Sunday, September 2, 2007

My Dinner with Bob Porterfield

Posted by Bruce Miller

In the winter of 1968, about six months after Barksdale’s Stop the World residency at Barter (see Barksdale and Barter, Aug 28), and about four months before my high school graduation, I was invited to dinner with Robert Porterfield--"please call me Bob"--Barter’s legendary founder. Here's a photo of Bob (taken about a quarter-century earlier) with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

This was nothing like my mealtime encounter with Arthur Miller (see My Lunch with Arthur Miller, Aug 12), where I sat respectfully and anonymously at his elbow with neither one of us saying a word. This was an animated three-hour dinner conversation with only four of us in the room.

A little background... In high school, I met one of my lifelong friends, Terry Bliss (pictured to the left). She’s co-author with me of Hugs and Kisses, and she works today as a practicing attorney and Artistic Director of North Street Playhouse in Onancock, VA. I was also good friends with Terry’s younger sister, Kathy. Through Terry and Kathy, I became friends with their mother, also named Terry Bliss. Terry Bliss (the mother) was the director of PAVE (Performing Arts in Virginia Education) after it became independent of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and just before it morphed again into the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Terry Bliss (the mother) is now named Terry Showalter, and doing great things in Harrisonburg, VA.

Terry Bliss (the mother) had met the late Mason Bliss (the father) while he was working as the booking agent for Barter Theatre after WWII. (Below and to the right, you can find a photo of the Barter touring bus from the post-war years, parked in front of the Algonquin Hotel in NYC.)

In 1946, Mason was trying to book a Barter touring production into Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina, where Terry headed the theatre department. He didn't win the booking, but apparently he won the heart of the drama chair. Six months after their first meeting, Mason and Terry were married in Abingdon. Southwest Virginia was “dry” in those days, so Ernest Borgnine (pictured to the right) drove to Tennessee to pick up the wedding champagne. Bob Porterfield was the Best Man. The happy couple moved into the Barter Inn, company housing for the theatre. It was in the Barter Inn that Terry Bliss (the daughter) was conceived and lived the first several months of her life.

Soon after his daughter’s birth, Mason Bliss needed to earn money. He established The House of Bliss Celebrity Bureau, Inc.—yes, that really was the name—and he moved his family to Richmond. From here he ran one of only three producing and nationally touring theatre operations to be located outside of New York or Los Angeles. Terry (the mother) was a respected local actress. (A photo of her on the cover of a Richmond Summer Theatre playbill appears above and to the left.) Each year The House of Bliss would produce touring productions starring the likes of Pernell Roberts, Dennis King, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Hal Holbrook. Google ‘em if you’re too young to know who they are.

When Mason died in the mid-60s, the House of Bliss died with him. Terry (the mother) went on to direct the state agency PAVE, and it was her job to book arts programs into Virginia’s schools. She relied on her good friend Bob Porterfield and the artists from The House of Bliss to help her with her job.

In 1968, Bob Porterfield was coming to Richmond, and he called Terry Bliss (the mother) to invite himself over for an evening’s meal. She told him about her daughters’ friend (that would be me), a high school student who was, as Moss Hart famously said, "drunk" on “the smell of the theatre.” Bob was renowned for how much he enjoyed talking with students who wanted to go into theatre professionally. He encouraged her to include me in their get together.

Terry (the daughter) was off in college, so Terry (the mother), Kathy, Bob and I met for dinner in February, and the rest of my life was molded, at least in part, in that one funny, moving and passionate conversation.

Bob spoke enthusiastically about the founding of Barter, and about his good friends Pete and Nancy Kilgore and Muriel McAuley (who, at that time, I had yet to meet). He expressed how much he admired Barksdale, because they were going through so much of what he went through in Barter's early days. He professed that theatre was the noblest vocation anyone could accept, and convinced me that, should I decide to pursue such a career, it would be a privilege and an honor that I could not take lightly.

He discussed the work that he and others had done with President Kennedy to create the National Endowment for the Arts, which had finally been established by President Johnson only three years prior to our dinner. Bob passionately believed that encouraging and showcasing artistic excellence would rekindle America’s creative energy, enrich a national cultural landscape that he believed was in danger of stagnation, and engender in average Americans an understanding of what true civilization really meant.

He believed that, due to our nation’s emerging prosperity, we in the U. S. had inherited from Europe the responsibility of being the caretaker of Western culture. He was convinced that the best way to lure developing countries away from communism and toward democracy was through artistic expression, a tool that the Russians were funding at the time with unparalleled vigor.

Decades before the social economist Richard Florida began discussing the "creative class," Bob Porterfield (pictured in the pencil portrait to the left) discussed American business’s need for the creative education and inspiration that only an arts-rich environment can provide.

It was heady stuff. It changed my life.

Bob Porterfield, Pete and Nancy Kilgore, and Muriel McAuley were great leaders not only because of the institutions they founded and sustained, and certainly not only because of the plays they produced. They were great leaders because of the imaginations they ignited, the opportunities they provided, and the dreams they applauded, encouraged and embraced.

I am forever in their debt.

--Bruce Miller

Addendum: On the "Six Degrees" front, Bob Porterfield's secretary at Barter was Byrd Jervey. When Mason Bliss founded The House of Bliss, Byrd accepted a job as his secretary, moving with him back to Richmond so that she could be closer to her sister. Her sister was Helen Jervey, who was Muriel's first friend and office mate at AAA, and would subsequently become a legendary Barksdale All Star, beginning with Barksdale's first mainstage production, Gold in the Hills.

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