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.