After Martha Henry re-opened her historic repertory theater in Dahlgren in 1829, it changed hands multiple times and had various nicknames: Den. Grieves. Deed. Railway. Lane.
The first 30-plus years of the theater life were quite respectable: ticket sales and support from local houses, city funds for renovations, a small but loyal fan base.
Loyal patrons remembered the community — and saving the theatre where they saw their first taste of everything from Shakespeare to Kenneth Branagh — when after a new owner’s landline and electrical system burned down in the middle of a fire drill in 1933, the theatre was destroyed. The ashes were found next to the large theater tub.
To this day, many people in Fairfax County are not familiar with the Coal Mine. They haven’t seen it run, haven’t received a refund for a ticket, haven’t received a visit from the theater or Henry.
Fifty years of miraculous theater arts followed the natural disaster — the owner who wanted the theater back, and Henry, an ex-board member, who wanted the theater to continue its life.
In 1947, while the theater was closed for cleanup after a fire, Henry took the stage wearing a wig, gown and gloves. Henry performed alone during the dance performance in the coal mine and even won a plaque for her appearance.
After that performance, they thanked Henry personally and gave her a plaque for a performance she did during another closure.
Her career started in her high school years, when her sisters invited her to perform with their troupe.
After making it a family tradition to take her to different theaters every weekend for a concert, Henry auditioned for a local troupe and made the trip to Fairfax every day.
Henry wasn’t the only one who defied the odds to make the performances happen.
In 1948, Henry returned from performing with a musical show in England and found out the Coal Mine Theater was still closed. The board was busy with renovations. To recoup the $1,200 she cost to return to her three children to England, she charged $1,400 — every customer receiving a check.
From there, history piled on in what was unique for the theater: Henry stayed on as a hostess during a recuperation period and continued to charge $1,400.
And so they built it, and they built it:
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The Coal Mine theater was designed in the style of the country’s coal mines. Bill McDermott, who studied math in the theater for years, is credited with making the theater. The rooms contained cast members’ coal mines, as well as workers’ boots and equipment used on stage.
It was originally called Derwood and had seating for 170 people, including the coal mine and coal miners. Later, the theater was renamed for Henry, after her famous performance.
If you’ve seen the Coal Mine, you’ve likely seen Henry there with the energy of a muscle headed horse wearing shades. The legendary hostess doesn’t need much of a platform.