In 1950, Pioneer Playhouse debuted its first season at Danville’s Darnell State Hospital, now Northpoint Prison. On June 10, 2022, Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theater opens its 73rd season with “Dracula Bites,” a kooky spin on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
More than seven decades of history have been written on the page and the stage of this Kentucky Historic Landmark, a time capsule of 1950s summer stock theater that was the dream of its visionary founder, Col. Eben Henson, who wanted to bring Broadway to the Bluegrass. And boy, did he ever!
At Pioneer Playhouse, an evening of theater under the stars begins with the ringing of the Old Danville Firehouse Bell to announce dinner – a Kentucky farm-fresh menu that is served on a covered patio and accompanied by live music. It is followed by outstanding professional theater and a chance to explore moments and memorabilia on the Playhouse’s timeline as well as browse the gift shop.
Here are nine things you may not know about the Pioneer Playhouse:
1. The actor best known for his roles in “Pulp Fiction,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” got his start at Pioneer Playhouse. John Travolta was a 15-year-old kid from New Jersey when he made his theatre debut here in 1969.
2. After serving in WWII, founder Eben Henson studied acting in New York City on the GI Bill with such promising up-and-comers as Harry Belafonte, Tony Curtis and Bea Arthur.
3. You know him as the “Six Million Dollar Man,” but back in the day, he was Harvey Yeary – a name he changed immediately to Lee Majors upon his arrival in Hollywood direct from the Playhouse. His first show? The TV western, “The Big Valley,” starring Barbara Stanwyck.
4. Eben’s wife, Charlotte Henson, has been singing for Playhouse dinner guests for over 50 years ago. The great Kentucky composer and collector of ballads, John Jacob Niles, called Charlotte’s voice one of the purest he had ever heard. Want to hear for yourself? Buy a CD of Charlotte’s record from the early 1970s at the Playhouse gift shop.
5. The Pioneer Playhouse box office is the original train station from the 1957 MGM classic, “Raintree County,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Eben Henson moved the train station to its current location and used it as an anchor for the Playhouse complex, which includes the theater, Antiques Alley, gift shop, patio dining, indoor exhibits and campground.
6. Charlotte and Eben Henson raised four children on the Playhouse grounds, with the kids helping out behind the scenes and sometimes acting. The late Holly Henson was a nationally known stand-up comedian. Robby Henson has made acclaimed movies with such stars as Kris Kristofferson, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Billy Bob Thornton. Eben Henson has a successful sign and design company and is also a drummer for many local bands. Heather Henson is an award-winning author of children’s books.
7. Speaking of books, Heather’s most recent book is a novel for teens called Wrecked, a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, set in Kentucky against the gritty backdrop of the opioid crisis. Her most well-known book is That Book Woman, which celebrates the work of the Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky and has become a classic of children’s literature. It is published in many countries around the world and is part of the fifth grade curriculum in South Korea. Heather’s books are available in the Playhouse gift shop.
8. Holly Henson was artistic director for many years following the death of Eben Henson in 2004. She lost her battle with breast cancer in 2012. Robby and Heather returned from Los Aneles and NYC respectively to help keep Pioneer Playhouse going after Holly’s untimely death, and Charlotte, at 91, remains the backbone of the theatre – and still sings for dinner guests.
9. Pioneer Playhouse has been managing a NEA (National Endowment for the Arts)-funded, life-changing outreach program for 12 years called “Voices Inside at Northpoint Prison,” so in a sense they’ve come full circle. Playhouse Artistic Director Robby Henson teaches playwriting to inmates and works with a NYC theatre to bring inmate-authored plays to NYC each year. Several participants of the program have won the PEN Award for Best Inmate Play in America.
The Pioneer Playhouse’s 73rd season runs from June 10 through August 6 with these shows: “Dracula Bites,” “Southern Fried Nuptials” and “Cockeyed.” On Aug. 12 and 13, the Playhouse presents “Elvis and Patsy Cline Together Under the Stars!” and on Aug. 19, Music Weekend. See show details here. Performances are nightly, Tuesday through Saturday. Dinner and Show: 7 p.m.; show only: 8:30 p.m.