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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