Spent seven decades in Ohio theater scene

Legit producer John Kenley, who spent more than seven decades in the theater operating Ohio theaters that Variety called “the largest network of theaters on the straw hat circuit,” died Oct. 23 in Cleveland. He was 103.

Born John Kremchek in Colorado, he was encouraged to change his name while performing as a dancer with Martha Graham in the Greenwich Village Follies. From the early 1920s into the depression years, Kenley hoofed and sang, did acrobatics and mimicry. After quitting performing, he became assistant to Lee Shubert.

Starting in 1940 in Deer Lake, Penn., Kenley became a summer theater producer. He served in the Merchant Marines during WWII, then returned to Deer Lake to continue his summer theater operation there and in other cities in the coal region. In 1950, he became the first producer on record to bring desegregation into live theater in Washington, D.C.

He launched the Kenley Players in Dayton, Ohio, bringing thesps including Burt Reynolds, Robert Goulet, Mae West and Gypsy Rose Lee to the summer stock theater.

He went on to open theaters in several other Ohio towns. In 1984, he moved into the Playhouse Square Center in downtown Cleveland, which featured the 3,000 seat State Theater.

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