Summer Theater Producer John Kenley Dies at 103

CLEVELAND – John Kenley, a theater producer who ran a legendary summer stock circuit in Ohio beginning in the 1950s that attracted numerous Broadway and Hollywood stars, has died, a family friend said Thursday. He was 103.

Kenley died Oct. 23 at the Cleveland Clinic from complications of pneumonia, said Anita Dloniak, a friend and press agent.

Kenley produced hundreds of plays and musicals. His Kenley Players, a summer stock circuit that began in Dayton, Ohio, in 1957, featured such stars as Arthur Godfrey, Ethel Merman, Mae West, Burt Reynolds, Billy Crystal, William Shatner and Robert Goulet.

He later opened other Ohio-based theaters in Warren, Columbus and Akron before moving into the Playhouse Square Center in downtown Cleveland in 1984.

Kenley began acting in New York City in the 1920s and once served as an aide to famed producer Lee Shubert. He became a summer theater producer in 1940 in Deer Lake, Pa., and worked in other eastern cities, including Washington D.C.

In a 1950 interview with The Washington Post, Kenley described the summer theater he ran in Lakewood Park., Pa., 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."

By the 1970s and 1980s, he was featuring TV stars such as Pam Dawber from "Mork and Mindy," who played Eliza Doollittle in "My Fair Lady" for Kenley one summer in Ohio. But the older movie stars were also still active.

In a Chicago Tribune interview in 1977, he recalled finding Debra Paget, a 1950s star appearing in a production for him, rehearsing all alone when he went back to the theater late one night to pick up something. "These stars work hard," he said. "They're an amazing ilk. ... There was a reason why they were stars in the first place."

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