The New York Times profiles Col. Henson
The name -- Col. Eben C. Henson -- conjures up images from Faulkner,
of a grand Southern gentleman with a hunting dog at his feet.
But one morning last weekend, the stocky, gimlet-eyed 76-year-old could
be found on West 44th Street, up a flight of carpeted stairs, perched
on a wobbly chair in a theatrical audition room. At his feet was a young
actress, who had asked permission to splay herself on the ground, maybe
to give a little more emotional depth to the monologue she was about to
She pouted. She emoted. She made it about 10 seconds, up to "There
was a dead centipede in my tuna fish sandwich!" before the colonel
-- it's an honorary title from the Kentucky legislature -- leaned forward
and politely said, "O.K."
As he had reminded her and a dozen other nervous young actors earlier:
"If I stop you in the middle, it doesn't mean you're bad.
"It just means I've seen enough of you."
It doesn't take the colonel long these days to figure out when he has
This spring marks the 50th year he has packed a summer suit, knotted
his Kentucky colonel tie and made his way to Manhattan from tiny Danville,
Ky., to find eager young actors for his perpetually struggling summer
stock theater, the Pioneer Playhouse.
And despite the damage that television commercials, soap operas and movie-extra
roles have done to the tradition of acting in summer stock, New York is
still the spring destination for stock theater owners. They come offering
little more than a chance for inexperienced actors to flee New York for
the summer, work 14-hour days and act in front of live audiences, increasingly
made up of retirees on the Winnebago circuit.
It mattered little to those who responded to the colonel's annual advertisement
in Backstage, the theater trade magazine. "Basically, you could cast
a show in Guam here," said Richie Nash, who has been trying to make
it as an actor in New York for four years and spent the summer of 1996
at the colonel's theater. "So many people are hungry for work, anywhere,
for anything, as long as they get to act."
In that respect, things have changed very little over the years Colonel
Henson has been coming to town. In 1969, for example, he hired an ambitious
teen-ager from Englewood, N.J., named John Travolta, who spoke his first
theatrical lines at the Playhouse. (The play, written by Colonel Henson
himself, was about a Kentucky doctor who pioneered abdominal surgery.
Travolta's first lines were: "Yes. Margaret Miller was suffering
from pyloric stenosis and at the time of the operation I had no chance
But as part George M. Cohan, part Lee Strasberg, part used-car salesman,
Colonel Henson is also one of a dying breed. In its heyday in the 1930's
and 1940's, hundreds of little theaters made up the so-called straw-hat
circuit, and the plucky "Let's put on a show in a barn!" esthetic
entered American culture.
Gene Kelly and Judy Garland did it in the movie "Summer Stock."
In "The Big Laugh," John O'Hara's novel about 1930's Hollywood,
a future film icon, Hubie Ward, gets his start with the fictional East
Sandwich Players on Cape Cod.
"Does it pay well?" Hubie asks a friend.
"Does it pay well?" she replies. "Pays nothing. But we
get room and board and a chance to act in some very good plays. The best
kind of experience for somebody just starting out."
Colonel Henson offers a lot of experience and a little pay -- $200 a
week for principal actors; $50 a week for people who will mostly work
on the technical side but can try out for small parts; room and board
for those he calls apprentices, who can also try out. He says he has never
made a dime from the theater and in fact has kept it alive with hundreds
of thousands of dollars from rental properties that he and his wife, Charlotte,
"A lot of people ask me, 'Colonel, why do you do it?' " he
said between auditions. Then another actor came in, and he never got back
around to what he tells them.
Somehow, Colonel Henson and his wife have managed to hang on as others
have dimmed the lights for good. James B. McKenzie, executive producer
of the successful Westport Playhouse in Connecticut, said that when he
started at the theater 41 years ago, there were 52 large summer stock
houses with union actors in the Northeast. Now there are three.
Summer stock theaters like Colonel Henson's, which uses nonunion actors,
have fared better because their costs are lower. But Alleen Hussung, director
of professional licensing for Samuel French, the theatrical publisher,
said she thinks only about 20 to 30 are left.
"My hat's off to him," McKenzie said, "and to anybody
who can stay in as long as this guy has."
Colonel Henson has been coming to New York so long that he has outlasted
two of the cheap Times Square hotels he once frequented. Now he checks
in at the Milford Plaza on 44th Street and until recently held auditions
there. He allows himself few indulgences but always calls up Joe Allen,
the Restaurant Row actors' canteen, and announces that "the colonel
is in town." They always find him a table.
Raised in Danville, the son of a pistol-wielding Federal revenue agent
known as Cruel Daddy, Colonel Henson started his theater company after
studying acting briefly in New York.
He returned to Kentucky and began producing plays in a theater at a state
mental hospital while he saved to build his own.
When he built the Playhouse, he scavenged floor boards from a school
and lights from an ice-cream parlor, and he traded four bottles of rye
whiskey for the main timber beams.
This year, as always, he was looking for something that invariably raises
his opinion of a New York actor's abilities: a car.
"You do have a car?" he asked one actor, Jonathan Platt, whom
he had cut off quickly in a scene from Richard II. "Well, good. We
don't pay for transportation, but if you can round up a few other actors
from here to drive down, we can pick up the gas."
He added hopefully: "I feel like you might have a little something
on the ball."
He also told him to be sure to bring dress shoes, a white shirt and a
suit, because costumes are always in short supply.
The season starts up in early June -- 5 plays in 10 weeks, including
the chestnut "Arsenic and Old Lace," which Colonel Henson first
staged at the theater in the mental institution. The actors and apprentices
will pitch in to do jobs that would require a dozen union cards in New
York, from leading roles to lighting to letting out hems.
He says that easily more than 1,000 actors have rotated through his theater
in 50 years, and that he has recruited most from New York. They usually
return to the city -- tanned and tired and full of confidence -- and few
ever make it as actors. The only other notable Playhouse alumni Colonel
Henson mentions beside Travolta are Lee Majors (then known as Harvey Yeary)
and Jim Varney, of the "Ernest" movie series.
This year, Colonel Henson hired three new actors to go with three who
will be returning, and he persuaded four of those who tried out to come
down as apprentices.
"Listen, let me be honest," he told one. "I don't think
you are mature enough in your craft for me to pay you the big salary I'm
Later, at a diner, over a cheese-and-mustard sandwich, he smiled and
seemed happy with the spring crop. "Sometimes, you know, I feel sorry
for people and really just want to take them down to get them a start,"
he said. "People in New York can be very hard on these kids."
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