The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
Holly Henson, who grew up at her father’s Pioneer Playhouse in Danville and eventually succeeded him as director of the historic theater, died Sunday after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 51.
Henson began performing on the 62-year-old theater’s stage as a child and went on to study drama at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., and the Drama School of London. After school, she lived in Los Angeles and Minnesota, pursing a career in film and stand-up comedy. But she usually came back to Danville and the Pioneer Playhouse in the summertime, eventually succeeding her father, Eben Henson, as director of the theater as his health declined and he died in 2004.
Following in their father’s footsteps was a tall order, particularly when Henson, known as “The Colonel,” was still around, Holly’s brother and sister said Monday.
“They were so alike,” Heather said. “They had such strong personalities and strong ideas.”
Those personalities were preserved for the world to see in the documentary Summerstock which Robby, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, made in 2002. It has aired nationwide and is regularly reshown on KET.
“She was the one that was closest to my father in that she was a natural-born show woman,” Robby said. “She was a charismatic performer and a charismatic leader.”
As the the theater’s director, Henson continued an ongoing struggle to keep the the theater going despite finances that were perpetually thin. She told the Herald-Leader in the Summer of 2004 that following her father’s passing, she discovered how much he did in manual labor and pinching pennies to keep the theater going.
“We could have all had easier lives if dad wasn’t spending so much to keep the theater going,” she said. “Generations of Hensons will pay for my father’s folly. … Is it fate or is it madness? I don’t know. We’ve never really cared about money.”
The Pioneer Playhouse was always a Henson-family operation, and while Holly assumed direction of the theater, her mother Charlotte and Robby were also instrumental in keeping the theater going. The other siblings, children’s book author Heather and graphic artist Eben were also involved the theater, as well as other members of the extended Henson family.
Heather and Robby both say that one Holly’s proudest accomplishments was growing attendance at the theater the past several seasons.
Under Holly’s direction, the Pioneer Playhouse worked to form a stronger bond with the Danville community and instituted an annual local history play. That included staging a 2007 celebration of Raintree County, the 1957 Elizabeth Taylor movie filmed in Danville. The centerpiece of the Raintree County celebration was Catherine Bush’s A Jarful of Fireflies, a comic play about the filming that was commissioned by the theater. Henson rewrote her father’s play about local hero Ephraim McDowell, considered the father of abdominal surgery, for a 2009 production.
“That was a great accomplishment for her,” Robby said. “She took my dad’s source material, but she had a new vision for it and made it fresh.”
Herald-Leader theater critic Candace Chaney wrote that the play, The Infamous Ephraim, “is a highly enjoyable, entertaining show whose strength lies in its chronicling of local history as only a local could.”
Henson also instituted school and prison outreach programs and saw the theater through a serious flood that threatened to derail the start of the 2010 season. She saw the outpouring of volunteer help to clean up the damage as affirmation that there was deep affection for the theater in the region .
For much of her tenure, Henson battled breast cancer, occasionally having to hand direction of the theater over to Robby. Earlier this month, the theater sent out a press release saying Robby would be running the theater this season, which is scheduled to open June 8 with a production of Dracula Bites.
In April, Henson went to Minnesota to audition the cast for this summer’s shows at the Playhouse, and quickly became sick after she returned to Kentucky, Robby said. That cast arrived in Danville this weekend to find the director that hired them was gravely ill, though working up until Sunday afternoon, giving instructions on how to brief the actors on the theater’s rules and policies. She died early Sunday evening in her trailer at the theater, a few hundred yards from the stage.
“The cast Holly assembled is here, and we will have a memorial season in her honor,” Robby said, adding that June 8, the show will go on.
Henson is survived by her mother and siblings and her husband, Tom Hansen.
Visitation will be 2 to 4 p.m. June 3 and the funeral will be at 4. Arrangements are being handled by Stith Funeral Home of Danville. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be sent to the Pioneer Playhouse, 840 Stanford Rd, Danville, Kentucky, 40422.
This post was updated at 3:30 p.m. May 28.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich