Wednesday, July 22, 2015

You don’t need to watch “The Lion King” movie to learn about the circle of life.

Just read this article about Mark Dawidziak, PD and former BJ entertainment critic.
In 1982 Mark published his first book, “The Barter Theatre,” about an Abington, Virginia town where in the Great Depression actors put on shows to an audience that brought 30 cents worth of food for admission.
Playwrights like Noel Coward, Thornton Wilder, Robert E. Sherwood and Maxwell Anderson accepted the food as their royalties. George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, bartered for spinach.
And the reign of “Ham for Hamlet” was born.
Barter’s alumni include Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty, Gary Collins, Larry Linville, Kevin Spacey, Frances Fisher, Barry Corbin, Jim Varney and “Cheers” creator James Burrows.
Well, come Wednesday, Aug. 5, Mark will return to the Barter Theatre with his wife, Sara Showman, to perform "Twain By Two" at 7:30 p.m., based on Mark’s 12th book, “Mark Twain’s Guide to Diet, Exercise, Beauty, Fashion, Investment, Romance, Health and Happiness.”
As for the fabulous tale of the Bart Theatre, let Mark tell it, after I asked him to provide the full background for me:
“The Barter Theatre is in the small town of Abingdon, in southwest Virginia. I did not know about it while attending George Washington University. I finished up college in three and a half years, so got out in December 1977.
“By then, I was working full time at the Knight-Ridder Bureau in the old National Press Building at 14th and F (Dave Hess was representing the Beacon Journal). I then went to work at the Associated Press bureau in D.C. on K Street.
“In January 1979, I started as the arts editor at the Bristol Herald Courier (the Virginia/Tennessee state line ran through Bristol, and I lived on the Tennessee side).
“Abingdon is nearby and, before I left Washington, several people told me my job would include covering the Barter. So I read up a bit and learned it was one of America's most important regional theaters.
“It was started in the depths of the Depression by Broadway actor Robert Porterfield, who was from that area. Porterfield was in the original Broadway production of ‘The Petrified Forest’ with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart.
“He took a company of 22 starving, out-of-work New York actors to Abingdon and started staging shows in the town's opera house (a structure that went back to the 1830s, in one of the buildings not burned during the Civil War).
“Farmers with plenty of crops they couldn't sell could barter their way in for 30 cents worth of produce. The actors would work and eat. The area would get New York quality theater. Playwrights agreed to a royalty of just a Virginia ham, a tradition followed by the likes of Noel Coward, Thornton Wilder, Robert E. Sherwood and Maxwell Anderson.
“It was dubbed ‘Ham for Hamlet’ by the national press. The joke was that they estimated a season's success by weighing the company.
“Porterfield had a tremendous knack for promotion and for spotting talent, and among the actors who got started at the Barter: Gregory Peck, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine and Ned Beatty. I got to personally present copies of my book to Peck and Borgnine.
“When I got to Bristol that January, I headed for the local library and asked for the history of the Barter Theatre. The theater had such a colorful and noteworthy history, I just assumed there was one. There wasn't, so I decided there should be.
“I started researching the theater and collecting interviews while working first at the Herald Courier, then at the nearby Kingsport Times-News. The entire area is known as the Tri-Cities -- Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City (Sara's hometown).
“The book was published in 1982, a few months before the Barter's 50th anniversary on June 10, 1983. Four months later, I was starting as the TV critic at the Akron Beacon Journal. 
“The book's subtitle, which I wanted to be the main title, is from a Kahil Gibran quote used for a memorial when Robert Porterfield died in 1971: ‘Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work, and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms from those who work with joy.’
“Need anything else, let me know.
       “ Mark “

This is a more than ample serving, Mark. Bon appetite at the Barter!
In 1946, Barter was designated The State Theatre of Virginia, the first theatre to receive a form of recognition that later became a national practice.
Barter is the longest running professional Equity theatre in the nation.
Robert Porterfield died in 1971. The late Rex Partington took over until 1992. Richard Rose was the next leader.
Attendance has grown to more than 140,000 annual patrons for the 500-seat theater and a 167-seat smaller venue across the street.


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