DANVILLE — The sun was setting as the lights came up on opening night for the 2012 season at Pioneer Playhouse.
Patrons in line at the box office talked about how many of the summer stock theater’s 62 previous seasons they had attended. They exchanged smiles and handshakes with theater staff, including members of the Henson family, whose patriarch, the late Eben Henson, known affectionately as The Colonel, built and then ran the theater for five decades.
They danced to a band and got ready to laugh at the goofy season opener, Dracula Bites. Even Ernie Brown Jr., The Turtleman of Animal Planet’s Call of the Wildman fame, posed for pictures with fans.
At one point, he was mere feet from a memorial display for the person missing this opening night: Holly Henson, the artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse, who had died less than two weeks earlier after a long battle with breast cancer.
Many of those handshakes were held a few extra seconds with words of condolence and praise for the daughter who carried on her father’s theatrical dream after his death in 2004. At least one patron burst into tears when he heard the news for the first time upon arriving at the theater.
This is what it looks like as the show goes on in Danville.
“She was actually worried she was going to go this week, opening week,” Henson’s sister, Heather Henson, said the day before opening night. “She didn’t want her own passing to mess up the week.”
But it could not help but have an effect. A grand tradition of Pioneer Playhouse’s opening nights is a speech from the artistic director, and even as night fell, there seemed to be some question as to who would give that address until Heather announced she and her brother Robby would do it together.
“This theater is about history, this theater is about family, this theater is about comedy, and sometimes this theater is about tragedy,” Robby told the nearly sold-out crowd. “That did happen this week, but we are going on. The theater will go on strong, the family will go on strong.”
As he spoke, Robby was backed by his sister and her family; his brother, Eben Henson Jr.; their mother, Charlotte; cousin and Playhouse mainstay Eben French Mastin; and Holly’s husband, Tom Hansen, who moved to Kentucky with his wife last year after many years of living separate summers while he stayed in Minneapolis and she came home to direct the theater.
“It was a choice,” Hansen said the day before opening night. “I could get divorced or move to Kentucky with her.”
Hansen had to come to the realization most of the Henson in-laws have had, that sometimes they would have to play second fiddle to a summer stock theater. Hansen is a talent agent who met his wife as she was performing stand-up comedy around the country, including at Lexington’s Comedy Off Broadway.
“She could have been famous,” Hansen says of her comedic career, which included film and television work. “But she loved this theater and she wanted to carry on her father’s dream.”
Now Hansen seems intent on helping his in-laws carry on, both through his talent in the kitchen cooking for the theater guests and his show-business expertise.
“It’s my love’s love,” he says, explaining his commitment to the theater.
Family and friends say Holly Henson was just like her dad, certain and stubborn and hard-working. But they also say there were key differences that allowed her to put her own mark on the theater. The Colonel operated the Playhouse with Depression-era frugality, but her philosophy was you have to spend money to make money, and she dedicated funds to improving the theater’s infrastructure.
Longtime Playhouse actress Patricia Hammond noted that attendance rose at the theater during Holly’s tenure. “She spent money because there was money to be spent,” she said.
Holly Henson also created the Raintree County Festival, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the filming of the movie in Danville. That led to having a local history play on the bill each year.
“She wanted that for the community,” says Mary Joe Bowling, who co-chaired the festival committee with Henson.
Hammond, like many, expects Robby Henson, a Los Angeles-based film director, to take the theater’s reins, though he hopes for a more collective effort.
“I think the era of the Playhouse having one figurehead running it is coming to an end,” he says. “I hope everyone will get involved.”
“It’s hard to look anywhere here and see something that doesn’t remind you of Holly,” actor Daniel Hall Kuhn says, standing backstage.
Robby reflects, “She loved stars. She put that star out there,” he adds, motioning toward the big yellow Pioneer Playhouse star in the garden in front of the theater.
And on opening night, as the lights went up on the theater’s 63rd season, the stars rose above the Pioneer Playhouse.