Colonel's spirit inspires Playhouse


It was a faintly eerie feeling. Many in the audience Friday at Pioneer Playhouse kept expecting "the Colonel" - the late Eben C. Henson, who founded the theater 55 years ago - to pop around a corner at any moment. They kept waiting for him to show up and tell a joke. Some of the actors swallowed tears as they saw his bicycle wheeled to the place where it rests until it goes on-stage.

The Colonel, who died in April, never did materialize in body, but his spirit was present throughout the evening. Before the media night performance of "Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood" began, board members implored the press to help out the playhouse and keep the Colonel's dream alive.

"Turn Around," a song that matriarch Charlotte Henson recorded and was a favorite of his, was played. Children Holly and Robby Henson spoke to the audience, with Holly Henson reading a page from her father's memoirs. She also was made a Kentucky Colonel - from where the Colonel derived his nickname - and joked about being the "Baby Colonel."


Strong thread of hope ran through comments

Despite a vague sadness that permeated the annual press night, there was a strong thread of hope running through the attendees' comments. It was a hope that the playhouse will continue with the Colonel's children and wife at the helm, and that the support of the community would help it keep going.

Terri L. Carter, of Danville, has been going to the Pioneer Playhouse for four years.

"You come here and you're expecting to see him," she said. "But you see him through all the kids - his mannerisms and the way he talks.

"Charlotte said 'it will be difficult without Eben tonight.' That made me want to cry. But his spirit is all through here - I feel his spirit. I think he is smiling down on us, knows this is going to be successful."

John Robinson, of Danville, has spent 40 years working in various capacities at the playhouse. He did technical work there when he was in high school in the 1960s. His older sister met her husband there. He also trekked to Belize with the Colonel in the 1970s.

He said he's fixed electrical equipment at Pioneer Playhouse as well put together sound designs for shows. His mother worked there for a while after his father died, Robinson noted.

"Col. Henson and my father were close friends," Robinson said. "Col. Henson said he raised me when my father died in the '60s."

He remembered driving Holly, Charlotte and Robby Henson to New York to meet the Colonel many years ago. They didn't know where to find him, so they went to Times Square to see if he might be there. As they were looking, the Colonel walked up and tapped Charlotte Henson on the shoulder. Robinson smiles at the memory, then looks around him.

"I keep thinking he'll charge through a doorway," he said. "It's hard to believe he's gone."

Hammond's mother passed away about a week ago

Pat Hammond, who is in her seventh season as an actress at Pioneer Playhouse, opened the season doubly sorrowful. Her mother passed away about a week ago, when she was in the midst of rehearsals.

"It's very sad," Hammond said after the performance. "But that song by Charlotte was beautiful. I feel the Colonel is very much here. He really is. His work is here, in every board, nail and dormitory room at the theater."

She said it was odd when she first arrived at the playhouse. And seeing his bike backstage - the bike with which he exercised around the playhouse's grounds - is difficult, Hammond adds.

"But Holly's a great girl - she'll be good," she said of Holly Henson's role as artistic director and producer. "And the Pioneer Playhouse has been here so long - it won't go away. We have the Little Colonel," Hammond added, gesturing to Holly Henson.

Eben French Mastin, a second cousin to the Colonel, is in his 11th season as an actor at Pioneer Playhouse. He said Holly Henson had trouble walking on-stage to give the pre-show speech at the Thursday night performance that kicked off the playhouse's 55th season, its first without the Colonel around.

"I was in tears," Mastin said. "I've known the Colonel since I was a baby. This is so strange. I know he'd be proud, though."

Peggy Kanotz, a member of the playhouse's board of directors, said she's been attending productions at the theater for 15 years. She summed up the general feeling for the evening.

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