Recently my friends, Jim and Martha Hartley invited me to attend a matinee at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. It was their first time to visit the State Theatre of Virginia and they were amazed at the quality of the performance and the beauty of the theatre itself. We saw “The New Musical: David” which was both serious and amusing concerning the life and activities of the Biblical character David. The house was filled to capacity and the show itself “one of Barter’s finest.”
The Barter Theatre lobby in Abingdon, V.a has had a facelift inspired by its Producing Artistic Director, Richard Rose. For some time, he had the notion to enlarge the lobby, make the ticket office more accessible and to install motion-sensor entrance doors. Last December when the 2011 season closed, workers began renovating the space. Patrons were amazed when the theater re-opened in February because visually and in terms of space, it was much more attractive and comfortable. The old box office has been totally removed and relocated into what was formerly office space. Large glass doors, surrounded by actors’ photographs, slide open to welcome folks into the brighter, larger lobby. The old house doors which were wooden have been replaced by colorful ones decorated with attractive neon lights. The lady patrons in particular will be delighted to discover the new enormously enlarged restrooms.
Just last week, the fall season commenced with the opening of “Zombie Prom,” billed as “A thrilling 50s style atomic rock-n-roll musical romp.” That will be followed by numerous other offerings which include: “The Sunset Unlimited,” “Tarzan: The Musical,” the 2011 Appalachian Plays Festival winner “October, Before I Was Born,” “The Wind Farmer,” “Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Goose” and the perennial favorite “A Christmas Story.”
For those of you have never attended the Barter Theatre, or are unfamiliar with its history, here is just a brief sketch of how it came to be. A young actor named Robert Porterfield founded Barter Theatre during the Great Depression. He and fellow actors found themselves out of work and hungry in New York City. In his home region of Southwest Virginia, there was an abundance of food, but lack of live theatre. Porterfield returned home with the proposition of bartering produce from the farms and gardens of the area to see a play. Barter Theatre opened its doors in June 1933 proclaiming, “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.” The price of admission was 40 cents or the equivalent in produce, meat or live animals. Playwrights including Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder accepted Virginia ham as payment for royalties. In 1946, Barter was designated The State Theatre of Virginia, the first theatre to receive this form of recognition that is now practiced nationwide.
In 1947, it was my privilege to serve an apprenticeship at the Barter where I performed in three world premieres and trod the boards with Ernie Borgnine and other well-known actors. The most recognized Barter alumni include Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty, Gary Collins, Larry Linville and Frances Fisher. Having celebrated its 75th birthday in 2008, Barter is now the longest running professional Equity theatre in the nation.
I encourage you to plan a trip to experience the fun and beauty of Barter Theatre. For more information or to make reservations, call the Barter box office at 276-628-3991 or visit online at www.bartertheatre.com.