To 75 more years: Pioneer Playhouse 75th gala celebrated alumni

Published 4:15 pm Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville held its grand 75th anniversary gala on June 15, where hundreds of alumni gathered in celebration.

Playhouse alumni traveled in from all over, and showed up dressed to impress. Held in the playhouse’s indoor theater, the gala featured presentations from local officials and alumni, a catered dinner, and music by local band Michael fly and The Sounds.

Founded in 1950 by Danville native Eben C. Henson, Pioneer Playhouse is Kentucky’s oldest outdoor summer stock theater, and one of the only summer theaters still operating in Kentucky.

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Heather and Robby Henson, who operate the playhouse that their father Eben built, welcomed the many visitors who came to celebrate the legacy.

Comedian Joe Deuce was the MC for the event, who has been involved in different things at the playhouse for 13 years. Deuce shared that he learns something new about the playhouse every time he visits.

Most of the buildings at Pioneer Playhouse are original to when Eben C. Henson built them decades ago, including the old rooms alongside the outdoor stage that actors used to stay in all summer. Deuce shared a funny story of when Robby invited him to stay in one of those rooms.

“I don’t know if any of you have ever stayed in one of those rooms…” Deuce said to the crowd. “It looks like some stuff lived in there that’s not me … it’s just a bed, no refrigerator, no frills, I don’t even think he had a comforter on the bed, it was just sheets and a pillow.”

Deuce snuck out and slept on a couch in the library that night.

“One thing I love about this place is that no matter where you’re from, what your background is, your skin color, your language, however much experience you bring, it feels like home when you’re here, and the Hensons are the reason for that,” Deuce said.

Attendees got to watch a video about the history of the playhouse, which also included video messages from different alumni from over the years who shared some memories of the playhouse.

Many of the alumni in the video reflected on the vibrant energy of the playhouse, that there’s always something going on, with people rehearsing all day with shows at night, everyone is dedicated and excited, and that the energy and positive atmosphere keeps bringing people back.

Boyle County Judge Executive Trille Bottom spoke about the impact that the playhouse has had on the community.

“Just for a small town like Danville to have something as nice as we have here is just pretty unbelievable; Danville has a lot of interesting things going on, but Pioneer Playhouse is definitely in the top three,” Bottom said.

Bottom presented a proclamation to the Hensons in celebration of the anniversary.

Part of the proclamation reads, “… Whereas the Pioneer Playhouse of Danville was founded in 1950 by Colonel Eben C. Henson and is Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theater; whereas in 1962 the playhouse became the first theater in the nation to be imported the legal status of state theater by act of legislation; whereas after his service in World War 2 and then studying acting in New York City, Eben Charles Henson returned to Danville and began a landmark tradition of bringing Broadway to the Bluegrass; whereas Eben Henson along with his wife Charlotte and children, Eben David, Holly, Robby and Heather, has attracted hundreds of young actors over the years to the playhouse, including John Travolta, Lee Majors, Jim Varney, and Bo Hopkins; whereas the Pioneer Playhouse complex grounds include an original train station from the 1957 MGM classic ‘Raintree County’ starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, along with a theater, antique alley, giftshop, patio dining, indoor exhibit and campground; whereas following the deaths of Eben C. Henson, Charlotte Henson, and Holly Henson, the remaining children carry on the wishes, desires and dreams of their father …”

The proclamation finishes by proclaiming June 15 as Pioneer Playhouse Day in Boyle County.

Danville Mayor James J.H. Atkins also spoke at the gala about what the playhouse means to Danville. He summed it up in three aspects, “Education, entertainment, and economic development.”

Atkins presented Heather, Robby, and Eben D. Henson with keys to the City of Danville.

Boyle County Chamber of Commerce Director Jeff Jewel presented a Chamber award to the Hensons. He explained that the Chamber just had their 105th gala where they gave awards to notable local people and businesses.

“Every once in a blue moon we give an award called the Legacy Award, and it is for someone who’s left an indelible positive mark on our community that will last long after they’re gone, and this year it’s our privilege to offer the Legacy Award to Charlotte Henson,” Jewel said. “Everybody that ever met her loved her.”

Charlotte passed away in February of this year, and Heather said she meant so much to so many people.

“She was the backbone of the theater, the heart and soul,” Heather said. “It’s been really hard, but we know that she’s here with us watching down.”

The Kentucky Secretary of Tourism, Arts and Heritage Lindy Casebier presented an acclamation from Gov. Andy Beshear to the Hensons.

The acclamation includes how Pioneer Playhouse has brought the arts, culture and visitors to Kentucky, and is integral to the local community and tourism in the state.

While a handful of playhouse alumni went on to become famous, hundreds of other alumni have gone on to become professionals in theater, tv, film, and others have become teachers and arts administrators.

One such alum named Ron Chilton was at the gala, whose history with the theater goes all the way back to 1950 when he played in a band during the playhouse’s first season.

Chilton, who also goes by “Radio Ron,” has had a successful career in entertainment, as an actor, musician, and being part of radio shows.

Now 89 years old, Chilton was 15 years old when he played saxophone in the Pioneer band with his high school friends. Eben C. had asked them to play at Pioneer Playhouse’s first season, when the playhouse was located at Darnell State Hospital in 1950.

“Eben’s the one who said ‘we need a band,’ so we went out to the Darnell hospital and played,” Chilton said.

He was a lifeguard in the 50s, but Chilton told Eben he wanted to be a movie star.

“Eben said ‘well don’t say you want to be a movie star, say you want to be an actor, and I can get you in the playhouse.’”

Chilton had his first acting part at the playhouse, and later had a small part in Raintree County, the movie filmed in Danville featuring the biggest stars at the time.

“I was the stand in for Montgomery Clift, I was nose-to-nose with Elizabeth Taylor, and I had a couple of lines; and it set me on fire, I was so intrigued by being in a movie,” Chilton said.

Chilton ended up being a part of 14 Hollywood movies over the years, including Seabiscuit, The Secretariat, Fire Down Below, The Great Race, and others.

He was also in at least six plays at Pioneer Playhouse between 1950 and the late 60s, including plays with now-famous actors Lee Majors and John Travolta. He was in the “Ephraim McDowell Story” play in the late 1960s, which Travolta had a small part in.

Chilton recalled when he had a dressing table next to Lee Majors, and asked him what he was going to do with his life, and Majors said he would be a movie star.

“I said ‘that’s tough, how are you going to break in?’ Majors said ‘I have a benefactor and his name is Rock Hudson.’ He was the biggest star in Hollywood at the time, and of course Lee Majors went on to be quite successful,” Chilton explained.

Chilton said the playhouse hasn’t changed much in terms of new buildings. He remembers when Eben C. built them, and how resourceful he was in finding places to perform.

“Eben was a master of all trades; he was the best showman since P.T. Barnum, he could talk anybody into anything, and he almost did,” Chilton said. “He was determined to bring Hollywood and Broadway to Danville, and he did.”

Heather and Robby gave Pioneer Star awards to several notable alumni, including to Chilton for being part of the playhouse since the beginning.

They also gave an award to Kim Darby for continuing to come back to the playhouse and not wanting to leave. They gave one to Larry Appel, who was there in 1976 and whose nickname was “Captain Enthuso” because he did what needed to be done; and to Erika Lee Sengstack because she moved to Kentucky from New York mainly because of Pioneer Playhouse.

They gave special awards to alumni Eben French Mastin and Pat Hammond for being in so many plays over the years. Robby presented them with mugs that have the names of all the plays they were in.

The playhouse gave out homemade shortbread as party favors, made from the recipe that Charlotte Henson used. It came with a copy of a handwritten recipe by Charlotte. She would make the shortbread at Christmastime and sell it as a fundraiser for the playhouse.

The playhouse’s summer season continues until mid-August with two more plays yet to open. Shows are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.