A Legacy of Love and Laughter: Robert Porterfield’s Barter Theatre

A Legacy of Love and Laughter: Robert Porterfield’s Barter Theatre


[music] [music] In 1929, the United States stock market crashed,
leaving America in what would become the Great
Depression. Two years later, in 1931, six million people were unemployed and banks all across the country were closing. However, down in Abingdon, Virginia, one man had high hopes. The leadership of Robert Porterfield helped many Americans through a hard time with a unique idea that changed the lives of actors and audiences alike. When the fangs of the Great Depression sank into the United States, most people could not spare money for food, let alone entertainment. Robert Porterfield, a young actor, created a theatre
where farmers could trade extra food for tickets to performances. Ever since Robert Porterfield was ten, he dreamed of becoming an actor. Porterfield’s father disagreed with his son’s ambition. He wanted young Robert to have a proper job, like becoming a minister or a lawyer. [singing: Say, can you sing, dance or act?] But in 1931, Porterfield was on his way to the New
York Academy of Dramatic Arts to fulfill his dream. Porterfield performed in several Broadway plays. coming home for the summer in 1931,
Porterfield organized a summer theater in Abingdon
and brought some New York actors down south with him. He decided to put on Hay Fever, by Noel Coward. The two nights they performed were a success. One of the actors remembered Porterfield saying, after the audience kept applauding, “this could be a continuing thing.” Robert Porterfield went back to Broadway after Hay Fever and noticed that the famous shows were less
popular than before. Fewer people attended the plays, and each play
had fewer actors in it. Now, three years after the Great Depression had started, it affected nearly everyone. Unable to afford the plays, people turned to movies featuring celebrities like Shirley Temple for entertainment. It was definitely not a great time to be an actor. But Porterfield had a plan. Abingdon had an abundance of food, but little money for plays. He could bring talented New York actors down to Abingdon and exchange food for plays. In June of 1933, Porterfield brought 22 willing and hungry actors down to Abingdon to experiment with his new idea. They were only promised food and a place to stay. The first play that the crew presented was “After Tomorrow.” It was an instant success. This would become the Barter Theatre. Robert Porterfield had the basic
necessities of his theatre met, but he still needed to work out the kinks
in his plan. Porterfield decided that people could trade 35 cents worth of food, livestock, or services for admission to his plays. But it was a challenge deciding how much food equaled a ticket. “Course, we used to have a lot of fun you know, rushing to gather up our vegetables and fruit and things to take to the Barter so you could exchange whatever you took.” Soon the Barter staff collected a strange variety of goods. Rattlesnakes, walking sticks, and pigs, both alive and dead. With food, a bed, and some laughs, the Barter Players were doing pretty well. At the end of the first year, Porterfield estimated that the actors gained 300 pounds altogether. Yet the entire company only earned $4.35. In 1942, Porterfield was drafted to be in World War II. Without his leadership, the Barter Theatre had to close. Stationed in Texas in 1944, Porterfield received the news that a
tornado had struck Abingdon. Although nobody was hurt, it had destroyed most of the Barter equipment, everything from the costumes to the lights. The apartments of the actors were ripped apart, and the workshop stood in ruins. The prospects of the Barter Theatre continuing Porterfield’s dream were very low. Instead of fighting in the war, Porterfield was transferred to the army’s First Motion Picture Unit. He worked along with many other actors at the time, such as Clark Gable and Ronald Reagan. “This is the Army Air Forces First Motion
Picture Unit in Culver City, California. Here are produced training, operational
and inspirational films. Films which graphically illustrate
what we’re fighting for, what we’re fighting against, and what
we’re fighting with.” After the war, Porterfield became an actor in Hollywood. Because he had been in the First Motion Picture Unit, he could easily get small parts. His friend James Hilton, Academy Award winning screenwriter and novelist, told him, With that advice, Porterfield decided to restart the Barter Theatre. He convinced the State Conservation
Commission to give a grant of ten thousand dollars to start the Barter back up. Porterfield advocated that the company should start up a touring group to perform not just in Virginia but across the
country. In 1946, the Barter was declared the State Theatre of Virginia. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of this effort, “It is exciting to have a state government finally realize the importance of theatre in the life of the people.” When the Barter Theatre opened again, many actors wanted to play a part in the new State Theatre. A young Ernest Borgnine went to Porterfield to ask for a job. Being an actor at the Barter Theatre could be difficult. Not only did the actors act, but they had to make the sets and help out behind the scenes. Once, when a lead player was sick, Porterfield asked Gregory Peck to memorize 102 pages of script in the 24 hours before the play. The Barter Theatre wrote its own story by taking chances and creating opportunities. As the only State Theatre at the time, the Barter crew was invited to perform Hamlet at Elsinore Castle in Denmark. This was the first time any American theater company was invited to perform in Elsinore castle. Letters arrived from all over the world, including the Oval Office. When Porterfield found out that the Empire
Theatre in New York was closing he was upset, but
he sensed an opportunity. Porterfield made a deal with the officials that if he could remove the “useless” items in the old theater in three
days, he could keep them. he frantically brought up help and took
everything from the rugs to the chandeliers. You can still see the chandeliers in
the Barter today. “I don’t want to cry but the Barter Theatre and Robert Porterfield… you don’t know, perhaps, but I’ve been in about, oh my gosh, 30 movies, starting with the Graduate. Do you remember The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman? Well I played his mother, and I was in
The Addams Family and… and the Barter was one of the highlights. Was one of the reasons that I was able to keep going. I knew that if I couldn’t get work, if I
couldn’t do something, all I had to do is pick up the phone and call Mr. Porterfield. Well when I would call him and say, I’m free now, I would like to come down to Virginia. Is
there any way I could come? And he would say, this is what he would
say with his accent, ‘come on down, Honey!'” In 1971 Robert Porterfield died at the age of 65. 100s of people attended his funeral
and President Richard Nixon called his widow personally to express his condolences. Robert Porterfield’s famous theatre was a place where actors could learn, live, and laugh During the Great Depression, the Barter Theatre helped actors through tough times. But little did Porterfield know that he had created something that would last far longer than the
Great Depression. He had created a place with an everlasting legacy of beautiful performances. “Barter is special because it has this commitment to high-quality theatre but
it’s embedded in this southwestern Virginia
community. It doesn’t think of the
southwestern Virginia community as like less than being in say a big city or being
in a city up North like New York. The Barter produces theater of that same quality in an
environment like this one, a rural Appalachian environment and they provide
that sense of culture and home artistically for the community by doing that.” “It’s very little about them under the spotlight and
a lot more about what what they can do for the people
that are in the audience through what they do. And it makes the entire nature of the work different because we believe in a
service loop in that way. the more we give to other people
the better we are at our jobs and then the better we are to be able to give them something more. The Barter Theatre has evolved from those first hungry nights decades ago. Now, you can’t usually barter for a ticket, and people buy admission just like anywhere else. The Barter doesn’t just feed actors anymore. It also feeds the community of Abingdon. It was estimated in 2013 that the Barter supports 485 jobs. Each year over 160,000 people from all over the world come to Abingdon to see the Barter’s performances, increasing the yearly economic impact of the Barter Theatre to $34 million. “You know, a lot of people really think about Barter when they come to this
area so… Barter has a big impact.” The simple idea of bartering goods for laughter led people through the Great Depression and also left a legacy for others to enjoy for generations to come. Because of one man’s determination to get through the Great Depression and make his dream live on, the Barter Theatre is still performing today.

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