Barter Theatre began in 1933 with one man's idea to have patrons pay with produce and has grown today into a year-round theatre with more than 160,000 visitors each year.
A Unique Beginning
During the Great Depression, Robert Porterfield, an enterprising young actor, returned to his native Southwest Virginia with an extraordinary proposition: Bartering produce from the farms and gardens of the region to gain admission to a play.
On June 10, 1933, Barter Theatre opened its doors, proclaiming "With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh." The price of admission was 40 cents or equivalent amount of produce. Four out of five Depression-era theatregoers paid their way with vegetables, dairy products and livestock.
To the surprise of many, all the seats for the first show were filled. The concept of trading "ham for Hamlet" caught on quickly. At the end of the first season, the Barter Company cleared $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly, and a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds.
The actors performing at the building were distracted not only by the occasional squealing pig or clucking hen, but noise from the town jail, which was located directly beneath the stage. The jail space was later used as a holding area for dogs suspected of rabies. It was eventually converted into dressing rooms for Barter actors.
Today, at least one performance a year celebrates the Barter heritage by accepting donations for an area food bank as the price of admission. To find this year's "Barter Day" dates, click here.
History of Barter Theatre Buildings
The earliest theatrical event known to occur here was a production of the Virginian on January 14, 1876, the proceeds of which were used for building repairs. In 1890, the Sons of Temperance transferred the building's title to the Town of Abingdon, to be used as a town hall for the benefit of the citizenry.
In addition to offices, the town used the building as a fire hall. Until 1994 a fire alarm was station on the roof of Barter Theatre and sounded as needed at any time, day or night. When the fire siren sounded during a Barter performance, the actors were instructed to freeze their position on stage and to resume the action when the alarm concluded.
Many of the interior furnishings in the theatre were salvaged from the Empire Theatre of New York City before its destruction. When Robert Porterfield learned that the Empire, constructed in 1875, was slated for destruction he was given one weekend to remove furnishings and equipment for use at Barter. Porterfield and his crew came away with $75,000 worth of seats, lighting fixtures, carpeting, paintings, and tapestries. The lighting system at the Empire, designed and installed by Thomas Edison, was used at Barter Theatre through the mid 1970's.
Barter's Smith Theatre
Barter's Smith Theatre, previously known as, Barter Stage II was constructed in 1829 as a Methodist church. After a fire in 1914, only the main building of the church remained standing; it was later used by the Martha Washington College as a gymnasium and a storage area.
In 1961, the building was renovated by Barter Theatre as a small theatre, with major improvements made in 1973 and again in 1985. Additions included a lobby and the Jessie Ball DuPont Memorial Theatre Garden. The unique performance space features 167 seats around a thrust stage. In some seats, patrons are only a few feet away from the performers. On May 24, 2019, Barter's Smith Theatre was named in honor of Steve and Debbie Smith and the Smith family for their loyalty to Barter and the region. Barter's Smith Theatre is favored by actors and audiences for its intimate setting which makes it perfect for innovative new productions, thrillers, and comedies.
People of Barter Theatre
In 1963, President Kennedy praised Robert Porterfield, the founder of Barter Theatre. This is just one of the many acknowledgments that defines Barter Theatre as a theatre of character and distinction. After his death in 1971, Porterfield was succeeded by Rex Partington. A Barter actor in the 1950's, Partington returned as chief administrator from 1972 to 1992. Richard Rose was named Producing Artistic Director in 1992.
Today, Barter has a reputation as a launching-pad where many actors performed before they went on to achieve fame and fortune. Barter's best known alumni include: Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty, Gary Collins, Wayne Knight, and Larry Linville. Read more about the famous alums here.