Broadway musicals have dazzled audiences since the 1850s, and this year will be no exception. Whether they travel to New York to see shows on the Great White Way or view touring productions in Cincinnati or Columbus, Ohioans today have many options to experience classic and modern Broadway hits.
But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s, seeing Broadway shows required a trip to New York’s Theater District, which was an exotic experience that few were able to enjoy. Back then, life was more local. Families would watch TV and see movies, but the actors remained two-dimensional. The chances for most people to see stars on the stage or meet their celebrity crushes were slim to none.
Until John Kenley came along.
Kenley — a theatrical producer and former vaudeville performer — founded the Kenley Players, which brought “America’s most exciting summer theater” to Ohio from 1957 until 1995, drawing crowds with lavish productions, low ticket prices, and big-name stars in leading roles.
After touring the Midwest for a decade, the Kenley Players found its permanent home in Ohio. Dayton’s Memorial Hall hosted the first 14-show season, then the players relocated to Warren. Most summers, the shows toured various combinations of Dayton, Warren, Cleveland, Columbus, and Akron.
The performances showcased such talents as dance legend Gene Kelly, singer and Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson, and crowd favorite Paul Lynde. The Mount Vernon native holds the record for most performances, appearing in nine shows between 1969 and 1979.
Kenley’s idea was to bring the thrill of professional live theater to people who might not otherwise see it and spark their interest in other art forms, which it certainly did for Carol Hilton and Barbara Wood. Growing up in Niles in the 1960s, the friends attended multiple Kenley performances at Packard Music Hall in Warren. They even scored an autograph from British actor Noel Harrison, fresh off The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
“There was a lot of excitement with the live music, the singing, and the sets. One of the sets was made up of giant boxes stacked on top of one another, and each box was a different hotel room,” Hilton says. “I was always intrigued by whether the band would be in the back, in the pit, or as part of the set and how quickly the sets would change for the next scene.”
What did it take for big stars to spend their summer performing on the straw-hat circuit? Timing had a lot to do with it, like catching up-and-comers before their big breaks and stars at the end of their careers. It also didn’t hurt that Kenley treated his leads like royalty and paid weekly salaries as high as $35,000, according to a 2006 Cleveland Plain Dealer article.
The consummate showman also knew how to create a buzz with unexpected casting. Some audience members bought tickets solely to see how TV game show host Arthur Godfrey fared opposite movie star Maureen O’Sullivan.
“He would bring people to the stage that you would never expect to be together, but it would work because they had good chemistry,” Hilton says.
Before his role as Sir Lancelot made him a household name, Robert Goulet starred in six Kenley shows — and made quite an impression on Wood and her family. During the 1960 run of Meet Me in St. Louis, Wood’s parents struck up a conversation with Goulet at a local restaurant. Her mother invited him and co-star Jill Correy to dinner while they were in town, which led to an impromptu performance on the family’s backyard swing set, now a family legend.
“I can vividly remember Robert Goulet climbing up the four steps of this little sliding board and sliding down. We had no idea who he was, but all of us kids were just dying laughing because here’s this big grown man going down our sliding board,” she says. (Whether it was Goulet’s natural inclination to perform or a few pre-dinner cocktails that led to the show is unknown.)
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, she is so beautiful and he’s so handsome.’ It just was magical to us.”
After some 500 shows, Kenley spent his final years in Cleveland. His 100th birthday brought tributes from Billy Crystal, Florence Henderson, and scores of other former players. Kenley passed away in 2009 at age 103. He is credited with carving a path for Broadway touring companies and founding today’s thriving arts scenes throughout the state.
Hilton, now of Columbus, and Wood, of Marysville, continue to enjoy musicals, plays, and the occasional opera, holding season tickets at various times. Did the Kenley Players have something to do with their love of live performance? The friends answer in unison: “Absolutely!”
To learn more about out the Kenley Players, visit www.kenleyplayershistory.com.