Pioneer Playhouse celebrates 75th season
Published 7:07 am Thursday, December 21, 2023
Editor’s note: The incorrect version of this story was published in the Dec. 19 print edition. This is the correct story.
Pioneer Playhouse of Danville will be celebrating its 75th anniversary season in the summer of 2024.
The season will include three shows over 10 weeks of the summer: a murder mystery spoof “The 39 Steps;” an original play “That Book Woman,” which will be adapted from Heather Henson’s book of the same name; and a romantic comedy “Fireflies.” The season will end with an Elvis weekend called “We Three Kings: An Elvis Experience,” which will go over three days.
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In celebration of the 75th anniversary, the playhouse will hold a big gala on June 15 that playhouse alumni and anyone in the community can attend.
Founded in 1950 by Danville native Eben C. Henson, Pioneer Playhouse is Kentucky’s oldest outdoor summer stock theater. Eben began putting on plays in 1950 at the old Darnell Mental Hospital near Burgin for several years.
When the “Raintree County” movie was filmed in Danville around 1957, the film crew left behind a train station set, which Eben took and moved to the current Pioneer Playhouse location in 1958. Around it, he built the theater and other buildings with recycled materials from Danville buildings.
Eben has since passed away, and the playhouse is now mainly run by his daughter Heather Henson and son Robby Henson.
“When my dad was a young man, summer stock was this exciting new movement,” Heather said. “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. 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.”
For the foreseeable future, the playhouse will be sticking to the three-play format that they started since Covid-19, with a final weekend musical show.
“The 39 Steps”
The first show of the season will be “The 39 Steps,” by Patrick Barlow, from June 7 to June 29. It’s a comedic murder mystery spoof adapted from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 British spy thriller film of the same name.
Heather said the play adaptation throws in some Monty Python-type comedy. It includes action scenes like a plane crash on stage and old fashioned romance. Heather said they did the show 12 years ago, and it was a big crowd pleaser. Robby said people keep talking about it.
“It’s one of our all-time favorites,” Robby said. “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.”
“That Book Woman”
Second in the line-up is “That Book Woman” from July 2 to July 20. “That Book Woman” is an adaptation of a book written by Heather, which celebrates the historic pack horse librarians of Eastern Kentucky.
The book is being adapted by playwright Holly Hepp-Galvan, as part of Pioneer Playhouse’s Kentucky Voices program.
Kentucky Voices is a program where Pioneer Playhouse commissions local playwrights to write plays that celebrate Kentucky history and culture. It kicked off more than 10 years ago with the play “A Jar Full of Fireflies” about the making of “Raintree County” in Danville.
Heather said they haven’t done the Kentucky Voices program since before Covid-19. She said she’s been thinking about adapting her book into a play for a while.
“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,” Heather said. “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.”
Hepp-Galvan has written Pioneer Playhouse adaptations of local author Angela Correll’s novels, “Grounded,” “Guarded” and “Granted.” Heather said those adaptations were hugely popular and successful.
While Heather is not writing the play adaptation of her book, she will work with Hepp-Galvan to develop parts of the story.
“My book is a picture book, so it’s a limited story, but we’re going to develop the characters more and bring in some other side stories, but the main thing is we’re celebrating the pack horse librarians of Eastern Kentucky,” Heather said.
The library will be doing some exhibits with information about pack horse librarians, along with children’s programming, around the time of the show.
Heather said part of what made her choose “That Book Woman” to adapt over her other books is that the book has been widely read throughout the country and even the world.
“It just continues to be really popular … it’s a story that resonates with a lot of people,” Heather said.
The final play will be “Fireflies” by Matthew Barber from July 23 to Aug. 10. The comedy will star long-time playhouse actress Patricia Hammond, who has been performing at Pioneer Playhouse for over 20 years.
The play takes place in a small Texas town, following a woman who finds love late in life.
“The play is about a con-man who comes to town, and he sees that Hammond’s character has a hole in her roof, and he’s going to fix it, and the whole town discusses if he’s a con-man or a good guy,” Heather explained. “It’s about finding love when you least expect it.”
Heather said they picked shows for the 75th season based on what they really liked, that worked well together, and that represented their history. Robby said they know their audience well, and picked shows they knew they would enjoy.
Pioneer Playhouse will end the season with “We Three Kings: An Elvis Experience” on Aug. 15-17.
The show is a musical extravaganza with a live band and three different Elvis performers on stage, representing different eras of his life and career. The show has been at the Lexington Opera House. Pioneer Playhouse has had other Elvis shows in recent years, which Robby said have all been popular.
“We love Elvis here at the playhouse because we know our audiences love Elvis,” Robby said.
In addition to regular plays, Pioneer Playhouse will be hosting an Alumni Weekend on June 14-15, with a special 75th Gala Night on the 15th. Instead of a play on June 15, that night will be the gala only.
The gala will have live music, food, drinks and dancing. Local band Michael Fly and the Sounds will play in the playhouse’s indoor theater.
Heather said they’re inviting alumni from all seasons over the 75 years, and will have past performers from all generations tell stories at the gala about their time at the playhouse. She said they’ve invited their more famous alumni, including John Travolta and Lee Majors. But they’ve not heard yet if they can attend.
In addition to the more famous alumni, Heather said many of their alumni are working actors who have gone to work on Broadway, Hollywood and elsewhere.
Anyone in the community is invited, and Robby said they are expecting 250 to 300 people. The gala will cost $75, which Heather said will somewhat act as a fundraiser for the playhouse.
“This is such a huge milestone,” Heather said. “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, 75 years and counting.”
Tickets and patron passes for the 2024 season are available for purchase at pioneerplayhouse.com. Heather said the season passes make great Christmas gifts. New prices are $22 for the show only; and $40 for dinner and the show. A new patron plus dinner pass is also available.