Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Barksdale and Barter

Posted by Bruce Miller

Exactly forty years ago, Barksdale Theatre was about to wrap up its one-week run of Stop the World—I Want to Get Off at Barter Theatre. This was a history-making engagement, as Barksdale was the first guest company ever to be invited to perform on the Barter Stage.

The following newspaper coverage is quoted in Muriel’s book. She doesn’t identify the newspaper, but I suspect it was either the Richmond Times-Dispatch or News Leader. No publication date is provided.

“Barksdalians To Do Play at Barter

The telephone lines and the mails are humming these days between Abingdon, Va., and Hanover Court House, respective homes to two of the state’s best-known theaters.

Barter Theater, the State Theater of Virginia and perhaps the most famous professional company in the nation, is located in the tiny mountain town of Abingdon. It’s an improbable site for a major theater, but no more so than founder Robert Porterfield’s original idea during the depression of exchanging entertainment for food.

Three hundred miles away is Hanover Court House, another small hamlet that never expected to claim the state’s first dinner-theater, Barksdale. On August 22 through August 29, Barter will be host to Barksdale’s highly-praised production of “Stop the World—I Want to Get Off.”
It all began last fall, when Porterfield saw the off-beat musical at Barksdale Hanover Tavern. What began as a casual suggestion that Burt Edwards and Nancy Kilgore re-create their leading roles at Barter, gradually ballooned into the entire Barksdale company, with the original sets and costumes by Lyde Longaker, guesting at Abingdon for a full week. All of the Barksdale cast will be together again for the event, with some taking leaves from other summer stock jobs in order to do the show.

Rehearsals begin this week, under the direction of Jay Lundy, musical direction of Dougee Zeno and choreography of Frances Wessells, who will also travel to Barter for two days of rehearsals on that stage prior to the opening.

With Edwards, who plays Littlechap, and Mrs. Kilgore, who appears as his wife and as several other women in his life, will be Carol and Bobbie Hamblett, Richmond twins who will again play the two daughters, and the singing and dancing chorus composed of Judy Ward, Patricia Story, Carol Rogers, Gina Vetter, Libby Jarratt, Henrietta Near and Melvina Gooch.”

The history-making aspect of all this, as Bob Porterfield would shortly thereafter explain to me himself (see the upcoming My Dinner with Bob Porterfield), was that in 1967 Barter Theater honestly was, as the newspaper article says, “the most famous professional (theatre) company in the nation.” Please remember that in 1948, Bob Porterfield received the first Regional Theatre Tony Award for his “Contribution to the Development of Regional Theatre.” The next such award was not presented until 1976, when it was won by Arena Stage in Washington, D. C.

The actors whom Barter hired included Gregory Peck (pictured to the right), Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal (pictured up and to the left), Ned Beatty and Hume Cronyn. When Bob Porterfield visited Barksdale, loved Stop the World, and invited Nancy and Burt to star in the same musical at Barter, it was a huge deal. And when Pete and Muriel responded by saying, to quote Muriel, “None of that, if you want them, you’ll have to take everybody,” they were taking a huge gamble.

Mr. Porterfield must have had tremendous respect for Barksdale, and he certainly was committed to the developing regional theatre movement. But no matter how you look at it, it was downright amazing that, in Barter’s 34th year of existence, founder Bob Porterfield invited Barksdale to be the first guest company ever to perform in his nationally prominent theatre.

In the next few days, I’ll interview Frances Wessells, Lyde Longaker and others about their Barter experience. Stay tuned.

--Bruce Miller

More photo credits: The two young lovelies are Carol Rogers and Julie Crump from the Stop the World ensemble. That's Nancy and Burt perched atop the Barter marquee, in their full Stop the World get-up. Can't you just hear the Abingdonians shouting, "Who are those two clowns on the marquee?!" The painting of Nancy, which regularly hangs in the Barksdale Willow Lawn lobby, dates back to that famous Stop the World run.


Anonymous said...

Barter Theatre won the first Regional Theatre Tony Award!!??

Bruce Miller said...

Robert Porterfield won the first Regional Theatre Tony. In his day, Bob Porterfield was THE most important person in regional theatre in the U. S. He was a friend of Presidents and pretty much every celebrity you can name. He had an impressive film career himself. People forget. I'll write more about Mr. Porterfield soon.

Dave T said...

Hi Bruce,
I wonder if you've seen the latest bit of Barter Theatre related news: Will Bigham winning the "On the Lot" reality show. Bigham was an actor at the Barter for five years. There was a story in the Bristol paper about it last week:


Le Synge Bleu said...

the world is indeed so small...gina vetter was my college roomate's (also a theatre major) mother!

Bruce Miller said...

Gina Vetter was a true Barksdale All-Star in the 60s and 70s--certainly their leading ingenue prior to 1975. She was also absolutely gorgeous, and I had a huge crush on her from across the footlights. Then, when I was invited to be in my first Barksdale show--Invitation to a March at Barksdale Experimental in something like 70 or 71, I was knocked over when I attended the first rehearsal and found out that Gina had been cast as my girlfriend. I was a LUCKY MAN. And she turned out to be as nice as she was beautiful.

And, no, Dave, I hadn't heard that Barter news. Good to know that good things are happening to Virginia theatre alum. Thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

This so weird. I actually went to Emory and Henry College and spent a great deal of time at Barter Theatre. Now I work for Theatre IV and had no idea there was a connection. Small world.