Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Ham for Hamlet"

It was the mid-1920's and young Robert Porterfield wanted to become an actor, but his father was opposed to this career wish ("No son of mine will work in the 'wicked theater'.") Robert left Hampden-Sydney College in his third year and headed for New York with his dream. But his early success could not insulate him from the realities of the Great Depression and the closing of many theaters. Shortly after being robbed of all his possessions, he earned a small part in a traveling company of Cyrano de Bergerac. Traveling through the Great Plains, he had a "crazy idea."

He arrived in Abingdon, VA, with a statue of Saint Rita, Patron Saint of the Impossible and 22 unemployed and hungry actors from New York. He obtained permission to use the town's "Opry House" and to house the actors in the former Martha Washington College, which had closed because of the Depression. And put his crazy idea into practice--"With Vegetables You Cannot Sell, You Can Buy a Good Laugh." He knew people in this area had so much food that it was going to waste, so he would accept food for the price of admission to the theater.
And so, the Barter Theater began 75 years of continuous repertory theater on June 10, 1933, making it the longest, continuously-operating theater in the country. By the way, opening night was a full house with extra chairs being brought in. And the lobby was filled with fresh vegetables, hams, fried chicken, fruit of all varieties, cakes, pies, and a bouquet of flowers. The barter system was working.

"There were times when a person would bring a cow to the theater, milk it on the street, and use the milk to buy a ticket," related Amber Brown on a tour she led for the two of us. "The first year, Mr. Porterfield made a profit of $4.35, . . . and the actors gained a total of 303 pounds," she added with a laugh. (It wasn't until 1939 that cash customers outnumbered those who bartered.)

"We still have one performance a year for which people can bring food for their price of admission," Amber noted with pride. "We then donate the food to a local food bank." (The photo on the left shows the drama/comedy masks in the circular window on the facade of the theater shown in the first photo.)

Amber talked about some of the obstacles the early actors had to contend with: 1) in the same building as the theater was the Town Hall, along with the town jail which was located under the stage. So the prisoners' comments would sometimes compete with actors' lines. 2) The fire alarm was located on the theater's roof, so when the alarm went off, the actors froze and resumed when the siren stopped.

The picture on the right shows the view from the stage. In the curved portion of the balcony on the other side of the theater, there are seats from the Empire Theater that Mr. Porterfield and his wife would sit in. Amber was kind enough to photograph The Wanderers in these seats. While the designs "etched" into the fabric of the majority of the seats duplicates the comedy/tragedy masks on the stained glass windows, a few of the seats still retaind the design from the Empire Theater.

The view from the Porterfield seats show the decorative work of the theater. The wall sconces and red wall tapestries were also part of the items from the Empire Theater.

The two photos show close-up views of this decorative work.

On the pages of the open book on this decoration (right) are the words: "If you like us, talk about us. If you don't, just keep your mouth shut." With these words, Mr. Porterfield ended his monologues that he delivered during the intermissions at the theater.

I would gladly keep talking, but I would suggest finding time to listen to Amber's accounts of the theater's history. Or read the Barter Theatre's Will Work For Food.

No comments: