Inducted into the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame, August 3, 2013.
John Kenley was a showman and a theatre impresario. He was the Midwest's answer to P.T. Barnum and David Merrick. Through John, we were all able to see the original Broadway stars in their awarding-winning shows right here in our hometown. Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, Robert Preston in The Music Man and Joel Grey in Cabaret. All because of one man.
He was born John Kremchek in 1906 in Denver, Colorado. In 1921 his family moved to New Jersey, then to Pennsylvania. At age 15, John dropped out of high school to seek stardom in the big city of Cleveland. He soon landed a job as a choreographer for a burlesque show despite a complete lack of training. "I taught the girls silly simple routines," he later recalled, "As I taught them, I got pretty good."
Three years later he finally made it to New York and landed a part as an acrobat in John Murray Anderson's Greenwich Village Follies appearing with Martha Graham. Mr. Anderson told young Kremchek to change his name to Kenley where it has remained ever since.
Throughout the 1920s he played the Vaudeville circuit, singing, dancing, and doing impersonations of not only Al Jolson and Maurice Chevalier, but Beatrice Lillie and Ethel Barrymore as well. Many years later, he cast Ethel Barrymore in some of his shows that passed through Dayton.
In 1930, John began work as producer Lee Shubert's assistant. During his time as Lee's assistant, he read over 1000 scripts and discovered such hits as Lillian Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour, and William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. According to John, "Every actor that came to New York had to come through me, so we used to all lunch together at Gilhooleys, Sardis was too expensive. We'd walk together down Shubert Alley and call ourselves the Kenley Players, and I've used that name ever since."
John also served our country during WWII, in the Merchant Marines. He was a Purser-Pharmacist's mate.
John was unable to find stage work in New York after the war, and that is when he decided to become a producer - not on Broadway, but in the entertainment-deprived towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio. John's legacy began with a summer stock theater that he converted from a Greek Byzantine church in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, and later in a new theatre in Barnesville, Pennsylvania.
In a 1950 interview with The Washington Post, Kenley described the summer theater he ran in Lakewood Park, Pennsylvania, where theatergoers, many of them coal miners and their families, saw stars such as Gloria Swanson and Lizabeth Scott. "I only charge $1.50 top, which makes some of the other summer managers livid," he said. "I'd rather have full houses every night than be stuck with a batch of empty seats." This marketing theory still rings true today.
The Kenley Players first came to Dayton, Ohio in 1957. One year later John opened a theatre in Warren, Ohio, followed by one in Columbus, in 1960. Over the course of the next half-century, Kenley’s summer stock productions blossomed into what Variety called the "largest network of theaters on the straw hat circuit." His Kenley Players Company brought the great shows of the era to the stages of Ohio, in Dayton, Columbus, Toledo, Cleveland and Warren. Many of the shows would also travel to the Star Theatre in Flint, Michigan. For years, the Kenley Players billed themselves as "America's most exciting summer theatre." At his peak, John produced over 500 productions and those played nightly to SRO audiences in all his Ohio cities.
Always the showman, John could often be seen riding his bike backstage and when bored, he enjoyed putting make-up on his dog, Sadie.
John had a knack for bringing together a wide assortment of talented theatre people and in an almost impossible schedule, managed to produce up to 12 quality productions each summer that toured not only Dayton, but also Warren, Columbus and Flint, Michigan. He had a well-oiled machine with professionals that still work in the theatre today.
He gathered the great film and TV actors of the time to appear in his productions including: Gypsy Rose Lee, Arthur Godfrey, Hugh Downs, Ethel Barrymore, Burt Reynolds, Paul Lynde, Ethel Merman, Mae West, Billy Crystal, William Shatner, Betty White, Florence Henderson, Mitzi Gaynor, Robert Goulet, and Tommy Tune.
While this type of star casting is commonplace today on Broadway, Kenley was one of the first to embrace the concept. Not only were the shows wildly successful, it made for some intriguing cast lists. There was Jayne Mansfield in Bus Stop, Bobby Rydell in West Side Story, Merv Griffin in Come Blow Your Horn, Rock Hudson in Camelot, Robby Benson in Evita, Hugh Downs in Under the Yum Yum Tree, and Joe Namath in Picnic, to name just a few. He claimed that he never met a star he didn't like and was not adverse to changing a script to fit the talents of that star. According to Pat Quinn, a former president of Actors Equity, John did a 1975 production of She Loves Me starring Jack Jones and Anita Gillette. He had Jones close the first act singing, "What I Did For Love" from A Chorus Line, the musical created by Michael Bennett. It seemed to satisfy everyone, at least until a telegram arrived from Michael Bennett!
I had the privilege of seeing over 90 Kenley productions and to work for John Kenley in Dayton from 1972-1976, working my way up the ranks from usher, to ticket taker, concessions, program seller and finally apprentice actress, back stage. Those years taught me more about theatre than all of my years of college combined! Working from early morning to midnight and beyond, I was also able to work alongside some of the biggest stars of the time. I but learned the most from the greatest union men and women how to put on a show! The stagehands we worked with taught us theatre professionalism and those same stagehands and their children now run both the Victoria Theatre and the Schuster stages! It also gave me lifelong friendships including my best friend Jacquie Powell. Jacquie and I began working as ushers together and have been friends ever since.
John was old school and we always walked on egg shells when he was in town. He insisted on professional at all times! I am sure that all of us who worked for Kenley Players have stories we can tell and some we have to take to our graves, but regardless, it was great fun! Many people would ask to meet John and when they asked me to describe him, I would always tell them, "no need to describe John, you will be able to pick him out of a crowd of A thousand!"
In the early 90’s John brought summer stock back to Dayton and another generation was exposed to his artistic abilities. Although these seasons were short lived, John still continued to bring in top talent. Some of our local actors from the Human Race Theatre were afforded the opportunity to work with John during this time, including Michael Lippert, Kevin Moore and Scott Stoney.
The Human Race dedicated the show Getting to Know You to John in honor of his 98th birthday and we all had the honor of speaking with John on the phone and wishing him Happy Birthday. He sounded just like we all remember him, with that rapier wit and devilish laugh!
Only the legendary producer George Abbot had a longer career in show business. John Kenley can boast that he loved every star that appeared for him and they loved him in return. Very few producers can say that…and only one lived to the youthful age of 103.
John Kenley died Oct. 23, 2009 at the Cleveland Clinic from complications of pneumonia. His niece Ethel Franz said that on his deathbed, he asked for a martini! So John Kenley – dramatic to the end.
Had it not been for Mr. Kenley, our area would not be as rich in the arts and theatre as it is today. Because he brought theatre to hundreds of thousands of people in Dayton and the surrounding areas, he cultivated an audience with a love of theatre that has followed through to this day. I can't think of a more deserving person to be part of the rich theatre heritage in Dayton, Ohio than John Kenley. I am and will always be proud to call myself A Kenley Player!
So, let's all raise our glasses and salute the master showman himself. I proudly induct John Kenley into the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame.