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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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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Another Giant Helping of Southern Fried Fun at Pioneer Playhouse

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville continues its 73rd season under the stars with Southern Fried Nuptials, a heartfelt comedy about one quirky family coming together for the oldest daughter’s wedding. The play, which opens on July 5th and runs through July 23rd, was penned by the popular playwriting team of Osborne and Eppler and is a sequel to last year’s hit, Southern Fried Funeral.

“Audiences loved Southern Fried Funeral last summer,” says Heather Henson, managing director of the historic theatre her father, Eben C. Henson, founded in 1950. “When we saw that the playwrights had created another show with these same characters, we were pretty sure we wanted to do it. Don’t worry, though, if you missed the first one; this comedy is stand-alone funny.”

Southern Fried Nuptials again focuses on the frazzled Frye family of New Edinburgh, Mississippi. This time around it’s a wedding, rather than a funeral, that needs planning, but of course, nothing goes as it should. Bouts of cold feet, nosy neighbors, and the sudden appearance of an old flame all combine for a roller coaster ride of a comedy.

“Our audiences love a story that makes them laugh but that’s also heartfelt,” notes Robby Henson, artistic director of Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre and brother to Heather. “The characters and situations in this play are over the top, but also very relatable.”

Several actors will be reprising their roles from last year, including Erika Lee    Sengstack as the bride-to-be, Harlene Frye, and Patricia Hammond, as the family matriarch, Dorothy Frye.

“Pat has been appearing on our stage for almost twenty years,” says Heather. “And this is Erika’s eighth season with us. They are both terrific actresses that have become like family to us, and we’re lucky to have them!”

Also returning are Adian Chapman as the lovable Dewey Frye, Jr., and Silas Waugh as the steadfast Beecham LeFette. Jan Sheffield will once again appear as Fairy June Cooper.

New members of the cast include Rita Hight as Martha Ann Fox, Bret Hopkins as “Attie” Van Leer, Jimothy Beckholt as Carter Canfield, Lori Shepherd as Ozella Meeks, and Sean Cook as Vester Pickens.

Southern Fried Nuptials is directed by Jennifer Goff, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Centre College in Danville, who also directed last year’s Southern Fried production.

“It has been so much fun to be back at the Playhouse for a second year, and back with the Frye family,” says Jennifer. “The great thing about this play is that it absolutely introduces you to the family, so if you didn’t see last year’s show, or even if you don’t remember it, you won’t have any trouble jumping right into the action. But the folks who do remember last year’s show might just catch an inside joke or two – we’re all part of the family, after all!”

Southern Fried Funeral will run nightly, Tuesdays through Saturdays, from July 5th through July 23rd. A home-cooked, hickory-smoked BBQ dinner (choice of pulled pork or pulled chicken) is available at 7:00 pm each evening before the show, which begins at 8:30 pm. Beer, wine, and spirits are served at a bar inside the grounds to those 21 years and older.

Pioneer Playhouse is located at 840 Stanford Road in Danville. Tickets are $20 for show only; $35 for dinner and show. Discounts are available for kids and groups. Shows are outdoors, and performances will continue during light rain. If shows are canceled due to severe weather, rain checks or refunds will be given. Call the box office at 859-236-2747 or purchase tickets online.

Announcing our 72nd season in the Bluegrass…

A little different, but still the same uniquely Kentucky experience you’ve come to love! 

Three Plays + One Comedy Weekend + One Music Weekend = Fun under the Stars!

Clue: On Stage
Adapted from the Paramount Pictures film written by Jonathan Lynn, and the board game from Hasbro, Inc.
June 11 – July 3  — Three week run!
Kentucky premiere! Straight from Broadway!

It’s a dark and stormy night, and you’ve been invited to a most unusual dinner party! You’re given an alias, a choice of weapons, and the host is, well, dead! So…whodunnit? And more importantly, who’s next? Join iconic oddballs Scarlet, Plum, White, Green, Peacock, and Mustard as they race to find the murderer before the body count at Boddy Manor stacks up!  Rated PG.

Southern Fried Funeral
By Osborne and Eppler
July 6 – July 24 – Three week run!

Dewey Frye is dead, and the rest of his family is left to pick up the pieces – if they don’t kill each other first! Not only must Dorothy Frye deal with sudden widowhood, she must also contend with a snake-in-the-grass brother-in-law, a nosy church lady, and a couple of grown daughters who’ve decided to act like toddlers. Funerals bring out the worst, the best…and the funniest in people! A big-hearted comedy about family – Southern style! Rated G.

Jeeves in Bloom
Adapted by Margaret Raether 
from the stories of PG Wodehouse
July 27 – August 7  — Two week run!

The quiet English countryside will never be the same after Bertie Wooster and his unflappable butler, Jeeves, pay a visit! What starts as a plan to play matchmaker for a tongue-tied, newt-loving friend goes hilariously wrong. Soon Bertie is fending off unwanted amorous advances, a bungling burglary, and a homicidal French chef! Can the one and only Jeeves save the day? A delightfully silly and high-energy comedy!
Rated G.

Plus…

Special Stand-Up Comedy Weekend starring Joe Deuce and Friends!
August 13 & 14

New! Live Music Weekend!

Powerplay 
August 20
A night of Rock n’ Soul with Horns! High energy band playing your favorite songs from the 60’s and 70’s! Don’t forget your dancing shoes!

Elvis Under the Stars!
August 21
A very special evening with Elvis Tribute Artist Barry Lockard (Breaking Up with Elvis) and friends! Channeling the King and paying homage to the Rupp Arena “concert that never was.”