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Summer raises the curtain on Kentucky’s outdoor theaters. Could this be their final act?

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Summer raises the curtain on Kentucky’s outdoor theaters. Could this be their final act?

Jun 07, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Jack Brammer
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Summer raises the curtain on Kentucky’s outdoor theaters. Could this be their final act?
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The scene at Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, which this summer celebrates its 75th season. (Photo provided)

Pioneer Playhouse in Danville will lift the curtain this weekend on its 75th season of staging plays under the stars. It is the oldest outdoor theater in Kentucky, and unlike several others, has survived many challenges.

The weather is always a challenge. So are the economy and fierce competition for entertainment dollars. The COVID-19 pandemic crippled several outdoor theaters in Kentucky but Pioneer Playhouse remained open.

Another blow to Pioneer Playhouse is the death of one of its co-founders, Charlotte Henson, in February at age 93. She shared the vision of her late husband, Col. Eben Henson, who died in 2004, to bring Broadway to the Bluegrass. Their theater attracted hundreds of young actors over the years, including John Travolta, Lee Majors, Jim Varney and Bo Hopkins.

Daughter Holly Henson primarily ran the theater after her dad died — and it flourished — but she died unexpectedly in 2013 of breast cancer.

At the reins now are the two other Henson children. Robby Henson is artistic director and Heather Henson is managing director. Their brother, Eben Henson, primarily contributes to the theater with his music. 

The theater also has been guided over the years by a board of directors and influential emeritus board members like the late Gov. Brereton Jones and Lexington businessman and philanthropist Warren Rosenthal.

Summer raises the curtain on Kentucky’s outdoor theaters. Could this be their final act?
Heather Henson and her father, Eben Henson, in 1978. (Photo provided)

“It’s been very hard to keep on going,” said Heather Henson.  “We have a strong network of support but we primarily appeal to an aging population.

“When we do see the younger audience, they tend to enjoy it but it’s hard to get them out.”

She said she is not sure how many out-of-state patrons visit the theater but said an informal review of license plates recently showed that about 70% of the visitors to Pioneer Playhouse are from outside of Boyle County.

When asked about the future, Henson said it is hard to say whether Eben’s and Charlotte’s grandchildren will ever operate the theater.

“My kids love the playhouse but I don’t think they are theater kids, at least not yet,” she said.  “They have seen how hard the work is.”

“When Robby and I are gone, the future of Pioneer Playhouse will be left to our board. We just hope to have a grand season this year. Much has been planned.”  

A 75th  Anniversary Gala is planned for the evening of June 15 with live music, dancing, food and bar. Alumni from previous shows are to show up.  Included in that group are Kim Darby, who starred with John Wayne in the 1969 classic western “True Grit” and Eben French Mastin, who has starred in many playhouse productions.

Attendees to the gala are urged to “think ’50s, Hollywood glam” in their dress.

“We are going to celebrate 75 years,” said Henson. “I don’t think even dad would have contemplated that.”

The glory years of outdoor theaters in Kentucky probably are in the past, she said.

“I still think they are magical places but times change and various problems arise. There are a few like us still hanging in there.”

Where the show goes on

Summer raises the curtain on Kentucky’s outdoor theaters. Could this be their final act?
A scene from “The Stephen Foster Story” in Bardstown. (Photo provided)

The second oldest outdoor theater in Kentucky is “The Stephen Foster Story,” a musical at the amphitheater of My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown. It started in 1959 and tells the story of the composer who wrote Kentucky’s state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

“It’s been challenging but I think we are doing great now,” said Johnny Warren, the musical’s executive artistic director for 12 years. He started as a cast member many years ago.

The amphitheater is in the state park but the musical is run by the Stephen Foster Drama Association, a nonprofit, Warren said. It receives no state funding and will also produce “The Little Mermaid” this summer.

“We’re 10 years behind Pioneer Playhouse in longevity but I think both of us are OK,” said Warren. “Several outdoor theaters have not survived the challenges.”

Even before the pandemic, “My Old Kentucky Home” was concerned about its future.

In 2018, its amphitheater was crumbling. State officials closed it after inspectors found major structural issues and there was no money to make repairs.

A major fund raiser brought in about $1.2 million for necessary repairs.

Warren is aware of criticisms that “My Old Kentucky Home” and other Foster songs present a romanticized, ahistorical version of the antebellum South and the institution of slavery. 

There’s no evidence that Foster ever visited Bardstown or the mansion at the state park, according to The Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh. The composer wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” while living in Pittsburgh, originally titling it “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night,” according to the center which includes the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum

Art is subjective, Warren said, and the musical —  which includes 50 Foster songs and performers in hoop skirts and colorful costumes — is a fictionalized version of the composer’s story. “We are very proud to tell about people who were enslaved,” said Warren. “We are proud of how we do it. We are a play. It’s fiction and we have minorities in the play and in the audience. We try to entertain and inform.”

Shakespeare in the park

Summer raises the curtain on Kentucky’s outdoor theaters. Could this be their final act?
Shakespeare in Louisville’s Central Park. (Photo provided)

The Shakespeare Festival is in its 64th season at Central Park in Louisville. It started May 29 and runs through Aug. 11. Its productions this year are “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Comedy of Errors” and “The Tempest.” Admission is free.

“We are doing great, especially coming out of COVID,” said Matt Wallace, producing artistic director since 2013.  Attendance at Central Park has been running over 25,000 a season.

Kentucky Shakespeare, like other outdoor theaters, no longer is a funded item in the state’s two-year budget but it does receive $20,000 from the Kentucky Arts Council and $10,000 from the state Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. Wallace said Kentucky Shakespeare also raises money through various donations. Donations in the park last year totaled about $158,000, he said.

“Shakespeare is still free and that brings out the crowds.”

Wallace said tourism is doing well in Kentucky with a multitude of ways to spend dollars on entertainment.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear recently announced that 2023 marked a new record year for Kentucky tourism, with $13.6 billion generated in economic impact and 95,222 jobs. 

According to a study by Tourism Economics, 79.3 million travelers visited Kentucky last year, a 4.5 increase from 2022. They spent $1.26 billion on recreation and entertainment.

Other summer theatrical offerings

Summer raises the curtain on Kentucky’s outdoor theaters. Could this be their final act?
Old Fort Harrod State Park in Harrodsburg. (Kentucky State Parks)

Several other outdoor theaters plan to be busy this summer.

The Kincaid Regional Theatre in Falmouth in Pendleton County has been putting on plays since 1983. On tap this summer is “Gilligan’s Island: The Musical.”

Calls to the theater about its status were not returned.

Old Fort Harrod State Park in Harrodsburg has scheduled for the first two weekends in July the outdoor drama, “James Harrod:  The Battle for Kentucky.” It is the ninth year for the production.

For years, the park was the site of a popular drama about Daniel Boone.

No calls were returned from the Kentucky Conservatory Theatre in Lexington.

Hard times come knocking

In the 1970s, the Civil War drama based on John Fox Jr.’s book, “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come,” was staged in Letcher County until it lost its venue.

After many years without the drama, the Cumberland Mountain Arts & Crafts Council in Jenkins decided to bring it back in 2013.

And then devastating floods in 2022 swallowed the amphitheater where the drama was held.

“We’re still recovering from that and hope to get the play going again late this summer, probably on a limited basis,” said Don Amburgey, president of the council and the play’s producer. 

In the summer of 2017, Pine Knob Outdoor Theatre in Caneyville in Grayson County put on 10 shows.

Honus Shain, who started the theatre in 1987, said it closed after two cast members in their 30s died from COVID-19 after refusing to take the vaccine. “I would say it is closed for good.”

In the summer of 1962, Jenny Wiley Theatre produced a successful drama about Kentucky pioneers.

It was a nonprofit that produced shows at both the Jenny Wiley Amphitheatre, located within the Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonsburg, and an indoor venue in Pikeville.

In 2019, the company canceled its performances and was evicted from both its locations by the municipal property owners. Its programming has been replaced by the Appalachian Center for the Arts in Pikeville.

A staffer with the Prestonsburg Tourism Commission said no shows are planned for Prestonsburg.

Twilight Theatre Productions in Aurora at Kenlake State Resort Park in Western Kentucky ended its outdoor productions a few years ago. “The woman running it got sick and that was it, gone,” said a clerk at the park.

Correction: This story has been corrected to say that Kentucky Shakespeare, while not not receiving money in the state budget, does receive funding from the Kentucky Arts Council and the state Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.