Barter Theatre

Barter Theatre

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.

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9 Responses to Barter Theatre

  1. socialbridge says:

    Fascinating, Suz.
    Is The Virginian an early version of the one I grew up with?

    • Suzassippi says:

      Not sure, since Owen Wister’s The Virginian was published in 1902. It seems like it would have been difficult to produce a play pre-book, unless Wister modeled his on a play already in use. You have me curious now, so I will have to investigate.

    • Suzassippi says:

      You win the prize for most interesting question! It seems that according to the A Dictionary of the Drama: A Guide to the Plays, Playwrights, players, and Playhouses of the United Kingdom and American, from the Earliest Times to the Present, by W. Davenport Adams, Bartley Campbell is an American author of a play called ‘The Virginian” produced in England in 1876! (And several others as well.) My best guess is that was the play produced in 1876 in the building later known as the Barter Theatre.

  2. What a concept for the Depression years! They needed a laugh. A very interesting post!

  3. Beth says:

    The theater was their escape mechanism – what a novel idea for helping everyone out! I wonder if they donated the produce to the soup kitchens?

    • Suzassippi says:

      They fed the actors who worked in the play and on production. They rarely took in cash, but at least they could eat. Now, they have at least one ‘barter day’ a year where people bring donations for the community food bank in order to pay admission.

  4. ILoveMyCreativeSpirit says:

    Thankful to live in the area and take advantage of the Barter! Awesome shows ♥

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