June 10, 1933
Barter Theatre opened its doors, proclaiming “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.” The price of admission was 35 cents or an equivalent amount of produce. Four out of five theatregoers paid their way with vegetables, dairy products and livestock.
To the surprise of many, all the seats for the first show were filled. The concept of trading “ham for Hamlet” caught on quickly. At the end of the first season, the Barter Company cleared $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly, and a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds.
Today, at least one performance a year celebrates Barter’s history by accepting donations for Feeding America Southwest Virginia. Barter Days happen in the month of June as a birthday celebration for Barter Theatre, and we will list those performance times on our Ways to Save page.
History of Barter Theatre Buildings
The earliest theatrical event known to occur here was a production of The Virginian on January 14, 1876, the proceeds of which were used for facilities and repairs. In 1890, the Sons of Temperance transferred the building’s title to the Town of Abingdon, to be used as a town hall for the benefit of the citizenry.
In addition to offices, the town used the building as a fire hall. Until 1994 a fire alarm was stationed on the roof of Barter Theatre and sounded as needed at any time, day or night. When the fire siren sounded during a Barter performance, the actors were instructed to freeze their position on stage and to resume the action when the alarm concluded.
Many of the interior furnishings in the theatre were salvaged from the Empire Theatre of New York City before its destruction. When Robert Porterfield learned that the Empire, constructed in 1875, was slated for destruction he was given one weekend to remove furnishings and equipment for use at Barter. Porterfield and his crew came away with $75,000 worth of seats, lighting fixtures, carpeting, paintings, and tapestries. The lighting system at the Empire, designed and installed by Thomas Edison, was used at Barter Theatre through the mid 1970’s.
Barter’s Smith Theatre, previously known as, Barter Stage II was constructed in 1829 as a Methodist church. After a fire in 1914, only the main building of the church remained standing; it was later used by the Martha Washington College as a gymnasium and a storage area.
In 1961, the building was renovated by Barter Theatre as a small theatre, with major improvements made in 1973 and again in 1985. Additions included a lobby and the Jessie Ball DuPont Memorial Theatre Garden.