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Col. Eben C. Henson
  A Dramatic Life Remembered

Photo of Eben Henson taken in front of the Pioneer Playhouse box office by Robert A. Powell during the 2003 summer season.

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(January 27, 1923 - April 25, 2004)

A Brief Biography

Colonel Eben Henson was best known as the founder of Pioneer Playhouse, Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theater which he started in 1950 near Danville, Kentucky 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.

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

Henson was born in Danville, Kentucky on January 27, 1923. 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.

After a stint in the U. S. Navy during WWII, Henson pursued an acting career in New York. He studied drama at the New School for Social Research with the experimental theater director Erwin Piscator and performed in plays alongside Tony Curtis, Bea Arthur and Harry Belafonte.

In 1947 he returned to Kentucky with an unshakable resolve to bring “Broadway to the Bluegrass.” He built a summer stage that helped the careers of hundreds of young actors, including John Travolta, Jim Varney, Lee Majors and Bo Hopkins.

Twice named a Kentucky colonel by Governors of the state, Henson played up the title with his signature string tie and his considerable Southern charm on his annual recruiting trips to New York to audition prospective actors. On one such trip in 1999, a New York Times writer described him in a feature article as “part George M. Cohan, part Lee Strasburg, part used-car salesman” and one of a dying breed. He refused to close his theater during lean years through force of will alone.

When Henson married Charlotte Hutchison he found an active partner in running the theater. Their children are: Eben David Henson, a graphic artist in Danville; Robby Henson, a filmmaker in Los Angeles; Holly Henson, a standup comic in Minneapolis; and Heather Henson, a children’s book author and novelist now living in Danville. He is survived by his sister, Janet Dow, a playwright residing in Woodbury, Connecticut.

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.

The family requests. in lieu of flowers, friends can make donations to the arts organizations of their choice.

Additional information
Henson once served as the mayor of Danville, was a recipient of the Governor’s Pioneering Award and was awarded a permanent star on the Kentucky walk of fame in downtown Lexington.

Additional survivors are daughters-in-law Janet Cox Henson and Linda Ciangio-Henson, sons-in-law Timothy Ungs and Tom Hansen, and grandson Daniel Walker Ungs.

Portrait of Eben Henson taken by Robert A. Powell in front of the Pioneer Playhouse box office in 1969.

To Download High Resolution Images:
PC: Right Click on Photo and Select 'Save Target As' *
MAC: Click and Hold on Photo and Select 'Download Link to Disk'

Eben Henson with Eva Marie Saint during the filming of Raintree County in the early 1950s. It was the last epic extravaganza produced by one of the major Hollywood studios, and Miss Saint was considered as the ‘toast of Danville.’

During the first two decades of his career, Eben Henson made several trips to Hollywood, and worked on various film projects with the seven major movie studios. He is pictured here on a studio back-lot with Zsa Zsa Gabor and Lex Baxter. Eben was a stunt man in several Tarzan movies, and Baxter was the third actor to play Tarzan.


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