New “Kentucky Voices” Play Celebrates Elvis!

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville continues celebrating 70 years in the Bluegrass with Breaking Up With Elvis, a brand new “Kentucky Voices” play by artistic director and award-winning filmmakerRobby Henson.

Breaking Up With Elvis, which opens Tuesday, July 9 and runs through Saturday, July 20, tells the story of a woman named Hazel who goes AWOL on the day of her own husband’s funeral in Lexington, Kentucky, and ends up at the gates of Graceland, where she encounters a parade of quirky characters, including a possible mystical meeting with “the King” himself.

“The play was inspired by ‘the ghost concert,’” says Robby Henson. “Or the ‘Elvis concert that never was’ at Rupp Arena in 1977. Elvis died a week before he was set to perform in Lexington, and over 21,000 fans were heartbroken.”

According to an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader, published in August 2017, many of those fans never let go of their purchased Elvis tickets, which have become, in the decades since, a sacred souvenir.

“When I talk about the play, I’m always amazed at how many people say they still have their original tickets,” says Heather Henson, sister to Robby and managing director of Pioneer Playhouse. “I’ve read that there was a push by concert promoters to get all the tickets back so they could be refunded, but many people did not want to let go of their own little piece of Elvis.”

“Elvis was such a huge phenomenon in our culture,” says Robby Henson. “He came from such humble and hardscrabble beginnings and shot to mega-stardom. When you watch his early TV appearances and movies, you just instantly see what a talented, charismatic kid he was. He became so big, yet he never lost that ‘poor boy’ sensibility. He never lost his southern roots. I think southerners in particular, have a deep connection to Elvis. A lot of people felt that Elvis was one of ‘us,’ and that was part of his enormous appeal.”

“I loved Elvis,” says Patricia Hammond, who is a perennial favorite actor at Pioneer Playhouse, and who was an inspiration for the role of Hazel. “I was devastated when he died.”

“So many people I’ve spoken to remember exactly where they were the day Elvis died,” says Heather Henson. “It was a significant moment in their lives. And we’re asking folks to talk about that. There will be a time for audience members to get on stage during intermission and tell their Elvis story if they’d like. And original Elvis ticket holders will get fifty-percent off the price of the play.”

There will also be plenty of Elvis nostalgia, including nightly pre-show performances by two different Elvis Tribute Artists.

“We are very lucky to have two incredibly talented performers. Barry Lockard from Corbin, Kentucky, and Riley Jenkins from Tennessee,” says Heather Henson. “Barry will also be starring inBreaking Up With Elvis as ‘Big E,’ who — spoiler alert — may, or may not, be Elvis.’”

“We were really impressed with Barry when he came to meet with us to talk about doing a pre-show Elvis performance,” says Robby Henson. “We just felt he was perfect for the play, so we’re glad he was able to work us into his busy schedule.”

Barry Lockard is currently a Physical Therapist Assistant at a local nursing home. He began entertaining as Elvis five years ago after dressing up for Halloween and hasn’t looked back.

“I love performing and seeing smiles when the audience’s memories of ‘the King’ come rushing back,” says Lockard. “I also love performing for young folks, and introducing Elvis to a new generation to help keep his memory alive.”

One young man who already knows a lot about Elvis is Riley Jenkins, another Tribute Artist who will be performing for three nights at the historic theatre.

“We’re thrilled to have Riley Jenkins appear before the show as well,” says Heather Henson. “Riley is a 16-year-old who has traveled across the country to showcase the early days of Elvis.”

Breaking Up With Elvis, which is one of Pioneer Playhouse’s ongoing “Kentucky Voices” series celebrating Kentucky writers and history and culture, will begin at 8:30 pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays. A barbeque dinner featuring a special Elvis dessert is available at 7:30 each night.

Reservations are recommended for the show, required for dinner. A bar serving wine, beer, and mixed drinks is open to those 21 years and older.

Sherlock Comes to America in Playhouse’s Second Offering!

It may be summer in the Bluegrass, but for two weeks on stage at Pioneer Playhouse of Danville, it’s the height of St. Paul’s famed Winter Carnival where one of the city’s wealthiest young men has lost his head–literally.

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders is the second offering in the historic theatre’s 70th season under the stars. Running from June 25 through July 6, this scintillating mystery featuring everybody’s favorite deerslayer hat-wearing sleuth was written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Larry Millett.

“Everybody loves Sherlock,” says Heather Henson, whose father, Eben C. Henson, founded Pioneer Playhouse in 1950, and who now acts as managing director, running the theatre with her brother, artistic director, Robby Henson, and producer mother, Charlotte.

“We skipped doing a Sherlock Holmes mystery last year,” Henson says, “but when we came across this play, we knew we wanted to bring Holmes and Watson back to our stage.”

Described in reviews as a smart, funny, fast-paced mystery, Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders places its iconic sleuth and his trusted sidekick, Dr. Watson in America for a change. The year is 1896, and the setting is Minnesota in winter. A young man has gone missing just before his wedding, so it’s up to Holmes and Watson, with the help of local barkeep and amateur sleuth, Shadwell Rafferty to track a cold-blooded killer from the icy streets of St. Paul to the frozen Mississippi River.

“The setting makes this particular Sherlock special,” says Robby Henson. “Sherlock is taken out of his comfort zone and brought to 1890’s middle-America, which is teeming with larger than life characters – Norwegians, Scandinavians, Minnesotans. Our actors are having a lot of fun with the accents.”

Playing the role of Sherlock Holmes is Drew Sutherland, an actor based in Lexington, Kentucky, who appeared as Little Willie in Pioneer Playhouse’s opening show, Kong’s Night Out. Eric Seale, also from Lexington, who played beleaguered producer Myron Siegel in “Kong,” takes a turn as Dr. Watson.

“One thing we definitely encourage patrons to do is come out and see all five shows during our ten-week season,” says Heather Henson. “Getting to know our company of actors, getting to see them play such diverse characters over the course of the summer is part of the whole Playhouse experience. These are talented actors, and they really get to strut their stuff and show their range over the course of the summer.”

One such versatile, young actor is Michael Ross, a Danville native, who plays the role of the latest Holmes and Watson sidekick, Shadwell Rafferty.

“Michael grew up here, and has done a lot of theatre in and around Danville,” says Heather Henson, “so we’re really happy to have him as part of our company this year. And we’re also excited to have another local, Bailey Angel, getting a chance to go on stage as well.”

Bailey Angel is from the Harrodsburg, Kentucky area and studies theatre at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Heather Henson notes that Angel volunteered at the Playhouse last year, and then came back and officially auditioned for the company during the off-season. She was then hired as a 2019 acting apprentice.

“It’s a tier system here at the Playhouse,” explains Robby Henson. “An acting apprentice isn’t guaranteed a role. When they sign on, they know they’ll be doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work. But auditions are open to the whole company, and we try to give everyone a chance to get on stage at least once or twice during the summer.”

“Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders is a perfect show for that,” says Heather Henson. “Sherlock, Watson, and Rafferty are set characters, but the rest of the cast work as an ensemble, playing many different roles, literally wearing many different hats.”

“I think longtime Playhouse patrons will be surprised by the character – or characters — our beloved Patricia Hammond plays,” Heather continues. “Definitely something a little different.”

“This play is a lot like a show we did a few years back, The 39 Steps, which audiences really loved,” says Robby Henson. “There are lots of different characters, lots of quick set changes. It’s a challenge for us – but that’s what we like here at the Playhouse. A challenge.”

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, which is directed by Anthony R. Haigh, who has been working in theatre for over fifty years and who helmed Kong’s Night Out, opens June 25 and runs through July 6. Shows run nightly at 8:30 pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays. A home-cooked BBQ dinner is available before the show each night at 7:30 pm. Reservations are suggested for the play; required for dinner. Price for dinner and show is $35; show only is $20.

Big Ape, Big Laughs in Pioneer Opener

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville begins its celebratory 70th season in the Bluegrass on June 7 with Kong’s Night Out, a comedy by Jack Neary that pays hilarious homage to the original King Kong.

First produced in Boston, MA at the Lyric Theatre and written as a fictional “back story” to the 1930s classic movie, Kong’s Night Out centers around a Broadway producer named Myron, played by Lexington’s Eric Seale, who learns that his rival is planning something “big” in order to steal his opening night thunder. As the story progresses, all the characters, including Myron’s mother, played by Patricia Hammond, try to uncover the “big” secret, which of course involves an enormous primate with a yen for blondes.

“I love this show,” says Patricia Hammond, who has been returning to the historic theatre for nearly two decades. “I love my wise-cracking character, and prickly relationship with her son, Myron.”

“This is a perfect role for Pat,” says Heather Henson, managing director of Pioneer Playhouse, which is Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre. “When we read the play, we knew fans of Pat – and there are quite a few out there – would really get a kick out of seeing her portray this sassy Broadway broad.”

“It’s a play with a lot of energy,” says Robby Henson, artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse. “It’s the kind of screwball comedy with doors slamming and mistaken identity that really works for us. It’s a crowd-pleaser.”

Kong’s Night Out is directed by Anthony Haigh, who has been acting and directing professionally for over fifty years, and who recently retired from directing the theatre program at Centre College.

“When we work with Tony, we always know it’s going to be a top-notch show,” says Heather Henson.

“It’s a fine ensemble cast this year,” says Haigh. “A nice balance of new actors and seasoned veterans, working together on a witty, scatological text.”

Working together is a big part of what Pioneer Playhouse is about.

“It’s definitely a team effort putting on a show in ten days,” says Robby Henson. “From director to actors to props to building the set, every single person is important in making the magic happen.”

“Making things come to life in a limited time period, with limited recourses brings out an intensity,” says Haigh. “The intensity of the work at the Playhouse brings out the best in the actors – and in the whole company.”

Kong’s Night Out opens on June 7, and will run nightly at 8:30 pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays, through June 22. A home-cooked BBQ dinner is available before the show each night at 7:30. Reservations are suggested for the play; required for dinner. Price for dinner and show is $35; show only is $20.

Pioneer Playhouse, which is celebrating 70 seasons under the stars, is located at 840 Stanford Road in Danville. For more information, call the box office at 859-236-2747 or 1-866-KYPLAYS.

Pioneer Playhouse Wins NEA Grant for Prison Program

[Danville, KY]—National Endowment for the Arts Acting Chairman Mary Anne Carter has approved more than $80 million in grants as part of the Arts Endowment’s second major funding announcement for fiscal year 2019. Included in this announcement is an Art Works grant of $15,000 to Pioneer Playhouse for Voices Inside, a prison arts outreach program.

The Pioneer Playhouse/Voices Inside program teaches writing and performance skills to the incarcerated so as to fight recidivism.

“These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Pioneer Playhouse gives people in an overlooked community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”

For more information on this National Endowment for the Arts grant announcement, visit Or Heather Henson at

Pioneer Playhouse Celebrates 70 Magical Seasons!

Pioneer Playhouse Celebrates 70 Magical Seasons!

It all began with one man’s dream of bringing Broadway to the Bluegrass, and the rest is history – 70 years of history. Founded in 1950 by Col. Eben C. Henson, Pioneer Playhouse of Danville is Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre, but it is also one of the oldest continuously operated summer stock theatres in the United States.

“When my dad started out in the ‘50s,” says Heather Henson, daughter of founder Eben and now managing director of Pioneer Playhouse, “there was this movement across the country to develop summer stock theatres in places outside New York, Chicago, Boston, LA. It was seen as a chance for actors to get some fresh air, get some acting experience, and bring ‘big city’ theatre to small towns.”

“If you’ve seen the old movie ‘Summerstock’,” Henson continues, referring to the 1950 classic starring Judy Garland as the country girl whose family farm is overrun by a New York City acting troupe led by Gene Kelly, “you get a sense of the kind of crazy energy it took to do theatre on a shoestring budget in the middle of nowhere.”

Eben Charles Henson was born in Danville in 1923. He grew up on Main Street in the Henson Hotel, which was run mainly by his mother, Brooklyn native, Celia Bloch Henson, while her husband, Federal Revenue Agent, Eben Burdett Henson, chased bootleggers through the Kentucky hills.

“Dad’s dad was also a magician in his spare time, so maybe that was the spark, we’re not sure,” says Heather, “but for whatever reason, Dad became interested in performing at an early age.”

After serving in World War II, Henson went to seek his fame and fortune in New York City. He studied theatre on the GI Bill at the respected New School, rubbed shoulders with Tony Curtis and Harry Belafonte, and even got to appear on Broadway in a small role. But when his father became ill, Henson returned to his hometown and decided to bring his big dreams with him.

“Dad knew there was an actual theatre inside what was then the old Darnell Hospital, which had housed POW’s during the war, and now was the state mental institution,” says Robby Henson, son of Eben and currently artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse. “Dad was able to get the space for free. In fact, that’s what Dad became known for – getting things for free or for very little.”

“We call him the original recycler,” says Heather. “Dad would go to a construction site and ask if he could take the bricks or boards or beams they were tearing down, and usually the answer was yes.”

When patrons come to Pioneer Playhouse today, they’ll see 200-year-old hand hewn beams repurposed from a Danville livery stable, more hand-hewn beams from old Centre College buildings, and floorboards from the Kentucky School for the Deaf.

“Our box office was the original train station in the MGM classic, ‘Raintree County,’ starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift,” says Robby. “MGM had built it in Danville and was just going to scrap it when they left, but Dad said, ‘Hey, I’ll take that,’ and it became the main landmark that today’s Pioneer Playhouse was built around.”

“We grew up at the Playhouse,” says Heather. “So it’s in our blood, in our bones. We’ve just always pulled together to keep it going.”

Col. Eben C. Henson died in 2004, leaving his wife, Charlotte, and daughter, Holly Henson to run things. When Holly succumbed to breast cancer in 2012, Robby, who had been directing plays during the Playhouse summer seasons since college, and Heather, who had recently returned to Kentucky, stepped into the breach.

“Mom is the backbone, and the three of us truly work together to keep Dad’s dream alive,” says Heather. “But I think it’s more than that at this point.”

“We’re proud of what we do here,” says Robby. “Putting on a play has so many moving parts, it really takes a titanic effort of crew, actors, and directors working together. And then we perform that play for two weeks under the stars, and then it’s gone. Theatre is ephemeral magic.”

Pioneer Playhouse opens for its 70th season in the Bluegrass on June 7 and continues to present shows nightly, Tuesdays through Saturdays until August 17. There will be a final stand-up comedy weekend on August 23 and 24. Dinner is available each night at 7:30 pm, while the show begins at 8:30 pm.