Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Happy Birthday Barksdale! - Part I

Posted by Bruce Miller

Fifty-four years ago today, Barksdale Theatre was born when six wide-eyed actors shelled out five thousand earned and borrowed bucks as down payment on a derelict property known as Hanover Tavern. The total purchase price for the historic building and the land was $25,000, the remainder to be paid off at $250 a month. Nobody tells the story better than co-founder Muriel McAuley. The following is excerpted from her magnificent 1984 book, Going On … Barksdale Theatre – The First 31 Years. In honor of our theatre’s 54th Birthday, please join me in raising a glass.

“There were six of us, plus two children and a dog. In alphabetical but little other order we were Tom Carlin, Steward Falconer, David and Priscilla (“Pete” and “Perky”) Kilgore and their Kate and Beau, aged 3 and 18 months, Muriel McAuley and Pat Sharp. The dog’s name was Rags.

Most of us had been at Wayne University in Detroit, some at University of Florida, then wound our separate and together ways to New York. Tiring of our roles as unemployed artists, we decided to show Broadway a thing or two and start our own theatre. But where?

Stu’s mother, Aline Miles, settled that with an ill-considered offer to let us move in with her if we wanted to try Richmond, Virginia. Never was she to be the same again. On February 4, we piled in on this kind lady and promptly took over her home. We each took whatever job we could find and pooled our paychecks, keeping an allowance of $1.00 a week.

We didn’t have a theatre yet, but we had a name. Some of the group had run a summer theatre in St. Clair, Michigan called Rounders On the River. Barbara Barksdale helped with the box office, publicity and other chores she could handle from a wheelchair, for she had Multiple Sclerosis. She had died in 1950 at the age of twenty. Furthermore, she had been a Virginia girl, from Charlottesville. So we called ourselves Barksdale Memorial Theatre.

By June, we’d saved up a whole $1,300! Surely enough to buy our own place, maybe with a barn we could convert into a theatre like in all those Judy Garland movies! Real estate agents took one look at our bankroll, our idea and six mostly unrelated dreamers and were never seen again. For some reason, G. B. Lorraine stuck with us, and on a dark and stormy Saturday showed us Hanover Tavern.

‘Thirty-three rooms,’ the deed said, one of them in the English basement, about 30 by 40 feet and called The Ballroom. There was our theatre! Its 7-foot, 3-inch ceiling dampened our enthusiasm only briefly, though Pete, our light man, wore a stricken expression for several days. There was no heat. No plumbing. Doors fell off their hinges. Most of the plaster had given up and lay in the middle of floors. The 4.53 acres had obviously been used as the county dump since George Washington had thrown out the first beer can. We loved it!

What’s more, unlike the nasty banks that demanded one third down, collateral and other such nonsense, owner Jourdan Woolfolk was willing to finance with just $5,000 down, which he’d take in two payments. We already had $1,300; $5,000 would be a cinch!

Drawers were rifled for anything pawnable. Pete cashed in his VA (Veteran’s) insurance. We paid the first $2,500. Then we got serious. In July we saved over $1,000 by not eating, not smoking and not drinking two fifths of Italian Swiss Colony wine on Saturday nights. Mrs. Miles borrowed on some bonds and loaned us her loan. We put the touch on the other families. On August 1, we moved in, after paying the last $2,500. Ten dollars of it was in change.

The previous two weeks (ever the optimists) we’d taken turns hauling stuff to the Tavern in the Kilgore’s 1948 wooden-bodied Buick station wagon. While at Mrs. Miles’, we’d had the bright idea of buying two little pigs to take care of the garbage and provide meat. By now, they weighed 70 pounds and we’d turned them into pets. Through truly Machiavellian scheming by Pete and Stu, it fell to Pat and Muriel to transport Sheba and Tallulah, and until you’ve driven 30 miles with two trussed up, screaming, crapping pigs in the back of an over-heated station wagon, you’ve missed one of life’s unique moments.”

… To Be Continued
Photo caption: This photo of the Barksdale founders (Pat Sharp is out of the frame) is from 1957, and shows them sitting happily on the porch of the Tavern. Starting from the left, those in the photo are: Kate Kilgore sitting in Muriel's lap, Pete Kilgore standing behind the two of them, arms folded. Actor Neil Lewis with the stringed instrument, with Perky Kilgore seated to the right of him. Beau Kilgore's head is popping out next to Perky. And then, seated and laughing, left to right, we see Tom Carlin, actor Mary Brinklow, and Stu Falconer.

--Bruce Miller

1 comment:

Frank Creasy said...

I remember my first Barksdale audition - it was for "The Elephant Man", and I had just graduated from Longwood College. I needed work desperately and was hoping to work as a professional actor. This could be my break! I read for Treves and another role (the circus character who used Merrick as a sideshow act...can't remember the character's name), and then I went home and waited for a call. Finally, one day after what seemed like an eternity Muriel called. "You read REALLY well, but you're just too YOUNG", she told me (would that I could hear that NOW!) It was the nicest rejection I'd ever heard. I knew this was a lady with class.

It wasn't too much longer before I was cast in a production of "Mr. Roberts" at Theatre IV, well before the association with Barksdale, and had a wonderful time with my three lines as "Schlemmer" (can't remember the other two, but one line was "Way to go, Mr. Roberts!") Given that delightful experience, it came as no surprise several years later when Theatre IV began its' management association with Barksdale.

It's a proud and storied tradition, Bruce, and I appreciate you sharing this bit of history. I'm very pleased to have some connection to it myself, along with many talented folks on and offstage as well as the audience members who've supported Barksdale for over half a century.