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Pioneer Playhouse celebrates its 75th anniversary 

Pioneer Playhouse—billed as “theatre under the stars”—is celebrating its 75th anniversary this summer with a gala, alumni weekend, special performances and kudos from generations of patrons and supporters to the family who started it all. 

World War II veteran Col. Eben C. Henson founded the theater in Danville in 1950 and it remains one of the oldest continuously operated summer stock theaters in the nation. The nonprofit operation has grown from its original location at a theater inside a state mental institution to the 12-acre site that now includes an amphitheater, 19th century village, shelter house, classrooms, dorms, campground and dining pavilion. 

“The Pioneer Playhouse is in our blood,” says Eben’s son, Artistic Director Robby Henson, who operates it with sister Heather. “We grew up here. It’s been a family joy, a family endeavor, a family mission, and Heather and I very much feel that in our bones.” 

Heather Henson, who serves as managing director, says their mother, Charlotte Henson, was the backbone of the theater for decades. She met and married Eben about two years after he founded the theater. Until recent years, the family matriarch sang and played guitar as people dined before the plays began; she passed away in February at 93. 

“In a way, sometimes I think we keep it going for mom, too,” Heather says. 


The people who come back year after year also make the hard work worthwhile. 

“The patrons that come and buy season tickets and come show after show, some of them have been doing that for 40, 50 years,” Robby says. “We actually feel a sense of duty to our patrons.” 

The audience regulars become family to them, Heather adds: “So many patrons say to us, ‘We can’t wait for the summer to start, we can’t wait to see you again in June.” 

Erika Sengstack auditioned for Robby in New York City in 2014 while living there and pursuing acting full time, and was cast in a five-show season at Pioneer Playhouse that summer. She eventually made Danville her home and performed there for 10 years, taking a break this year. 

“It’s iconic, there’s no denying it,” she says of the Playhouse. “When I walk around the Playhouse I feel a sense of history, authenticity, magic. Amazing things have happened there, and it will always hold a very special place in my heart.” 

Harrodsburg resident and Playhouse volunteer greeter Brad Logan says it’s important to help the venue succeed because of its ability to bring people together, regardless of life experience or age. 

Eben Henson’s vision to bring theatrical productions to the region nearly 80 years ago is still alive and well, Logan says, evidenced by countless families, friends and civic organizations he’s seen return to the Playhouse for years, or even decades. 

“It’s a place where birthdays and weddings, anniversaries are celebrated, where couples young and old go to share a pre-show meal and see a play under the stars as they escape from their daily routines,” he says. “The Playhouse is more than a dinner theater. It is truly a treasure waiting to be discovered by first-time visitors and celebrated by returning guests.” 

Danville Mayor James Atkins and his wife, Artie Atkins, are longtime season ticket holders. Artie once performed in the original play, The Infamous Ephraim, written by the late Holly Henson, and now serves on the theater’s board of directors. 

“It’s a historical keepsake for the community,” the mayor says. “It’s a jewel for our community, because it brings in lots and lots of people.” 

He notes that past plays have centered on social justice issues and keeping the history of people of color alive. Overall, the Playhouse provides jobs and internships for area high school and college students, as well as providing a meeting place for community events. 

Over the years, Heather says, there have been difficulties and doubt, like when their father and sister passed away, leaving the siblings wondering whether they could keep the theater going.

Robby says even Eben said there were years he didn’t make any money, but kept the Playhouse going through sheer force of will. His grown children continue to draw inspiration from his tenacity today.

“He was a strong person and a can-do spirit and he really wanted to keep this theater going to bring Broadway to the Bluegrass,” he says.

One example of that can-do spirit: Eben obtained six 60-foot beams used to build the theater’s shelter house by clever trading with a wrecking crane operator working on a nearby demolition. Eben swapped the worker a fifth of whiskey for each beam he took down and loaded onto Eben’s truck.

The Playhouse’s longevity and spirit are being celebrated during the 75th anniversary with Alumni Weekend, June 14–16; and the June 15 Anniversary Gala, with live music, dancing, food and bar. Alumni from all seven decades are invited for a weekend of reminiscing.


Some might consider the day-to-day responsibilities of running an outdoor theater and its outreach programs enough to fulfill a person’s creative passion and schedule, but Heather and Robby have built their own successful careers offstage, too.

Heather is an award-winning author and former HarperCollins Publishers editor who’s published about 10 books for young readers. She moved back to Danville from New York in 2004 to help with productions while continuing to pursue writing.

Notably, her book, That Book Woman, released in 2008, is still in print and continues to sell well, even internationally. It’s been developed into an original play that will premiere this summer at Pioneer Playhouse. 

“It was one of the first books to celebrate the packhorse librarians of eastern Kentucky,” she says. 

After their sister and Playhouse Artistic Director Holly Henson passed away in 2012, Robby, who had been coming back regularly to direct a play or two, returned from living in Los Angeles to help run the theater. 

Robby founded the Voices Inside program, based at Northpoint Training Center correctional facility in Boyle County, 16 years ago. Since then, hundreds of incarcerated participants have used creativity to promote communication skills, self-esteem and empathy, and some have won playwriting prizes— including the PEN America Best Play by an Incarcerated Writer. 

Other prisons also participate, Robby adds. Performances of inmate-authored plays have been held in New York and Lexington, and the program is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Heather says. 

“We get excited when we can allow these underserved voices to be heard outside their razor wire,” Robby adds. 

The Playhouse fosters a love of acting in underserved youth from economically challenged homes through its Young Voices program, and gives a place for Kentucky playwrights to shine with its Kentucky Voices initiative, making a return this year with Heather’s That Book Woman play. 

Now delving into book writing with a debut novel, Loud Water, Robby is traditionally a filmmaker. His films have been shown at Sundance and the Guggenheim Museum, and he wrote and directed The Badge, which starred Billy Bob Thornton and Patricia Arquette. He also wrote and directed Summerstock, a documentary featuring Pioneer Playhouse that aired nationally on PBS.


When family ties summoned him back home to Danville from New York City, where he was a budding actor, Eben Henson vowed to take the theater scene with him. KET’s video shows how he established Pioneer Playhouse. 

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