Those Summer Nights: The Rollicking Good Times of the Kenley Players

Peter Tonguette

In 1953, when William Inge's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Picnic" premiered on Broadway, the cast was led by acclaimed thespians Ralph Meeker (as the show's wayward hero, Hal) and Janice Rule (as his significant other, Madge).

In 1955, when the play headed to the silver screen, William Holden and Kim Novak stepped in.

And in 1979, when the Kenley Players took a summer-stock production of the play to stages throughout Ohio, the leading parts went to Joe Namath and Donna Mills.

Really. Joe Namath.

To be sure, the former professional quarterback had carved out a respectable sideline as a performer, having made appearances in a number of films ("Avalanche Express") and sitcoms ("The Brady Bunch").

But still. Starring in "Picnic" was a long way from playing for the New York Jets. In an interview with the Associated Press, Namath admitted as much: "I've never been on the stage in my life and I never dreamed I would until John Kenley talked me into it. . . . I didn't want to appear in a play for three weeks in Akron, Dayton and Columbus. But I was flattered to get the chance to learn something new."

To understand how Namath wound up on a stage in Ohio, start with John Kenley. On and off, for more than five decades of summers, Kenley's theater company corralled familiar stars to appear in equally familiar shows that toured on a circuit including, at different times, Akron, Warren, Dayton, Cleveland and Columbus, and, sometimes, cities outside Ohio; the troupe was a consistent presence in Ohio from the end of the 1950s until the 1980s. "He took Broadway material to the Midwest, where people weren't seeing it," says Steven Anderson, producing director of CATCO and a sometime audience member at Kenley shows. "He would use a television star, sometimes a movie star-usually one who was going through a little bit of a slump in their career-and people would flock."

The homespun quality of Kenley Players' productions-for which Kenley himself, not a professional casting director, chose who starred in which show-seems quaint. But for earlier generations of Ohioans, the troupe offered something of real value: live theater built with mega-watt personalities. And, in an age when national tours of Broadway shows are ubiquitous, the loss of Kenley's inimitable showmanship is surely worth remembering. The summer 1963 lineup, for example, was quintessential Kenley: Among the productions on tap were "Show Boat," starring Howard Keel (12 years after he appeared in the film version), Merv Griffin in "Come Blow Your Horn," and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," with the McGuire Sisters' Phyllis McGuire.

Word spread about the Kenley Players to other backwaters. Growing up on a wheat farm outside of Arlington, Oregon, Anderson saw stars from Kenley Players productions on "Hollywood Squares." "And they would say, 'Oh, so-and-so's doin' 'The Music Man' for Kenley Players," Anderson says. "And I was like, 'Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful to live in Ohio.'"

John Kenley knew a thing or two about being in the boondocks. Born outside Denver, Colorado, to a Slovakian saloonkeeper, Kenley had a peripatetic young adulthood, living in Pennsylvania and Cleveland. In 1930, Kenley, then 24, was hired to be the assistant of legendary producer Lee Shubert in New York. During the decade in which he worked for Shubert, Kenley got to know Fred de Cordova, who worked for Shubert's brother, Jacob. Years later, when Kenley sought stars for his band of players, his friendship with de Cordova, who went on to produce "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, came in handy.

"I think that would have been an in-road for John," says Gina Vernaci, executive producer of Playhouse Square in Cleveland, who met Kenley in 1984.

In 1940, the first productions mounted under the Kenley Players banner took place in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. In 1947, after serving as a Merchant Marine in World War II, Kenley began anew in Reading, Pennsylvania. A winter stock season there folded, reported Billboard, but Kenley persisted with summer shows. Into the mid-1950s, he took his troupe to other outposts in Pennsylvania and eventually Ohio.

Vernaci speculates that Kenley's time with Shubert led him to believe that "the cities were spoken for, but America's a big place. And therefore, 'I'll go here.' " For Kenley, that meant Warren, 15 miles north of Youngstown, which in 1958 became home base for the Kenley Players and the originating point for seasons that rarely had fewer than 10 shows and sometimes as many as 15.

"The show started in Warren at Packard Music Hall, then they would travel to Dayton to Memorial Hall. Then we would come up to Columbus to Vets (Memorial auditorium)," says Elizabeth Langford, who joined the troupe as an apprentice in Dayton in 1972 and later became its props mistress.

The schedule was grueling, with one show leading into the next without a break. "I would do two weeks of a show, and then on a third week, during the day, I would be rehearsing for the next week," says Peggy Elliott, who appeared in a number of shows starting in 1972 and now lives in Cleveland. "So I would have one week to rehearse to open the next show."

Randy Buck, the CEO and executive producer of Troika Entertainment, a touring theater company in Gaithersburg, Maryland, began as a Kenley apprentice in Dayton in 1971. The apprentices, numbering between five and eight in each city, "did everything," Buck says. "Worked in the box office, cleaned the Coke machine, loaded and unloaded the trucks, ran the shows, did the laundry," he says, adding that, in contrast to the stars' "formidable" salaries, most apprentices earned $50 per week. (Kenley told Cleveland Magazine in 2003: "People ask me, 'How do you get these big stars? They must all love you so' … They don't love me. I deal with their managers and pay them $30,000 a week.")

Langford, now Actors' Theatre of Columbus' prop master, saw the Kenley Players as a youngster in Dayton. "Lots of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the big musicals, lots of shows that my mom loved," she says. " 'The King and I,' of course. We did that in high school, and my girlfriend and I got tickets to go see 'The King and I' on stage." Enticing posters hung outside Memorial Hall previewed the entire season. "You could walk past there and kind of look up and go, 'Oh, that would be so much fun,' 'Oh, gosh, I'd like to see that,' " she says. "He did get a lot of big names-(opera singer) Patrice Munsel, John Raitt."

At the end of each show, Langford says, the stars would sit at a table outside the dressing room and sign autographs. "The audience would line up around the lobby," Langford says. "They would come in and they would sign their big program." Paul Lynde, a native of Mount Vernon, was an audience favorite. "He was iconic as can be-in Ohio," Buck says. "I think once you stepped over the Indiana line, nobody knew who he was. But everybody knew and loved Paul Lynde, and you could put him in anything and the show would sell out."

From the beginning, casting was key for John Kenley.

"It didn't matter really so much what the show was-nobody really cared," Buck says. "But you would have these big head shots of these performers. It would be Ann Miller, and then down at the bottom in small print would be, 'in "Panama Hattie" '-which no one had ever heard of, and it didn't really matter, because it was really all about her." Miller, the tap-dancing thespian who starred in "On the Town" and "Kiss Me Kate" (alongside Keel) became a fixture of the Kenley Players, appearing in numerous productions over the years, including "Mame" and "Hello, Dolly!"

The stars had to adjust to life on the road in the Buckeye State-Miller included. The actress raised a ruckus while dining at the Jai Lai Restaurant on Olentangy River Road, according to a famous yarn recounted by Anderson. "She just gave this waiter the hardest time," Anderson says. "This wasn't right. That wasn't right. The meat was too done. The potato wasn't done enough. And finally she demanded to see the manager. And so the manager comes over and he says, 'Well, what seems to be the problem, Miss Miller?' And she tells him. And he turns to the waiter, and he starts to berate him. And he says, 'Do you know who this is? Do you know who this is? I can't believe you're giving her such poor service. This is Ann Miller.' And the waiter-who's like 18, 19-turns to her, and he goes, 'Oh my God, I thought you were dead.' "

The actress, Anderson says, was a "perfect lady" for the duration of the evening.

Most stars, though, were game for the experience. "They had to be-they hadn't even heard of Warren, Ohio," Buck says. "And the nicest hotel in town, by the way, was a motel." Pia Zadora-who appeared in four shows with the Kenley Players, starting with "Promises, Promises" in 1973-describes her Ohio summers this way: "It was very muggy. A lot of flies. But it was really pretty."

In 1976, Tim Lucas-the future editor and publisher of Video Watchdog-was a journalist traveling from his home in Cincinnati to Dayton to interview Vincent Price, who was then starring in "Damn Yankees." Observing Price behind the scenes, Lucas remembers making note of the way the actor devoted "all of his attention and energy and enthusiasm" to the production. He adds, "I always thought that actors who get into their careers, who start out theatrically … and then get sort of caught up in a career that's based around camera, how liberating it must have felt for them to have outlets like the Kenley Players."

While some of Kenley's casting was wonky-"Mork & Mindy's" Pam Dawber as Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady"-much of it was spot on. Who could argue with Gene Kelly in "Take Me Along"? "John always said to me, 'You know, there has to be a chemistry between the title of the show and the name of the star,' " says Broadway producer Manny Kladitis, who started as an apprentice in 1965 and eventually became Kenley's assistant.

Celebrity impressionist Rich Little jumped at the chance to appear in "Promises, Promises," partly because his role-the equivalent of the part Jack Lemmon played in "The Apartment," the film that inspired the musical-suited his persona. " 'Promises, Promises' was perfect for me, for my type of humor," Little says, adding, "It's got such great songs in it. My gosh, that was some of the best by Burt Bacharach and Hal David."

One number called for Little to retrieve a bowler hat from the desk at which he was seated. "In the second act one night, I opened up the drawer and there was no hat," Little says, and after he yelled offstage that the prop was missing, his co-star Zadora emerged from the wings. "And Pia came on with the hat and did like a 3- to 5-minute dance routine around the stage with the hat and then presented it to me and got a big applause and sort of enhanced her career for the moment."

Such mishaps notwithstanding, just how good were the Kenley Players? Kladitis commends the shows' production values. "At that time, there were a lot of rental houses, so you were able to rent original costumes," Kladitis says. "And he had a fully equipped scenery shop that made as complicated scenery as the shows needed. He did not go on the cheap." Which is not to say there were no artistic compromises, as in the final show of Buck's first season. Kenley had hired Barbara Eden to play Maria in "The Sound of Music." Apart from the jarring quality of the star of "I Dream of Jeannie" singing "My Favorite Things" and "Do-Re-Mi," there was another small problem. "I think she was six or seven months pregnant at the time," Buck says. "And there she was playing Maria the nun, visibly pregnant. But John wasn't about to let her out of her contract."

Anderson remembers being disappointed when, new to Columbus in 1977, he took in "Camelot," starring Rock Hudson as King Arthur. "It was like seeing it at the Horseshoe," Anderson says of the vast auditorium at Vets Memorial. "It was like, 'They tell me that's Rock Hudson down there.'"

Yet sometimes the shows surprised. In 1986-when the Kenley Players last stopped in Columbus-Anderson went to see Mariette Hartley in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music." "We went to laugh at her," he says. "I hate to admit it." But, Anderson continues, "she wasn't half bad. We had to kind of eat our words. And that was what would happen with the Kenley shows."

In 1978, the Kenley Players moved from Warren to Akron, but by the late 1980s, the troupe was on the wane-the equivalent of house lights slowly fading. Patricia Donovan, who worked as a lighting designer, electrician and carpenter with the Kenley Players in those years, says Kenley was not able to keep pace with the salaries his stars could find elsewhere. "They were getting offers that were far more money than what Kenley could pay, because one of his things was, he was trying to keep his ticket prices down into a range that the average person could afford them," Donovan says. "I don't think his ticket prices ever went up to over $25." Kenley died in 2009 at the age of 103; he'd lived in Cleveland for many years.

The Kenley Players may be gone, but the troupe's legacy remains in surprising ways. Anderson credits its success with laying the groundwork for audiences appreciating more sophisticated offerings. "Because it made theater something that would make you feel as though you had attended a cultural event," Anderson says, adding, "And then, once they get that under their belt, then perhaps they try the ballet or the opera or even the symphony pops. It was absolutely everyman theatre. It wasn't snobbish in any way, shape or form."

In 1964, syndicated New York theatre writer Dorothy Kilgallen devoted one of her columns to the Kenley Players. She urged hotshot producers on Broadway to journey west for "a few pleasant days in Warren, Ohio. … There is a man out there who knows how to get people into the theater-and in show business, that's Trick 1."

To Kilgallen, Kenley summed up his mantra succinctly: "Give people stars and good vehicles, and make it easy for them to go to the theater. Then you sit back and watch them become addicted."