Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Los Angeles Times also ignores theatre legend John Kenley's pioneering, cross-dressing, hermaphroditic glory... but Brett Hudson remembers

Add the Los Angeles Times to the mainstream media outlets that leave the most colorful part of a great person’s life out of the story. The LA Times is a couple of days behind the New York Times in reporting the death at 103 of John Kenley, the Ohio summer stock theatre impresario known for casting television and movie stars including Burt Reynolds, Mae West, William Shatner and Joe Namath in popular plays and musicals.

We were doing a bit of quick research Sunday morning to see if he’d brought The Hudson Brothers to Ohio, when we discovered that the famously-closeted Merv Griffin had outed the beloved Mr. Kenley as an alleged "registered" hermaphrodite, and that the producer lived half the year in Florida as “Joan.”

Neither Times found that information fit to print. We did. His determination to live his life in the Midwest on his own uncompromising terms surely makes him a trendsetter of the 20th Century.

And just a few minutes ago, Brett Hudson phoned our office to sto say he’d read our post about “Mr. Kenley”—who indeed had produced a Hudson Brothers in Godspell in 1977.

Said Brett:

“I couldn’t believe you did an item on Mr. Kenley. We did Godspell in Columbus, Ohio. It was the summertime and it was sold out. And after we finished the performance, my brothers and I would sit in the lobby and sign autographs.

“On the second night after the show, we’re signing autographs and there’s a long line, and John Kenley is in the autograph line, and he hands us a photo and says, ‘Will you sign this picture?’ And we see that the photo is already signed— to ‘Joan.’
We asked him, ‘Who’s Joan?’ and he says, ‘Didn’t you notice? I was in line on Opening Night!’

“He was in line-- in full-blown drag! It was unbelievable! You know how you can usually tell? You couldn’t. He was a complete— he was a woman!”

“He was the strangest person. And he was the nicest guy. He loved great theatre. He had such passion for the theatre. And when I found out that he’d died, I teared up a little. With his passing, you lose that passion, that Old School passion.

“Working for John Kenley was a pleasure. He loved what he did. He was a wonderful person. A great guy. And yeah, a great gal!"

Performers were known as The Kenley Players. Paul Lynde is said to have been the most popular. There's a website seeking out surviving Players.

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