Pioneer Playhouse Celebrates 75 Years Under the Stars

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville, Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre, will be celebrating 75 years in the Bluegrass this summer with crowd-pleasing comedies, a musical extravaganza, and a special 75th Anniversary Gala, all beginning on June 7, 2024.

“We’ve been gearing up for the whole year, and now summer is just around the corner,” says Heather Henson, managing director of the historic theatre her father, Eben C. Henson, founded in 1949. “Of course, it’s bittersweet because we lost our remarkable mother who was the heart and soul – and the backbone – of Pioneer Playhouse. She was so looking forward to this summer.”

(The crowd gives a standing ovation during the 2023 play Farce of Nature)

Charlotte Henson, 93, producer and owner of Pioneer Playhouse, died on February 13 of this year. She had worked side by side with her husband, Eben, nearly from the beginning, and had continued her husband’s legacy after he died in 2004.

“Mom was known as the Energizer Bunny,” says son Robby Henson, artistic director of the theatre, “Former mayor, Mike Perros, had dubbed her the Iron Butterfly because she ran the theatre with a firm hand, seemed to be everywhere at once, and was a gracious and beautiful person.”

“The season will be in her honor,” says Heather. “We know she’s watching over us.”

(Actor Lee Majors, on the left, poses for a photo outside the Pioneer Playhouse during a summer he spent acting there on stage)

Pioneer Playhouse’s 75th anniversary season will begin with The 39 Steps (June 7-June 29), a two-time Tony-award-winning comedy based on the Hitchcock movie.

“The 39 Steps is one of our favorite shows,” says Robby. “We did it twelve years ago, and audiences loved how zany it is. Kind of like Hitchcock meets Monty Python. A mystery, lots of crazy characters running around stage, and some good old-fashioned romance.”

In the second slot will be That Book Woman (July 2-20), Kentucky Voices world premiere original honoring a beloved piece of Kentucky history: the Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky.

“This is the first Kentucky Voices play we’ve produced since before Covid,” says Heather. “The folks at First Southern National Bank helped us revive the popular series of plays celebrating Kentucky.

That Book Woman, the play, was adapted by Holly Hepp-Galván, an award-winning playwright who cowrote the popular Angela Correll trilogy of novels for the stage.

“My story is about one family in Appalachia and the impact one remarkable book woman has on their lives,” says Henson. “As a children’s book, it’s become a bit of a classic and still sells around the country and around the world. I get letters from kids in Japan and South Korea about That Book Woman. It’s a story that resonates with lots of people.”

In conjunction with the play, Pioneer Playhouse will be working with the Boyle County Public Library on an exhibit of historical photos and mementos about the Pack Horse Library Program. The exhibit will be in the Georgia DeAurajo Gallery for the month of July.

“We’ve also cast kids from the community in the play,” says Heather. Cal will be played by Warner Wiles, 12, and his brother, Oliver, 8, will play Nate. Aaliyah Love, 12, will be Lark and Reia Frey, 8, will be Dolly.

“There are a lot of talented young thespians in this community, and we’re excited to get a few on our stage,” says Heather.

Next in the summer lineup is Fireflies (July 23-August 10), a comedy about finding love when you least expect it.

“It’s a fairly new play,” says Robby, “we randomly picked it out of a list of funny, heartfelt plays and we were just delighted by it. It’s something a little different. An older woman possibly falling for a drifter just passing through. Is he a con man or is he for real?”

Pioneer Playhouse is also offering something a little different this year: its 75th Anniversary Gala on June 15.

“No show that night, just a big glam and glitzy party,” says Robby. “Comedian Joe Deuce will be our MC, and Michael Fly and the Sounds will provide the dance music. We’ll have alumni sharing memories of their time at the Playhouse, and we’ll be giving out awards and door prizes. It’s going to be a blast.”

(Robby Henson and Heather Henson)

The 75th Anniversary Gala on June 15 from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm is sponsored by Farmers National Bank. There will be dinner, drinks, and a bar serving alcohol to those 21 years and older. The cost is $75 per person and may be purchased online or through the box office.

While the regular play season ends on August 10, Pioneer Playhouse in conjunction with Shindig Music Production will once more offer a musical extravaganza as it’s closer for 2024.

We Three Kings: An Elvis Experience (August 15, 16, 17) will take the audience on a musical journey through four iconic Elvis Presley eras.

“Three different Elvis tribute artists, four different eras, plus a live band,” says Robby. “We’ve found over the years that Playhouse fans love Elvis, and this is perfect for them.”

As always, dinner is an option before the show – both for the plays and for the Elvis production.

“We’ve gone back to our BBQ pulled pork or pulled chicken with lots of sides because folks missed it,” says Heather. “It’s an incredible deal. Only $40 for dinner and show; $22 for show only. It’s really a perfect, and affordable, night out in Danville.”

Pioneer Playhouse is located at 840 Stanford Road in Danville. Dinner is served nightly Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30 pm while the show is at 8:30 pm. Reservations are required for dinner; suggested for the show. Tickets can be purchased online at pioneerplayhouse.com or by calling the box office at 859-236-2747.

Shows are performed outside only. Bring a raincoat and umbrella for light rain. If the show is canceled due to severe weather, rainchecks will be given.