Pioneer Playhouse founder Eben Henson dies Sunday

April 26, 2004

Eben Henson, 81, died Sunday at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center.

Henson, or "the Colonel," as he was best known, was the founder of Pioneer Playhouse, Kentucky's oldest outdoor theater, which he started in 1950 near Danville and ran continuously for 54 years.

Lacking sufficient funds to build a stage, Henson tenaciously relied on used or abandoned materials. He once traded a fifth of whisky for support beams and often joked that he was the first person to promote recycling. His theater's distinctive gingerbread ticket office was lifted from the set of the MGM Civil War epic "Raintree County."

Henson once described how he built his distinctive 12-acre theater complex: "I never used a blueprint. I would just put up a board and start nailing." That statement stands as a blueprint for his life.


Flags will be flown at half-mast

Danville Mayor John W.D. Bowling said flags would be flown at half-mast for a few days in his honor. Bowling said Henson "gave an awful lot back to this community that people didn't see or didn't realize."

"I guess, y'know, Eben probably didn't get a lot of credit he deserved," Bowling said. "The playhouse certainly was an area in the community that people would visit from all over the state.

"Pioneer Playhouse was Eben's passion, and it showed very much. He will surely, surely be missed. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family at this time."

Kay Berggren, executive director for the Danville Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it was a "sad day for Kentucky" and "the loss of Eben Henson to the community and the tourism industry in Kentucky, I know will be deeply felt.

"He had enormous impact all over Kentucky," she added. "No matter what was happening anywhere in the theatrical arts, he chose to offer his expertise. He worked tirelessly to see outdoor theaters received the funding they deserve."

Important to the growth of tourism

Henson also was important to the growth of tourism in Danville and Boyle County, Berggren said, and he was a personal supporter of her own work in tourism.

"Personally, he encouraged me and supported our tourism efforts," she said. "Not a week went by in the last 10 years when he didn't stop by. I will miss his visits and input very much. If anybody understood tourism, it was Eben Henson.

"His wife, Charlotte, was an unsung hero at the Pioneer Playhouse. My sympathies go out to her and the family."

Berggren added she was glad the Henson children will honor his memory by making efforts to keep the playhouse open this summer. "I also know that now, more than ever, the support of the community will be welcomed by the playhouse."

Rosalind Turner, news editor for The Harrodsburg Herald, fully intends to attend the press night hosted by the Pioneer Playhouse this year, just as she has in years past. "I've enjoyed it, and it has become an annual event," she said.

Henson's presence will be missed, though.

"I think that he had a lot of love for the theater and spent a great deal of his life promoting the theater," Turner said. "And it was evident by the crowds that would come for the opening and throughout the season.

"I think it's a credit for him that Pioneer Playhouse has survived all these years and done as well as it has. I think he was a determined man - he went for something and gave it his all."

The Colonel produced over 300 plays

In a wide-ranging and storied career, the Colonel produced over 300 plays, and worked on and acted in dozens of movies, including "Raintree County," "April Love" and "The Treasure of Matacombie." He served on numerous arts boards and even survived a stint as an alligator wrestler in Silver Springs, Fla.

In the opening season of the playhouse, general admission was $1.80, with student admission $.99. In 1999, Pioneer Playhouse, the first statutory "state theater" in the nation, celebrated its 50th anniversary season. Henson's daughter Holly wrote a book commemorating the playhouse and its history titled "Fifty Years Under the Stars." The 50th anniversary season also showed a season gross that was up $20,000 over the 1998 gross.

In 2000, an endowment group was formed to ensure the future of the Pioneer Playhouse. Former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones, who was unavailable for comment for this story, and his wife, Libby, pledged $20,000. Another gift came from the will of Kathryn Snider. This money was the foundation the endowment, which also would preserve the bits of old Danville buildings that dot the landscape of Pioneer Playhouse's acreage.

Henson was born in Danville, Jan. 27, 1923, the son of the late Eben Burdette and Celia Bloch Henson. His mother was a New Yorker from a tough neighborhood near Coney Island and his father was a sign painter, magician and federal revenue agent who chased moonshiners through the hills of Kentucky.

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