend musical extravaganza show. We’re also adding a big star-studded Gala Night in June combined with an Alumni Weekend. It’s all really exciting!”

Kicking off the 2024 season of plays will be The 39 Steps (June 7-Jun 29), a hilarious murder mystery spoof adapted from the Alfred Hitchcock movie by Patrick Barlow.

“We did this show twelve years ago, and it’s one of our all-time favorites,” says Robby. “It is a fast-moving crime/mystery/romance with a bit of zany thrown in. Strangers on a train are thrown together by chance and intrigue and pursued by assassins throughout London and Scotland.”

Second in the summer line-up is That Book Woman (July 2-July 20), a heartwarming stage adaptation of what has become, over the years, a classic picture book published around the world and written by Heather Henson, celebrating the Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky.

“When I wrote That Book Woman in 2008, there was actually only one other book -a non-fiction book – about this fascinating piece of Kentucky history,” says Heather. “Now there’s enormous interest in the Pack Horse Librarians and the important work they did in Appalachia, and we think it’s the perfect time to celebrate these remarkable women on stage through our Kentucky Voices program.”

That Book Woman will be adapted by Holly Hepp-Galvan, the playwright behind the hugely popular Pioneer Playhouse adaptations of local author Angela Correll’s novels, Gaurded and Granted.

Rounding out the regular play season will be Fireflies by Matthew Barber (July 23-August 10), a funny, feel-good comedy starring long-time Playhouse fan favorite, Patricia Hammond, about finding love late in life when you least expect it.

Pioneer Playhouse will end its 75th season in the Bluegrass with a “whole lotta shaking going on” with We Three Kings: An Elvis Experience (August 15, 16, 17).

“We love Elvis here at the Playhouse because we know our audiences love Elvis,” explains Robby. “This is a huge musical extravaganza with a live band and three different Elvis’s on the stage, bringing to life four different key eras of the King’s life. The show was produced at the Lexington Opera House last year to rave reviews, and we’re excited to have it on our stage.”

In addition to its regular play season, Pioneer Playhouse will be hosting an Alumni Weekend on June 14-15 and a special 75th Gala Night with Live Music, Food, Dancing, and Drink on June 15.

“Seventy-five seasons – that’s a lot to celebrate!” says Robby Henson. “We’d love to see company members from all decades and all parts of the country return to Danville and join us for a great big Gala, reminisce, and tell stories about their time at the Playhouse. We’ve even invited John Travolta and Lee Majors! We’ll see if they can make it. There will be live music by Michael Fly and the Sounds, food and drink, and dancing, and we want everyone – not just alumni, but all our patrons and friends – to come out and have fun with us.”

“This is such a huge milestone,” says Heather. “I’m not sure my dad ever thought we’d keep going without him. And honestly, we weren’t sure there for a while when we lost my sister Holly, and then when we lost key funding from the state. But Robby, Mom, and I committed, and we’ve gotten such great support from the community, so here we are…seventy-five years and counting!”

Pioneer Playhouse is located at 840 Stanford Road in Danville, KY. Tickets and patron passes for the 2024 season are on sale now. New prices are $22 for Show Only; and $40 for Dinner and Show. Kids and group prices are available upon request. Purchases of Patron’s Pass or Super Pass receive a 12% discount – perfect for holiday gifts or stocking stuffers! Also, a new Patron/Dinner pass is also available for pre-purchase this year. Please call the box office at 859-236-2747, Monday-Fridays, 9:00 am to 1:00 pm.

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Special Comedy Weekend Starring Lee Cruse!  

For over fifteen years, Pioneer Playhouse has been closing out its summer season with a special comedy weekend, and this year Lee Cruse is back to headline a night full of laughs.

“It all started with my sister Holly Henson,” Heather Henson says, managing director and daughter of Pioneer Playhouse founder, Eben C. Henson.

“Holly was a stand-up comic who toured the country when she wasn’t artistic director here at the theatre we grew up helping our father run. One year she took to the Playhouse stage at the end of the season so that the local audiences could catch her stand-up act, and the rest is history.”

Since that time, the Special Stand-Up Comedy Weekend at Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre has featured name acts like Jimmy “JJ” Walker, Etta May, and Scott Hansen. Lee Cruse has performed twice on the historic stage, and he’s thrilled to be back.

“There’s nowhere quite like Pioneer Playhouse,” says Cruse. “So much history here. So many big stars like John Travolta and Lee Majors have stood right where I’m going to be standing.”

Lee Cruse is a big star in his own right, being half the dynamic duo of the nationally syndicated TV hit The Lee and Hayley Show, seen locally on ABC 36.

“I’ve had a chance to go on The Lee and Hayley Show a few times, promoting Pioneer Playhouse, and Lee is just so much fun to work with,” says Henson. “I like to say that you never know what’s going to come out of Lee’s mouth when you go on a show with him, and it’s true. He’s quick; he keeps the quips coming. It’s always a challenge to keep up with him during an interview, and I think that funny, fast repartee is perfect for stand-up. Actually, lots of folks don’t realize that’s where Lee got his start–doing stand-up–and so, it’s like coming home to him. He still performs at Comedy Off-Broadway as well, so he keeps those comedy chops strong.”

The Special Comedy Weekend stars Lee Cruse, but it also is a chance to catch a glimpse of other comics as well. This year, the MC for the show will be Leo “Freak Daddy” Brown, a Lexington radio personality, as well as winners of the KY All-Star Comedy Tour.

“Lee always brings funny acts, comics he knows will appeal to our Playhouse audience,” says Henson. “You might see a rising star from the Kentucky comedy scene, and you’ll be able to say you knew that comic when.”

“What we like about ending with a Stand-up Comedy show,” adds Robby Henson, artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse, and brother to Heather, “is that it honors our late sister, Holly, who died of cancer ten years ago and it’s also a chance to enjoy the Playhouse experience one more time before our season comes to a close. It’s always bittersweet, saying goodbye to patrons till next year, but at least we’ll be laughing while we do it. Come on out!”

The Special Stand-up Comedy Weekend starring Lee Cruse is for two nights only: August 18 and August 19. Tickets are still available but limited. A dinner of Beef au Jus French Dip or BBQ Chicken Breast, baked potato, Cole slaw, corn on the cob, and dessert is available before the show. Dinner is served at 7:00 pm and the show begins at a new time: 8:00 pm.

 

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Final Play of the Season Inspired by ‘Happiness’!  

Pioneer Playhouse, Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre, will end its regular play season with Kosher Lutherans, a modern comedy that playwright William Missouri Downs says was inspired by one word: happiness.   

“Many years ago, I was looking up a name in the phone book and saw the word ‘Happiness’ and a phone number beside it,” explains Downs. “I blinked, my eyes re-focused, and the word ‘Happiness’ became “Hapgood.” But the idea stuck with me. What if one day you randomly found happiness in the phone book? That’s how Kosher Lutherans was born.”  

Kosher Lutherans, which runs from July 25 to August 12, and which will close out the historic theatre’s regular 2023 play season, revolves around Franklyn and Hannah, the seemingly perfect couple who desperately want to have a child of their own, but can’t. A chance encounter with a God-fearing pregnant girl from Iowa named Alison seems to offer the perfect solution. Things get complicated, however, when the couple realizes that Alison does not know they are Jewish. Should Franklyn and Hannah pretend to be Lutheran in order to appeal to the girl’s Midwestern sensibilities?  

Kosher Lutherans is about how chance events and curve balls change our lives,” Downs says. “It’s a comedy about a childless couple and their desperate attempt to find happiness in a world full of crumbling marriages, unhappy jobs, and fertility clinics.”  

“We’re huge fans of William Missouri Downs’ writing,” says Robby Henson, artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse, which his father, Eben C. Henson, founded in 1950. “His dialogue is sharp and funny, and his characters are very relatable. I think it comes from his early background in writing for television and sitcoms, such as the original The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”  

William Missouri Downs will be traveling to Danville, Kentucky from his home out west to see the July 29th production of Kosher Lutherans. Pioneer Playhouse will offer a talk-back with the playwright immediately following the Saturday night performance.  

“We’re always thrilled when a playwright comes here to see their work,” says Heather Henson, sister to Robby, and managing director of the family-run summer stock theatre. “It’s fun to give the audience a chance to ask questions and learn a little bit about what went into writing the play they just saw.”  

“A year ago, I attended Pioneer Playhouse,” says Downs. “It was magical to sit under the stars and watch my comedy. So, I had to come back to see Kosher Lutherans.”  

Second Show at Pioneer Playhouse Opens with a Bang!  

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville opens the second show of its 74th season, Farce of Nature, with a bang on Tuesday, July 4th.  

“It’s a little unusual starting on July 4th,” admits Heather Henson, managing director of the theatre her father, Col. Eben C. Henson, founded in 1950. “There will definitely be some fireworks in the background, but that’s just part of the charm of outdoor theatre.”  

Farce of Nature, penned by the writing team of Jones, Hope, and Wooten, will run Tuesdays through Saturdays, July 4 through July 22. The comedy is set in a family-run fishing lodge in the Ozarks that’s seen better days. Enter a bungling cop on witness protection duty and a couple of Chicago wise guys, and business definitely starts to pick up.  

“What’s hilarious is that each character has their own agenda,” says Heather. “The married couple that owns the inn, played by fan favorites, Patricia Hammond and Daniel Hall Kuhn, are keeping secrets from each, and then one crazy character after another shows up, each with something fishy up their sleeves.”  

Beside Hammond and Kuhn, the play stars Erika Lee Sengstack, Peyton White, and Jack Giglia who all appeared in the first show of the season, Blood Suede Shoes. Joining the cast will be veterans of the Playhouse stage, Rita Hight and Eric Seale. New to the roster is Jonny Maldonado.  

“We worked with Jonny in New York City this past fall during our Voices Inside festival of short plays by incarcerated writers,” says Robby Henson, brother to Heather, and artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse. “He’s a terrific actor, and we’re lucky he was able to join us.”  

Maldonado, a lifelong resident of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, teaches theatre at City College of New York and performs regularly at The People’s Improv in NYC.  

“I’m happy to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and come to this lovely state that I’ve never been to before,” says Maldonado. “I laughed so many times as I first read the script, and have been laughing even harder now that it’s coming to life.”  

Director Jennifer Goff, an associate professor and director of the theatre program at Centre College, returns for her third show having previously directed Southern Fried Funeral and Southern Fried Nuptials, two hugely popular comedies with Playhouse audiences.  

“It’s been such a blast being back this summer!” says Goff. “Farce of Nature is so silly, and the cast and I have had a great time leaning into the wild comedy of it. We have laughed a lot over our rehearsal process – and we can’t wait to pass that fun along to the audience!”  

“We love working with Jen, and we love partnering with Centre College on sponsoring this play,” says Heather. “Centre College is a terrific supporter of the arts in Danville.”  

Pioneer Playhouse is located at 840 Stanford Road in Danville. The brand-new optional pre-show dinner gives patrons a choice of Beef au Jus or BBQ Chicken Breast plus sides. Prices for dinner and show are $36; $20 for show only. Discounts for kids and groups are available. Tickets may be purchased online at pioneerplayhouse.com or by calling the box office at 859-236-2747.

A Premiere Original Opens Season 74 at Pioneer Playhouse!

May 31, 2023 Pioneer Playhouse, Danville, KY
Blood Suede Shoes

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville will open for its 74th season under the stars on June 9th with the world premiere production of Blood Suede Shoes: A Sergeant Elvis Presley Murder Mystery, written by Robby Henson, artistic director of the historic theatre his father, Eben C. Henson, founded in 1950.

Blood Suede Shoes: A Sergeant Elvis Presley Murder Mystery is an original comedy/mystery set in 1960 in a spooky Scottish castle where London’s posh set have gathered for a séance. Enter a dashing young Sergeant Elvis Presley – – not a ghost, but the real thing! Grounded on his way stateside due to stormy weather and a mysterious threat to his life, Sergeant Elvis quickly realizes he must use every bit of his down-home common sense and military training to catch a killer who may (or may not) be a lunatic escaped from the nearby asylum.

“The idea came when we were sitting around with the actors at lunch a couple of seasons ago, riffing on what might make a funny play,” says Robby Henson, who has written several crowd pleasers at Pioneer Playhouse, including The Wonder Team, Good Blues Tonight, and Breaking Up with Elvis, another Elvis-centric play. “I guess I had Elvis on the brain and thought it would be interesting to mix genres – – an Agatha Christie or Clue-type mystery/comedy with a young Elvis Presley thrown in.”

“Clue was extremely popular with our audiences,” says Heather Henson, sister to Robby, and managing and marketing director of Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre. “This has the same outrageous vibe and high energy. Lots of zany characters and crazy situations. I think people will love it.”

“The play was inspired by a tiny kernel of truth,” adds Robby. “As a sergeant in the army, Elvis’ plane was grounded on a stormy night in Glasgow in 1960. My story is a farcical take on what might have happened to make Elvis never want to return to Scotland again.”

Blood Suede Shoes: A Sergeant Elvis Presley Murder Mystery stars fan favorites Patricia Hammond, Daniel Hall Kuhn, and Erika Lee Sengstack, as well as faces new to the Pioneer Playhouse stage: Kevin Hardesty, whose theatre credits include the Broadway tour of Biloxi Blues and title roles of MacBeth and Hamlet, and in film: Not to Forget, Heathers, and Happy Together; and Daniel Bird Tobin, assistant professor of theatre at Centre College in Danville. Peyton White returns from last season, as does Jack Giglia, who wowed audiences as the title character in Dracula Bites, and this time brings a young Elvis to life.

Blood Suede Shoes: A Sergeant Elvis Presley Murder Mystery runs nightly, Tuesdays through Saturdays, June 9 through July 1. An optional dinner is served at 7:00 pm and the show begins at 8:30 pm. Dinner and Show is $36 per person; show only is $20. Group discounts are available. A bar serving beer, wine, and spirits is open to those 21 years and older.

Pioneer Playhouse is located at 840 Stanford Road in Danville. Tickets can be purchased on line at www.pioneerplayhouse.com or by calling the box office at 859-236-2747. Plays are performed outdoors; rainchecks will be given for cancelation due to severe weather. weather.

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Party Down for Jan Sheffield, Sat. April 29!

One day, our own Jan Sheffield was wowing Pioneer Playhouse audiences in Southern Fried Nuptials; the next, she was being rushed to a Lexington hospital for emergency surgery to combat a sudden and rare infection in her spine.

Since then, Jan has been in a quadriplegic state. At every turn, there have been huge obstacles, but Jan continues to defy the odds!

Jan is a fighter! With her amazing husband, Jeff Cooper, constantly at her side, she continues to redefine what is possible.

So many of you have helped already—thank you!!!! But Jan needs 24/7 care, and all the physical therapy and medical equipment and home-care support that goes with that is, quite frankly, astronomical.

Pioneer Playhouse adores Jan and Jeff, and so we are throwing a Party Down for Jan Benefit here on Saturday, April 29th from 7-11 pm. Michael Fly and The Sounds will be grooving live on our indoor stage, and local restaurateurs and distillers are donating food and drink. A $25 cover will include food; the bar will be cash/credit. No silent auction, but we will have donation boxes at the event. All proceeds go to Jan and Jeff.

This is a fundraiser, but it’s also a celebration! Come on out and join together with Jan and Jeff and the rest of this awesome community to celebrate what strength looks like, and what the power of love and hope can do!

Buy tickets at pioneerplayhouse.com or call 859-236-2747 (M-F, 9-1)

Direct link to tix: https://pioneerplayhouse.csstix.com/event-details.php?e=168

Immediate Job Opportunity at Kentucky’s Oldest Outdoor Theatre!!

We are hiring!! Immediate Job Opportunity at Kentucky’s Oldest Outdoor Theatre!!
Part-time Office Manager
Perform box office and bookkeeping functions for arts education nonprofit. Manage contracts, payroll and tax reporting. Conduct ticket sales and staff scheduling/training for summer season. Provide phone and walk-in customer service. Advanced Quickbooks bookkeeping experience and strong interpersonal skills required.
Hours: 20 hours/week 9-1, M-F; more hours in summer with some nights and weekends. Salary based on experience.
No calls please! Email cover letter and resume to pioneerplayhouse@att.net.