Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Kenley Players

Man of La Mancha

Program from Kenley Players production of Man of La Mancha

I went on my first real (double) date to a Kenley Players production in Warren, Ohio with tennis buddy Tom and our dates. We saw Giorgio Tozzi, a famous operatic bass, in the lead role of Man of La Mancha in the summer of 1970. I’ve loved that music every since. One summer at a camp, my son, then in high school, and I did a duet in a talent show where I played Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. Strictly a one-off performance!


Cast and credits from Sugar

I went to Kenley Players one other time, in the summer of 1975 when my wife and I were dating. Sugar with Mickey Rooney and Ken Berry was funny, if less inspiring. These days, the play would be off limits–my principle memory was of Rooney groping every woman in the play.

Packard Music Hall, in Warren, was one of a number of locations where John Kenley and his Players staged productions, including Deer Creek, Reading, Lakewood Park, York, and Bristol in Pennsylvania, and Dayton, Warren, Columbus, Akron, and Cleveland in Ohio. Kenley was a pioneer of summer stock productions that combined regional actors with older stars from Hollywood and current television actors.


Program from Finian’s Rainbow

The Players were in Warren from 1958 to 1977, after which the summer productions in northeast Ohio moved to Akron, and then two seasons at Playhouse Square in Cleveland. During many of the years that Kenley Players were in Warren, they were also Dayton and Columbus. The summer schedule was different at each site with some overlap. For example, Finian’s Rainbow featuring Barbara Eden, a play my wife saw in Warren, was also produced in the other two cities.

Kenley lived to be 103 years old. He helped to launch the career of a Canadian actor by the name of Robert Goulet, who became famous a few years later on Broadway in Camelot. The scores of other actors in his productions include Gypsy Rose Lee, Arthur Godfrey, Burt Reynolds, Mae West, William Shatner, and Betty White.

Kenley Players billed themselves as “America’s most exciting summer theatre.” For many of us growing up in the Mahoning Valley, this was our opportunity to see famous stars and talented players in quality productions at reasonable prices (cheap enough for a high school date!). He provided work and a resume’ for aspiring actors. After retirement in 1995 stars like Ann Margaret and Carol Channing honored his work. When asked the secret of his longevity, he replied, “Keep breathing. And don’t die.” Good advice for us all!

What are your memories of the Kenley Players? What shows did you see?

Article sources: The Kenley Players website; John Kenley, legendary Ohio impresario dead at 103: Obituary

5 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Kenley Players

  1. I recently started following your blog, and am never disappointed! Today’s post brought to mind the time when, as a teenager, I went with my parents to see “South Pacific” at the Kenley Players. I don’t remember the actors, but I can still hear the Nellie Forbush character singing, “I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair.” I was fascinated that they’d managed to set up a shower right there on the stage. Thanks for the memory!

  2. Originally from Champion, then Howland, I started my thespian experiences as a local child talent (11 yo) in the Kenley Players – Gypsy in 1969 (Baby Louise), Plain and Fancy (an Amish child), 1970. Understudied for a couple of others. The first show I saw was Finian’s Rainbow with Barbara Eden in 1967. From that point on, I was hooked by live theater. My parents bought a season ticket for me starting in 1970 when my sister worked selling programs and concessions as a senior in HS and I was in 6th grade. I had season tickets for the next five years, sometimes with my mom, but largely went by myself (my mom would drop me off). I still have a three-ring binder of autographed programs.

      • HS and college plays gave way to community theater in Mount Vernon, OH, when I became an adult. I also did a good amount of choreography for local schools and college as well as the Mount Vernon Players. Since retirement and relocation to Colorado, I just enjoy going to the theater again as a spectator. And thanks so much for the link to the list of Kenley Plays. It really helped to jog my memory.

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