By Mike Steely
Small towns do not usually boast professional theaters but Abingdon, Virginia, just northeast of Bristol and a few blocks from Interstate 81, is the exception. Only about three hours from Knoxville, the Barter Theatre there is worth a destination or a side trip.
The theater was founded during the depression when a local actor, Robert Porterfield, returned to Southwest Virginia and brought a unique idea: bartering produce from local farms and gardens for admission to a play. Thus the name “Barter.”
The idea caught on and the theater became quite popular. Originally the theater was located above the jail and noises from the holding cells and animals that farmers brought in for admission occasionally disrupted performances. The jail also housed dogs suspected of having rabies but eventually became dressing rooms for the actors.
The Barter Theatre dates from 1933 and its building also housed the Fire Department. Until 1994 a fire alarm was atop the building and would go off loudly day or night. When Porterfield learned that a theater in New York City was scheduled for demolition he and a crew spent a weekend removing furnishings and equipment including a lighting system.
Every year the Barter salutes its heritage by accepting donations to a local food bank as the price for admission. Annually the Barter gets more than 160,000 visitors. A former Methodist Church, built in 1829, has been added to the Barter and is now the Barter II Stage. The smaller venue is favored by actors who perform only a few feet from the audience.
The acting careers of many noted performers began at the Barter including people like Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Larry Linville, Ned Beatty, and Hume Cronyn.
The recent “Big Fish” presentation was a hit there and will be followed by “Classic Nashville Road Show” that begins April 28th and runs through May 21st. Barter II is presenting “My Imaginary Pirate” which runs through April 30th.
Ticket prices vary depending on the production and where you sit, but will probably run about $35 for general seating. You can buy tickets online at www.bartertheatre.com or call the theatre at (276) 628-3991.
While you’re in the area you might also want to visit Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum and also visit Tennessee Ernie Ford’s childhood home.