What good was a play and a stage if no one could afford a ticket? The Traveler’s Story.
May 31, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Abingdon, originally named Wolf Hills by Daniel Boone, remains as one of the oldest English-speaking settlements in the Blue Ridge highlands of Virginia. It is quirky in a charming sort of way. It is historic. It is filled with antique shops and crafts from mountain artisans.
The Setting: The Cornerstone of Abingdon has always been its Barter Theater, which began back during the Great Depression of the 1930s when good times and good entertainment were so hard to find. It is one of the nation’s oldest professional non-profit theaters, featuring musicals, comedies, dramas, and the classics, as well as modern plays penned by Appalachian and Southern playwrights. Appearing on the Barter Theater’s summer stock stages, through the years, have been such aspiring actors as Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty, Hume Cronyn, and Kevin Spacey. In 1946, it became the official State Theater of Virginia and, two years later, received a Tony Award for its contribution to regional theater.
There are those who say the Barter Theater is haunted. Actors swear they have caught glimpses of the ghost of its founder, Robert Porterfield, wearing his gray sweater and seated in the audience during rehearsals. Ned Beatty became so troubled and distraught after coming face to face with a sinister spirit that he ran from his dressing room and into the street outside the theater. It wasn’t an act.
The Story: For Robert Porterfield, it was like the last act of a bad play when the actors could not remember their lines, the curtain was hung up and wouldn’t fall, and the audience had begun leaving sometime shortly after intermission. If it could go wrong, it had, and there was nothing that he could do about it. The stage had gone dark. The music had faded away. The seats were as bare as the marquee. Programs were left unprinted. Poster sheets with his name and sometimes his picture on them been had scattered with the winds. The footlights had dimmed, then gone out altogether. The ticket window was closed. The cash register was empty. An actor without a theater was an actor without a job. He had learned the lines of a comedy and was confronted with act one of a tragedy. He walked the streets of New York, but they were as dark as the stage, as cold as a critic’s reviews, and were leading him nowhere. He had been there before. He wasn’t looking forward to going back. Instead, Robert Porterfield went home.
By the time he was ten years old, Porterfield had already decided that someday he would be standing in the harsh spotlights of Broadway. Maybe a star. Maybe a bit player. Maybe nothing more than a face amongst the scenery. But he would be on stage. Failure never entered his mind. His family frowned. Robert Porterfield had always walked the straight and narrow, and now he was taking a wrong turn that had more heartbreaks than pot holes. His father was adamantly opposed to the boy’s wild intentions, but he was not the kind of man to spit on a dream, no matter how ridiculous it might be.
By 1925, Porterfield was studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He learned how to walk, what to do with his hands, how to project his voice, and what the world looked like from center stage.
He liked what he saw.
The young man was a beginner, to be sure, but he landed a couple of jobs, saw the curtain rise and fall, and heard the applause, which was not nearly as loud as the sounds of a Great Depression echoing empty across the land. Banks were closing. Businesses were closing their doors.
The streets of New York were lined with men searching for a job, a bowl of soup, maybe just a crumb from the bread lines that had infested the city.
New York was broke.
So was the rest of the country.
It didn’t matter whether theater tickets cost a dollar or a dime, no one was buying. It was as though the edge of the stage was the end of the earth. Step off, and no one would ever see him again. New York shut down is stages. The tumult and the shouting had turned to a faint whimper and the hollow growl of an empty belly.
Robert Porterfield rode into Abingdon and realized that the hard times had beat him home. Farmers who had grown cash crops now had crops but no cash. Money had saddled up and gone elsewhere, or, maybe, it had just evaporated like the mist atop the Blue Ridge.
Proud men had lost their pride.
Pockets were as empty as the bank.
Poverty was etched into the wrinkles on every face, even those faces too young to have wrinkles.
Porterfield wearily glanced in the mirror and realized he had a couple that had not been there the summer before.
The idea came to him out of the blue, and for a brief moment, he wondered about the sanity of it all. A desperate man, down on his luck, could have all sorts of delusions, he knew, and not all of them made sense. But this one did. Up in New York, he had a few friends with a lot of talent, but none of them were eating regularly.
In Abingdon, life was devoid of entertainment, but most of the homefolks had gardens filled with vegetables, beef cattle grazing their pastures, pigs in their stalls, and tables graced with food. He could not pack up Virginia and carry it to New York, but he could certainly bring enough actors down to Abingdon to occupy a stage, provided he could find one.
His plan was a simple as it was ingenuous.
Not everyone would be able to buy a ticket with a handful of coins, but just about everyone could swap a peck of beans, a mess of greens, or a basket of eggs for the privilege of seeing a real live Broadway production, even if did happen to be as far off Broadway as anyone had ever been before.
Porterfield thought that the Town Hall of Abingdon might serve well as a theater. After all, it had heard the somber words of drama before. It had originally been built a hundred years earlier as the Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church, which staged its own theatrical production in 1876 to raise the funds necessary for repairing the building.
The stage was still intact, provided actors didn’t mind performing discreetly above the cells of an old jail, with prisoners, from time to time, shouting out their own drunken, angry, defiant, and sometimes profane lines of dialogue that would have never crossed the mind of any proper and self-respecting playwright
Robert Porterfield was a man with an idea, a second-hand stage, and a dollar in his pocket.
All he needed were actors, a play, and a curtain.
The saga of Robert Porterfield continues tomorrow.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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