You’ve seen the sign “Will work for food”? Well, during the Great Depression, Robert Porterfield thought that was a wonderful idea for his actors. They could get the food they so desperately needed, and the farmers of Southwest Virginia could enjoy quality entertainment. He convinced twenty-two Broadway actors to follow him from New York to Virginia.
Though the building itself was built in 1865, the Barter Theater opened in June of 1933 with the production “After Tomorrow.” The cost of admission was “35 cents or the equivalent in produce.” The first ticket was bought with a little pig! He squealed so loudly that the actors tied him out front of the theater to serve as barker. Most patrons brought produce or canned goods. As you can see from the photograph, somebody brought a calf. It continues the tradition for at least one performance per year when they gather non-perishables for a local food bank. Barter Theater was honored by the Virginia General Assembly in 1946 by being designated “The State Theater of Virginia.”
In case you’re wondering if any of those starving actors ever became somebody you might’ve heard about, it’s possible. Have you ever heard of Gregory Peck or George C. Scott? How about Patricia Neal or Hume Cronyn? Other Barter Theater alumni include John Spencer of The West Wing, Wayne Knight of Seinfeld, and Kevin Spacy of the movie, American Beauty. Robert Porterfield himself played Zeb Andrews in the 1941 movie Sergeant York, and he also appeared in The Yearling (1946) and in Thunder Road (1958).
Ernest Borgnine tells in an article he wrote for California Freemason On-Line: “In 1946, I traveled with a friend down to a little town called Abingdon, Virginia, to see what the Barter Theater had to offer. It offered nothing except hard work and board. My friend, not accepting the work they offered him, stayed one day – I stayed five years. In that time I grew to love the town and all it offered.”
Barter Theater has undergone some major renovations throughout the years. In 1996, the theater underwent a $1.7 million renovation. One thing has remained, however-the 500-bulb chandelier that Mr. Porterfield saved from the Empire Theater in New York in 1953. It has become so popular that it has outgrown its one stage. In 2002, more than 50,000 people attended Barter Stage II (located across the street from the main stage in a building that has served as both a church and a college gymnasium). It was originally known as Barter Playhouse, is currently undergoing an $800,000 renovation to expand the existing facility. After the renovations are complete, it will offer more seating, expanded restrooms, a gift shop and a café.
The Barter Players, formerly known as Barter’s First Light Theater, produces interactive productions and workshops that correlate with Virginia’s Standards of Learning objectives. Productions include “American Tall Tales,” “Edgar Allen Poe,” and “Fair and Tender Ladies,” based on the novel of the same name by Southwest Virginia author Lee Smith.
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once told of “a delightful story I heard told at a luncheon…by Robert Porterfield.” The story told of a man and his wife who’d brought a dairy cow to the theater. The man asked Mr. Porterfield how much milk he’d have to provide for a ticket to the show. Mr. Porterfield told him, and the man went out and milked the cow. When he returned alone, Mr. Porterfield asked if the man’s wife would not also be attending. The farmer said that she would, but that he wasn’t doing her milking for her. The tale appealed to Mrs. Roosevelt’s do-it-yourself attitude, but also to her cooperative spirit and the idea of being able to barter your goods and services for those you lack.
If you happen to be in town for Abingdon’s Virginia Highland’s Festival, be sure to plan to spend an evening or two…or three at The Barter Theater where director Richard Rose opens each performance with Mr. Porterfield’s tongue-in-cheek solicitation: “If you like us, then talk about us! But if you don’t, then keep your mouth shut.”