DANVILLE, Ky. (LEX 18) — The year was 1950 and Eben Henson was determined to bring a taste of the Big Apple all the way to the Bluegrass.
“He definitely lived a glamorous life, even though it was all the way here in Danville, Kentucky,” said Heather Henson, one of Eben’s daughters.
After serving in the U.S. Navy in World War Two and then studying acting in New York City, Eben had returned to Kentucky to take care of his family in 1947. But he couldn’t shake the allure of Hollywood, so he founded the Pioneer Playhouse, Kentucky’s longest-running outdoor theater. In the 73 years since then, the Henson family has maintained the summer stock theatre.
With his signature string tie and Southern charm, Henson built the playhouse from the ground up, literally. Because he didn’t have enough money to build a stage, Henson took advantage of recycled materials he could find for free. According to his obituary, he once traded a fifth of whiskey for support beams.
Visitors can still see his handiwork today.
“Dad got these hand-hewn beams from a livery stable that was being taken down in the 1950's in Danville, and so they're here,” Heather said as she showed LEX 18 part of the property. “He made flooring out of telephone poles.”
Henson’s enthusiasm and resolve eventually convinced California filmmakers to shoot a movie in Danville: 1957’s Raintree County starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Marie Saint. He even lifted the playhouse’s ticket office from the set of the movie once filming had wrapped.
Through the decades, the Pioneer Playhouse attracted future stars, including Jim Varney, Lee Majors, and John Travolta, who portrayed a doctor in one of his first performances at 15 years old. Eben Henson wrote the play himself, about Kentucky doctor Ephraim McDowell, the pioneer of abdominal surgery. The Playhouse still has a copy of a letter from Travolta in which he quotes his first-ever line: ''Yes. Margaret Miller was suffering from pyloric stenosis and at the time of the operation I had no chance of success!''
For the Henson family, it’s the everyday actors and moments that have brought this theatre to life for more than seven decades.
“It’s grassroots, and it’s Kentucky, and it’s very special,” said Robbie Henson, Eben’s son and the current artistic director of the Playhouse. “It’s a little different than Carnegie Hall, but we like it.”
Colonel Eben Henson died in 2004. His daughter Holly, who also served as artistic director of the Playhouse, passed away about a decade later.
But each summer, the family still runs the show. Heather and Robbie both live and work on the property with their families, and Eben’s beloved wife Charlotte sings for visitors at 90 years old, proving even time can’t dull the shine of this family affair, born under the bright lights of Broadway.