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John Kenley
Born (1906-02-20)February 20, 1906
Denver, Colorado,
United States
Died October 23, 2009(2009-10-23) (aged 103)
Cleveland, Ohio,
United States
Occupation Theatrical producer

John Kenley (February 20, 1906 – October 23, 2009)[1] was an American theatrical producer who pioneered the use of television stars in summer stock productions.[2][3] In 1950, he was the first producer to desegregate live theater in Washington, DC.[4] In 2004 he was made an Honorary Life Member of Actors' Equity for his contributions to American theater. His Kenley Players company was described by Variety magazine as "the largest network of theaters on the straw-hat circuit."

Early lifeEdit

Kenley was born John Kremchek to Ana Machuga and John Kremchek Zyanskovsky[5] in Denver, Colorado. His father, a Slovakian saloon owner, baptized him as Russian Orthodox. Kenley made his stage debut[2] singing in church in both Russian and English, and was given a solo part at age 4.[5] His family had moved several times ahead of the spread of prohibition, finally settling in Erie, Pennsylvania.[5]

Performing careerEdit

After graduating high school at 16,[5] he moved to Cleveland and landed a job as a choreographer for a burlesque show despite his lack of training. “I taught the girls silly simple routines,” he later recalled, “As I taught them, I got pretty good.”[6][7]

Three years later he moved to New York and landed a part as an acrobat in John Murray Anderson’s Greenwich Village Follies.[8] With the signing of his first performance contract John Kremchek became known as John Kenley.[5] Throughout the 1920s he played the vaudeville circuit, singing, dancing, and doing impersonations of Al Jolson, Maurice Chevalier, Beatrice Lillie and Ethel Barrymore.

From 1928[9] to 1940 Kenley worked as producer Lee Shubert’s assistant. Amidst the approximately 1000 scripts he read in that decade, he discovered such hits as Lillian Hellman’s first play, The Children’s Hour, and William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life.

Producing careerEdit

From 1928[9] to 1940 Kenley worked as producer Lee Shubert’s assistant. Amidst the approximately 1000 scripts he read in that decade, he discovered such hits as Lillian Hellman’s first play, The Children’s Hour, and William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life.

During World War II he joined the Merchant Marines and served aboard the SS Andrew Furuseth. Purser-Pharmacist’s mate Kremchek participated in a number of harrowing exploits including the support of Allied landings in Southern France. When a convoy of 30 ships came under attack, he was aboard one of only eight that remained afloat. His practical jokes and quirky humor aboard ship earned him the nickname, "The Storm Petrel of the Merchant Marines".[10]

Unable to find stage work in New York after the war, Kenley would come to earn his greatest fame not as a performer, but as a producer; not on Broadway, but in the entertainment-deprived towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio. It 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. A memorable production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street played at the latter theatre in 1950. It starred Susan Peters as the invalid Elizabeth Barrett. Peters was a former MGM starlet who had been paralyzed from the waist down in a hunting accident. Peters delivered her lines from a sofa which was repositioned in every act to give the illusion of movement.

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".[11] His Kenley Players company brought the great shows of the era to the stages of Ohio, in Akron, Dayton, Columbus, Toledo, Cleveland and Warren. Many of the shows would also travel to an associated theatre in Flint, Michigan. Kenley would often be seen riding his bike backstage in these giant old theaters. And when bored, he enjoyed putting make-up on his dog, Sadie. If a gimmick was needed to keep a company alive that long in a state 500 miles from Broadway, well Kenley came up with a winner. He gathered the great film and TV actors of the time to appear in his productions. While this type of star casting is commonplace today, 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, Karla DeVito and Robert Ozn (billed as Robert M. Rosen) in Pirates of Penzance and Robby Benson in Evita, to name just a few. More traditional Broadway stars also appeared regularly, such as John Raitt in Man of La Mancha, Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam and Tommy Tune in Pippin.

Kenley died on October 23, 2009 of pneumonia at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.[1]

Personal lifeEdit

Kenley was intersex, according to Griffin[12]:75 and Barbara Eden. Eden recalled him confiding in her that his parents had concluded "it would be easier for him to go through life as a male rather than as a female," and that he spent the theater season in Ohio and the off season living in Palm Springs as a woman named Joan.[13] In his unpublished memoirs, Kenley writes, "People have often wondered if I am gay. Sometimes I wished I was. Life would have been simpler. Androgyny is overrated."[14]


Kenley is credited with introducing professional live theater to the Midwest, laying the groundwork for national tours of Broadway productions.[3] Dorothy Kilgallen in 1964 devoted a The Voice of Broadway column to the Kenley Players, writing that Broadway producers should spend "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.”[3] He "pioneered the notion of putting TV stars in summer stock years before everyone started doing it."[2] In 1950, he broke the color line in Washington DC, bringing a production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street to Washington and advertising that all seats were "available to any paying customer, without regard for race."[5] Washington was at the time "without professional theater because, in response to segregationist seating policies, the Actors Equity union would not allow its members to perform there,"[5] and police showed up on opening night expecting a riot. After a sold-out, trouble-free two-week engagement, Kenley was "feted in the local media, with civil-rights pundits lauding the nobility of his groundbreaking production."[5]

In 2004, Actors' Equity awarded Kenley an Honorary Life Membership, calling out his "extraordinary contribution to the American theater"[15] and describing him as having "refined and ultimately defined the golden days of Equity Summer Stock."[15]


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Summer Theater Producer John Kenley Dies at 103". Backstage. October 30, 2009. Retrieved January 11, 2016. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Brown, Tony (October 29, 2009). "John Kenley, legendary Ohio impresario, dead at 103: Obituary". Plain Dealer. Retrieved January 11, 2016. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Tonguette, Peter (July 2015). "Those Summer Nights: The Rollicking Good Times of the Kenley Players". Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved January 11, 2016. 
  4. "Producer John Kenley dies at 103". Variety. Retrieved 11 January 2016. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Gill, Michael (April 2003). "Most Valuable Players". Cleveland Magazine. Retrieved January 11, 2016. 
  6. Grossberg, M. (2004-04-18). "The Echoes of Applause". The Columbus Dispatch. 
  7. McPhearson, Tina. "John Kenley". Retrieved 11 January 2016. 
  8. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". Variety magazine. 1974-03-20. p. 73. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (October 30, 2009). "John Kenley, Who Took Big Stars to Small-Town Stages, Dies at 103". New York Times. Retrieved January 11, 2016. 
  10. Morris, T. (1995-07-14). "John Kenley; On With the Show". Dayton Daily News. 
  11. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". Variety. 1983-08-31. p. 110. 
  12. Griffin, Merv (1980). Merv: An Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0671227645. 
  13. Eden, Barbara; Leigh, Wendy (2011). Jeannie: Out of the Bottle. Random House. ISBN 9780307886958. 
  14. Morris, T. (1995-07-14). "John Kenley; On With the Show". Dayton Daily News. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Actors’ Equity Award Honorary Life Membership to John Kenley". Theatre News. February 19, 2004. Archived from the original on July 7, 2015. Retrieved January 11, 2016. 

Further readingEdit

  • Variety: 5/13/1964; 9/9/1981; 6/13/1984, p. 89; 8/15/1984, p. 90; 8/13/1986; 9/10/1986, p. 101.
  • Hirsch, Foster. (1998). The Boys from Syracuse: The Schuberts' Theatrical Empire. Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Morris, T. "Stage Left: Losses Knock Kenley Players Back on the Sidelines". The Dayton Daily News, March 24, 1996.
  • Musarra, R. "Packed House Helps Kenley Mark Birthday". The Akron Beacon Journal, February 23, 1995.
  • Nichols, J. "Kenley Players Returning After 12-Year Absence". The Dayton Daily News,March 10, 1995.

External linksEdit

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