The Barter Theatre, Abingdon, Virginia

The Barter Theatre

During the Great Depression, Robert Porterfield, an out-of-work actor, returned to southern Virginia with an interesting and innovative idea of opening a theater that took produce as payment for a ticket instead of cash. Actors needed to eat and people needed entertainment in those tough times. “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.” Admission was 40 cents or the equivalent in farm goods, such as eggs, vegetables, milk, etc.The original building was built in 1831 as Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church. In 1890, it began use as the town hall.Barter actors had many distractions they had to deal with. During a performance there would be noise of the livestock that were bartered. The stage was built over the town jail, so I can imagine the loud singing of town drunks on occasion. That later became a holding cell for dogs suspected of rabies. Eventually, the theater was able to claim the building as their own space. Until 1994, the fire siren was on the theater. When it would sound off, the actors had to freeze until it was done.In 1953, it was announced that the historic Empire Theater in New York City was slated to be torn down. Robert Porterfield had a weekend to buy and remove all that he could. He furnished the Barter with Empire seating, décor, and light fixtures designed and installed into the Empire by Thomas Edison. This lighting was used until the 1970s.Porterfield died in 1971, and it is said that he hasn’t left the building that he loved so much. Actors will swear that they have seen him roaming behind the curtains or sitting in the audience watching a performance.There is a tunnel entrance in a dressing room that once led to the Martha Washington. I have read a story that Ned Beatty was frightened by a spirit from the tunnel while in this dressing room. My daughter did some intern work at the theater while in college. She told me that many of the actors were uncomfortable in this room.

For more information or their schedule go to their website at

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