Drama Masks Barn Theater History

Peter Tewksbury - 1948 The Barn's first Director

The Barn had its roots in the inventive minds of a small group of people who loved the theater. The idea for establishing a theater here came from Peter Tewksbury, a World War II veteran who, along with his wife, Kit, came to Porterville after an unsuccessful attempt to establish a career in New York. After organizing and nurturing the Barn Theater through its first several seasons, Tewksbury went on to Hollywood, where he became a successful director in both television and motion pictures. Peter Tewskbury died February 20, 2003, at the age of 79.

Click here for more information about his life.

Click here to display the Barn's Memorial Plaque.

When Tewksbury first began rallying support for a theater in Porterville, he sought the expertise of retired Metropolitan Opera singer, Douglas Beattie and his wife, Virginia, successful commercial citrus growers in Terra Bella; and Howard Baker, a retired Harvard drama professor and his wife Dorothy, a successful novelist, whose book "Young Man With a Horn" was turned into a movie starring Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall.

Annie's Barn

With the support of the Bakers and the Beatties, and some financial assistance from the local business community, the Barn became a reality, staging its first shows in Annie Smith's barn, "across from the apricot orchard". The theater builders ripped out a wall, created a stage, and made arrangements for an audience to sit in chairs on the lawn.

The theater's first play was "Petticoat Fever", which opened July 16, 1948, with an admission price of 83 cents! By the end of the summer, the theater had staged three more shows, "George Washington Slept Here", "The Milky Way", and "Out of the Frying Pan".

Petticoat Fever - 1948  Directed by Peter Tewksbury Pictured: Eldon Hunt, Kaye Holmes Jamison, David Weaver, and Art Friedman
Green Mill Ballroom - Home of the Barn Theater from 1950 - 1952

With the first successful summer season behind them, Barn leaders decided to continue their efforts through the winter, and set out to find a location more hospitable to audiences during the colder weather. They managed to arrange to take over an old turkey warehouse on South "H" Street, and operated there until taking out a lease on the Green Mill Ballroom on Putnam Avenue. Shows continued to be produced in the ballroom space until the Barn could build and open its own facility and permanent home.

An interest-free loan of $12,000 from local philanthropist Mrs. Violet Carpenter, helped fund construction on city-owned land at Olive and Plano. Ground-breaking ceremonies for the new theater were held March 14, 1952, and the first show on the new stage, "Pygmalion", opened June 19, that same year. The original structure has been revamped and improved several times, including the most recent addition, the building of the lobby area, which was completed in 1986.

The present home of the Barn Theater was constructed in 1952

In its earlier years, the Barn Theater stretched itself professionally by moving beyond its own local stage. The theater took its shows on the road, throughout the South Valley, doing performances in Taft, Shafter, Hanford, Delano, Exeter, Visalia, Tulare and Fresno. The performers also went on the radio, broadcasting a series of half-hour programs, which were first heard only on KTIP Radio in Porterville, but which were later aired on stations in Tulare, Hanford and Visalia, as well.

Another new approach to entertaining the community came in the form of the Drawing Room Theater concept, in which the players performed small productions in private homes for those seeking a loftier form of drama than the general audiences saw on the theater's main stage. These shows eventually came to be performed on the theater's Second Stage, rather than out in the community.

The Barn also began, in those early years, its long-standing commitment to theater education, establishing training programs for both children and adults. These expansive programs were made possible through the theater's own internal training programs. In a cooperative effort with Bennington College, where Tewksbury's sister was a student, the Barn sought to bring in students and aspiring actors to work with the locals in its productions. These energetic young people would form what would come to be known as the theater's "nucleus". In exchange for room and board, they would provide talent for the stage and labor for the many jobs offstage and behind the scenes that kept the operation rolling.

Among those who came here in that capacity were Ann B. Davis and the late Richard Deacon, both of whom moved on to successful careers as television character actors. Davis is best remembered for her roles as "Schultzy" on the Bob Cummings comedy show Love That Bob, and as "Alice" on the 1970's family show The Brady Bunch. Deacon is known for his roles as "Fred Rutherford", father of Wally's friend Lumpy, on Leave It To Beaver, and as "Mel Cooley", brother-in-law of television star Alan Brady on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

By the mid 1950s, Deacon, Davis, and founder Tewksbury had all departed from the Barn, leaving it to stand on its own as a locally staffed and operated community theater. The going proved rough and the theater's existence was frequently threatened by financial disaster. In 1957 Davis, by then popular for her role on Cummings' show, returned to Porterville with the cast of a Pasadena Playhouse production to stage a benefit for the Barn. Her show put the theater back on its feet for a time, but competition from television, which kept prospective audience members glued to their couches at home, and lack of experienced leadership kept the Barn always on the brink. In 1960, Tewksbury came back to Porterville to help bail out his brainchild, bringing with him the stars of Father Knows Best, as well as Deacon, who was now familiar to the general public through his television work. And, again, the theater was saved from going broke.

In the early 1970s the theater experienced an infusion of volunteers, bringing in new talent and vigor, and once more operations began to run in the black. Alternating cycles of success and struggle continued to mark the Barn's progression through the years - even to the present day. This cyclical pattern seems to be a fact of life for the Barn, as it is for most community theaters throughout the country.

Roger Merryman, who produced a book on the Barn, The Story of the Barn Theater, as his master's thesis at California State University Fresno, offered a theory on what it is that has allowed the Barn to continue through good times and bad.

"The key to the Barn's survival has always been the people", he wrote. "As long as there have been a few individuals who were willing to put forth the effort to get a play 'on the boards', the Barn has survived. And it will probably continue to survive as long as there are people who will stay involved."

For over sixty years there have been different groups of people keeping the theater going. Volunteers would come in and work hard for a season or two, then drift away to other things, only to be replaced by new faces, energetic, dedicated, and eager to take over where the last group left off. As has often been said, "The show must go on". Who knows, maybe it's time for you to get involved!



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