The Barter Theatre was begun in 1933 by Robert Porterfield. Porterfield was an actor who returned to his home state and began the theatre with a proposal to pay for admission with produce. Porterfield was among many actors on Broadway when the Great Depression hit in earnest, and struggled to find work. His idea was to bring the artists to an area where farmers were struggling as well, and unable to sell excess produce.
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. (Our History: A Unique Beginning. Barter Theatre. Retrieved from bartertheatre.com/about/history)
Barter Theatre reported that the first theatrical event known to be held in the building was a production of “The Virginian” in 1876. Originally owned by the Sons of Temperance, the building was transferred to the town of Abingdon, Virginia. It was used as a town hall and fire hall. Some furnishings came from the Empire Theatre of New York City, where Porterfield obtained seats, lighting fixtures, paintings, tapestries, and carpeting prior to the demolition of the Empire. The lighting system used at the Barter until the 1970s was designed and installed in the Empire by Thomas Edison.
Among the former actors of the Barter Theatre are Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, and a number of others.