John Kenley

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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.


Born John Kremchek, in the winter of 1906, his early childhood was spent in Denver. His father, a Slovakian saloon owner, baptized him as Russian Orthodox and by age 4 he was singing in church, in both Russian and English. The theater bug had found him in Colorado, and fate would not strand him in the Rockies. By 1921 his family had moved to New Jersey, then to Pennsylvania. John, at age 15, dropped out of high school to seek stardom in the big city: 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.” [2]

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.[3] With the signing of his first performance contract John Kremchek became known as John Kenley. 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.

1930s – 1950s[edit]

From 1930 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".[4]

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, PA., and later in a new theatre in Barnesville, PA. 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.

1960s onward[edit]

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".[5] 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.

Griffin fondly recalls his 1963 appearance and remembers being taken aback by what he did not know was an opening night tradition. At the cast party, the first dance was reserved for Mr. Kenley, and the play’s leading man. Indeed, in his 1980 autobiography, Griffin puts in print what had frequently been rumored by many and known as fact by few, "John Kenley is a registered hermaphrodite".[6] For his part, Kenley’s retort was, "I’m not even a registered voter," but there are many now who state that Kenley spent many a theatrical off-season in Florida as a woman, Joan.[7] 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."[8]

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


  1. ^ a b "Summer theater producer John Kenley dies at 103". Retrieved 2009-10-29. [dead link]
  2. ^ Grossberg, M. (2004-04-18). "The Echoes of Applause". The Columbus Dispatch. 
  3. ^ Variety. 1974-03-20. p. 73.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ Morris, T. (1995-07-14). "John Kenley; On With the Show". Dayton Daily News. 
  5. ^ Variety. 1983-08-31. p. 110.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  6. ^ Griffin, Merv and Peter Barsocchini (1980). Merv: An Autobiography. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-22764-5. 
  7. ^ Eden, Barbara and Wendy Leigh (2011). Jeannie out of the Bottle. HarperCollins. p. 214. 
  8. ^ Morris, T. (1995-07-14). "John Kenley; On With the Show". Dayton Daily News. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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 links[edit]