Pioneer Playhouse Producer Charlotte Henson has passed

Published 11:00 am Saturday, February 17, 2024

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.

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Charlotte first met Eben Henson when she attended an early performance of his fledgling 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,” said 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,” said 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.