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Issue Date: April 2003 Issue


Most Valuable Players


Michael Gill

When Loni Anderson starts chasing guests around his Seven Hills home, John Kenley scolds her and locks her in the bathroom. Loni Anderson is Kenley's dog — a medium-sized mutt he accepted as a favor to the curvaceous blonde pinup queen when she was performing in one of his Kenley Players shows about six years ago.

"Someone brought her this mongrel puppy," Kenley says, "but she couldn't keep it and so I told her, ‘I'll keep it for you, but I'll call it Loni Anderson.' It doesn't look like her at all."

In his long theater career, Kenley has met and employed hundreds if not thousands of stars, from vaudeville and Broadway between the World Wars up to the present day. Names such as Al Jolson, Martha Graham and Burt Reynolds roll easily from his lips. And periodically he shouts, "Loni Anderson!" as if the words were a curse that would calm the dog down. In his next breath he offers snacks. Peanuts? Party mix?

"My niece asks me if I have hors d'oeuvres," he says. "I tell her, ‘Yes, I have hors d'oeuvres.' " He pulls a cellophane bag of chips from on top of the refrigerator. "Have you tried these?"

‘Totally Irreplaceable'

Gina Vernase, director of programming at Playhouse Square, calls Kenley one of her favorite people on the planet and a living encyclopedia of stars and 20th-century show-biz history. "He can tell you what he grossed on a show in Poughkeepsie in 1944," she says.

Anita Dloniak, a Cleveland press agent who handles national Broadway tours, considers Kenley a mentor. "John was summer stock," says Dloniak, who attended Kenley Players productions as a child in Warren.

Kenley can talk about his production of "Kiss Me, Kate," in which Mae West, wearing platform shoes, had to run through an alley to get to the stage of a converted movie theater in Pennsylvania.

On his desk are piles of programs from Kenley Players productions. Names such as Gene Kelly and Paul Lynde stand out above the titles. He wears a jade-and-sterling-silver ring Florence Henderson gave him years ago. A Christmas card from the contemporary musical star Robert Goulet sits on the shelf in his office.

Kenley gave the actor-singer one of his early bookings in the United States. Goulet was recently in Cleveland, starring in a touring production of "Show Boat" that stopped at Playhouse Square.

"I appeared in three leads for the Kenley Players in Warren, Ohio, a few years before I went to Broadway with ‘Camelot,' " says Goulet. "After the first night, John came to my dressing room and said he was going to give me a raise.

"I said ‘Oh, you don't have to do that!' " he recalls. "He said, ‘I want to — because I'll never be able to afford you again.' And he was right."

Kenley learned the theater business on Broadway and then applied it in Pennsylvania and Ohio as he founded and built the Kenley Players.

His formula was to attract big stars with big money and pack the seats by selling tickets at moviehouse prices. A headline in the theater publication Variety described his tactics as "circusing show biz." He'd fill 3,000-seat houses with paying customers, in some cases boosting capacity by setting up folding chairs and selling the stairs.

"The firemen hated me," Kenley says.

Yet those who worked with him have nothing but praise.

"He is the most unforgettable character that anyone has ever met," says Reynolds, who spoke via telephone while on location in Yuma, Ariz., where he is shooting a Western. "He is the best producer I've worked for in terms of casting and imagination. And he is an incredibly loyal friend. He is totally irreplaceable."

Comic actor Dom DeLouise praises him as "a man who could go out on a limb and take risks to make great theater."

Kenley Players was a natural as the first resident theater company when the State Theatre opened on Playhouse Square in 1984.

In fact, Kenley and company have a long history of civic groundbreaking. In 1950, Washington, D.C., was without professional theater because, in response to segregationist seating policies, the Actors Equity union would not allow its members to perform there. Along came Kenley.

"I had this play called ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street,' starring Susan Peters, and I took it on tour," he says. "The tour was doing nicely and I didn't want to end it. We had played Baltimore, so I decided to take it into Washington. I rented an old burlesque theater on Ninth Street, bought a big marquee and began to advertise the show."

Advertisements made it clear that all seats were available to any paying customer, without regard for race. The police expected riots and came prepared for trouble on opening night, but Kenley says the only disturbance was the noise the cops made in the lobby.

After the sold-out, two-week engagement, Kenley was feted in the local media, with civil-rights pundits lauding the nobility of his groundbreaking production.

"It wasn't noble at all," Kenley says. "I did it for the almighty buck."

An Ohio governor marked Kenley's golden anniversary in theater with a proclamation lauding him for bringing "superb entertainment featuring a galaxy of leading stage, motion picture, and television stars" to Ohio.

The 50th anniversary in any business typically means the golden retirement watch is coming, and with it the years of armchair reflection on a life well-spent. But that proclamation came from Gov. John Gilligan in 1974, and Kenley was hardly ready to retire. He did write an autobiography almost 20 years later at the age of 88. It reads as if the man were holding court in a café, weaving racy tales of the stars through an immigrant's history of war and peace.

These days, he swims in his own indoor pool, does a little tap dancing and some floor exercises and walks on a treadmill. "And I drink," he adds. "A big stiff Manhattan every night."

The regimen has served him well. Kenley celebrates his 97th birthday this month.

A Star-maker Is Born

John Kenley was born in a Slovak ghetto near Denver in 1906. His mother, Ana Machuga, was a mail-order bride bound reluctantly for someone else when she fell in love with Kenley's father — John Kremchek Zyanskovsky — when her coach stopped at the boardinghouse where he was staying.

¿hough the Social Security Administration and the Armed Services still have it on file, Kenley's birth name — John Kremchek — would last just 18 years, until his first big break in New York.

With four children, the Kremchek family was considered small in his neighborhood. John was the third born. It was an impoverished household enriched by Old World culture — gypsy curses and cures, belief in the evil eye and bawdy songs in the Slovak tongue. His school was a melting pot of first-generation Americans from Germany, Ireland, Slovakia, Russia, Italy and Mexico, along with the descendants of slaves.

Even then, there was a flamboyance to Kenley, what he would refer to later in his autobiography as the "androgynous little me." Kenley recalls that in school he was "never particularly butch" but says no one could call him a sissy because he could always out-stunt the other kids. Sport for him was imitating the jumps and falls that thrilled him in the movies.

Kenley's involvement in theater had begun in 1910, at a Russian Orthodox church. The priest there was a theatrical buff who gave Kenley a solo part at the age of 4.

The family faced its share of ups and downs. One year, a flood devastated the neighborhood, ruining houses and supplies of canned food. The children picked up coal along the railroad tracks to fire up the damp stove. Kenley's father began working as a miner and smelter, but eventually became a saloonkeeper — a career interrupted when he was sent to prison for taking part in the alleged murder of a landlord years earlier in Pennsylvania.

Kenley was 7 years old at the time and says he enjoyed the notoriety. When teachers asked him for details about his father the murderer, he says he would make up stories. After six months, his father was acquitted.

Prohibition was spreading from state to state at the time, and the family moved to get ahead of it, finally landing in Erie, Pa., and switching to the grocery business. By then, Kenley, a high-school graduate at the age of 16, was landing vaudeville and carnival drag roles as an acrobat, dancer and singer.

It was a role that Kenley would play offstage as well.

DeLouise recalls rumors that the producer often checked into hotels as "Mr. and Mrs. John Kenley."

And Reynolds tells the story of when he first encountered Kenley in 1968, when Reynolds' fame was still ahead of him. The actor's manager had arranged for a meeting at the Essex Hotel in New York, where Kenley was staying. "I rang the doorbell. He opened the door," Reynolds recalls, "and I saw these high-heel shoes, rather nice legs and a see-through blouse."

After high school, Kenley decided to move to Cleveland, where he hoped to find work in a burlesque theater. He did get a job choreographing the girls in a chorus line, but it wasn't enough to make ends meet. Without any formal dance training, he says it was a bigger job than he deserved.

"I had no business choreographing the girls, but they didn't know and the public didn't care. They just wanted to see a bunch of girls up there," he notes.

To pay the bills, he worked for the East Ohio Gas Co. as assistant to the field superintendent. Meanwhile, he continued to practice dance steps and saved money for a trip to New York.

"I got on the streetcar with a suitcase, landed in New York and went to the Hotel Times Square — the cheapest in town. All the actors were hanging out in front of the Palace Theater, so I put my derby on and joined them. I was hanging out and talking big like everyone else, swapping lies. To make a long story long, one of the guys said, ‘Oh, you say you're an acrobatic dancer? They're looking for that up on West 57th Street in "The Greenwich Village Follies." ' "

When Kenley went to audition for the show, producer John Murray Anderson — who would eventually direct movies and bring showgirl panache to the Ringling Bros. circus — was conducting a rehearsal. He said he needed someone to sing a song and walk on his hands. The contract was for $50 a week. The ambitious young performer signed it immediately. Upon seeing his signature, Anderson crossed off "Kremchek" and wrote in "Kenley." Though Kenley never made it legal, that has been his name ever since.

"The Greenwich Village Follies" was the hottest show in Manhattan in 1924 and toured the country after its run there. The next few years saw Kenley working as a chorus dancer in two major Broadway shows and on a national tour, and at several gigs in nightclubs and vaudeville. But vaudeville was dying and jobs became scarce.

In 1929, Kenley decided he'd never make it big, that it was time to get out of show business. "You had to have talent in those days," he says.

So he fell back on the typing skills he'd learned in high school. Kenley went to an employment agency and took a typing test, scored 123 words per minute working from shorthand, and promptly landed a job — back on Broadway as secretary/ typist for theater and real-estate tycoon Lee Shubert.

But shortly after Kenley took the post, the Shubert organization declared bankruptcy and had to cut back its staff, especially highly paid management personnel. Since Kenley earned just $40 a week, the company kept him on. His salary stayed the same, but his duties multiplied. He became responsible for railroad bookings for 25 touring productions. He became chief play reader for a company that was constantly presenting new work. He did the casting for all the dramas. He assisted with the booking contracts for the theaters.

"I used to read at least four or five plays a day," Kenley says. "I found ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.' It came right off the typewriter to me, but it was called ‘Bodies in Our Cellar' when I read it."

With more than a dozen Broadway theaters under the control of Lee Shubert and his brother, John, the company produced 20 to 40 plays each year. Kenley had a knack for picking the hits — even when he didn't like a play. He didn't like Pulitzer Prize-winner William Saroyan's work but knew the critics would, so he always recommended it. He told Gertrude Stein, recently returned to the States after years abroad, that American audiences wouldn't understand her style.

In addition to his talent, Kenley also benefited from being in the right place at the right time.

"When John was coming on board, the train system was developing rapidly," Vernase notes. "So you could take shows on the road. It was an expanding industry. At the same time, the number of theaters being built was accelerating. He was there at the vanguard."

Working for just $40 a week, however, Kenley moonlighted by running a 52nd Street nightclub that served as an early showcase for songwriter Frank Loesser, whose later hits would include "Guys and Dolls."

Kenley left the Shuberts in 1940 when he was offered a substantial pay increase —$400 a week — to co-produce an English play titled "Worth a Million." Kenley says the script "wasn't worth shit," but he took the job for the money. The production closed after two months of pre-Broadway touring and Kenley refused to take it into New York.

The budding-but-out-of-work producer decided to start his own company, a summer-stock troupe in a 500-seat theater in Deer Lake, Pa. The theater was available and Deer Lake's location, about 120 miles west of New York City, was close enough to attract big-name talent but far enough to be outside Broadway's spotlight. He raised a $3,000 bankroll by charging his actor apprentices $250 apiece to join. They were promised professional exposure and a chance to work with stars. During his first season, that meant Gloria Swanson, Mae West, Buddy Ebsen and Arthur Treacher. The apprentices also had the opportunity to build and paint scenery, help with publicity and learn other aspects of stagecraft.

On the promise — made by several show-business friends who had left for California's growing industry — that he could "write his own ticket" in Hollywood, Kenley went west after that first season. But again he had to fall back on stenography — a job for James Irvine, the land baron for whom a Southern California city and its university are named.

But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Uncle Sam called Kenley to a Merchant Marine post in Iceland that included voyages throughout Europe and the Pacific.

Kenley reopened the Kenley Players in Deer Lake in 1947, calling together most of his original production crew. It was then that the impresario's legend truly began to grow. In the coal region, where most of the audience had never before seen professional theater, he used famous burlesque dancers such as Ann Corio, Rose LaRose and Sherry Britton to attract crowds.

Soon, he formed a company in Dayton, built a new, larger theater just 20 miles away from Deer Lake in Barnesville, and then opened another in York, Pa.

Alan Alda — then 17 years old — appeared in Barnesville in his first and last Kenley Players production. His father, the dashing star Robert Alda, sought out Kenley's company as a safe place for his young son to gain some professional experience. Kenley cast the teen-aged actor as the young British manager sent to an African colony in "White Cargo." Rose LaRose, wearing dark body makeup, was cast as an African temptress. In the final scene, she appeared before Alda, who had just delivered a monologue about virtue and morality, and — quite naked, as Kenley recalls — spoke a once-famous line: "I am Tondelayo." And then the curtain would fall.

The coal miners, Kenley recalls, loved it.

Eventually, Kenley operated theater companies in Columbus and Akron, but the most famous was his Warren headquarters. As the era of burlesque queens faded, Kenley shifted his style from naughty to nice, but a relationship with "Tonight Show" producer Freddie DeCordova kept him supplied with stars. Luminaries such as Reynolds, DeLouise, Henry Winkler, Paul Lynde and James Garner kept the box office humming. David Doyle, of "Charlie's Angels" fame, performed and directed with the company for 17 years.

DeLouise recalls that Kenley gave him the chance to appear with legends Mickey Rooney and Joan Rivers in out-of-the-way towns. "It was like a vacation," DeLouise says. "The theaters were packed and the people were screaming."

Kenley says, "People ask me, ‘How do you get these big stars? They must all love you so.' " To which he tells them, "They don't love me. I deal with their managers and pay them $30,000 a week."

Changing Times

Kenley is proud that he never borrowed money to produce his shows, and he laments the current state of Broadway, with producers who serve as financial backers and have no hands-on role in the theater.

Today, he says, people who call themselves producers are simply investors. "Now, the producers can't even get you a job," he says. "These days, the average producer on Broadway has never even read a play. They only know revivals."

In his day, Kenley adds, "after the directors got through, the producer would put on the panache." Kenley recalls a production of Neil Simon's "Pajama Game" in which he edited language and added a dance scene to show off his star's skills. His reputation for such tweaking motivated Simon to send letters saying, "Do not change my dialogue, John Kenley!"

Another time, DeLouise was both director and star in a Broadway production of "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." Actors were taking their time with the lines and the audience was laughing, but only politely. "John told me, ‘The people have to pay 50 cents more to keep the parking-lot attendants overtime,' " DeLouise recalls. "So he told me no one can pause before or after their lines. And we cut 35 minutes from the show without removing any dialogue, and the audience loved it."

Kenley has touched every aspect of his theaters. He always served as his own press agent, and says one of his tactics for promoting stars was to call busy restaurants at lunchtime on performance days to have them paged. He even sold tickets in his old box offices.

He says he doesn't see a great future for theater because the talent has followed the money to Hollywood.

"The people who can really write are working for motion pictures and television because the money is always there," he notes. "You could be a very famous author with a play opening on Broadway, but a couple of critics pan you and you close the next night. So you've put in a year and a half on the play, and there it goes. Writing for TV, you get your salary by the week up front. So you can't blame them."

Kenley has written a few plays himself. "Under the Ferris Wheel," a play with music that tells the tale of an over-the-hill burlesque dancer who keeps hoofing, will be revived at the Barn Theater in Westport, Conn., in June.

Considering the future of theater, Kenley also laments that skyrocketing costs prevent producers from risking the staging of new titles. He says union costs and competition with Hollywood salaries mean that what used to cost $10,000 now costs $20 million.

"I offered Tony Danza $100,000 a week to do a show back in Warren a few years ago," he recalls. "A hundred thousand dollars a week and he couldn't make it."

But Kenley says the market is doing quite well in Cleveland. "When you consider that we do not have a huge population in Cleveland and we have five theaters — Chicago doesn't have that. We've done very, very well to keep them busy."

And Kenley certainly deserves some of the credit. "He is revered by all who worked for him and deserves all the recognition, thanks and the hugs he receives," says Goulet.

"Every time you think you have a favorite John Kenley story," Vernase notes, "you visit with him and find that you have a new one.

"I hope we [at Playhouse Square] find a way for John to celebrate his 100th birthday," she adds. "It would be a party not to miss."


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