Tuesday, June 15, 2010

John Kenley cast TV stars in Kenley Players summer stock productions

The only things I remember from paging through Pittsburgh newspapers as a kid in the 1960s are the comic strips “Nancy” and “Brenda Starr” and the ads for the Kenley Players.

Kenley Players ads caught my eye because they prominently displayed photos of celebrities, who starred in summer stock theater productions that were presented just a couple of hours away in Warren, Ohio, and later Akron, Ohio.

Teen idols Bobby Rydell and James Darren, pop singers Brenda Lee and Lesley Gore, TV stars Robert Stack and Bill Bixby and aging movie stars Van Johnson and Ray Milland were among the dozens of big names that graced the newspaper ads and the stages at Warren's Packard Music Hall, Akron's E. J. Thomas Hall and other venues.

John H. Kenley, who produced the shows, drew scores of people from Ohio and adjacent states with stars they knew from television, plays and musicals whose titles were familiar and affordable ticket prices.

Critics, however, panned Kenley for putting on lightweight shows which sometimes featured celebrities, who were known more for carrying on conversations with talk-show hosts than for their acting, singing or dancing talents.

I never met John Kenley, but I felt as though I had. I got to know about him - through old newspaper stories - several years ago when I prepared his obituary for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. No, he wasn’t dead yet. I wrote his obit to be kept in the files until his time came.

Major newspapers routinely have obits “in the can” for prominent people, who have reached an advanced age or have been rumored to be in poor health. These “advance obits” provide the background information and an outline from which the eventual obit can be written quickly.

Kenley, who was in his mid-90s at the time, became eligible for an advance obit by virtue of his age.

The impresario had reached the age of 103 by the time he died Oct. 23, 2009.

I didn’t know he had passed until I read his name in a segment on the Tony Awards Show on June 13, 2010, when Broadway paid tribute to theater folk who had died in the last year.

I missed Kenley's obit. I no longer work for the Plain Dealer. I don’t read the paper every day and, when I do, it's usually the online version.

Tony Brown, the Plain Dealer theater critic who had interviewed Kenley in recent years, ended up writing the theater icon’s published obit. It was posted on Brown's "On Stage" blog on Oct. 29, 2009.

Brown had the wisdom to write the obit from his own knowledge of Kenley and inserted some elements from the advance as needed. Only a few sentences from my advance remained intact. Or perhaps Brown never saw the advance and happened to choose the same wording.

Read Brown's excellent obit for Kenley and view photos here.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who was privileged to work for John Kenley from the late fifties on through the Akron years, I appreciated your article and included the link on my facebook page. John was a unique man who nurtured the careers of so many young talents... I miss him!
    Robert Dennis (Vargo) Youngstown, Ohio