HENRY CLAY BARNABEE DIES IN HIS 85th YEAR
Famous as Sheriff of Nottingham in the Bostonians' Production of "Robin Hood."
BOSTON, Dec. 16. Henry Clay Barnabee, familiar to thousands of playgoers as the Sheriff of Nottingham in De Koven’s comic opera, “Robin Hood,” died at this home in the Jamaica Plain district today after a long illness. He was in his eighty-fifth year. His career as an entertainer spanned most of his lifetime, as he continued to exercise his funmaking talents in vaudeville when he was past 70 years of age.
His chief work was in the 80’s as a leading member of the Boston Ideal Opera Company, which became famous all over the country in the production of light opera, and its successor, the Bostonians, which he helped to organize. He appeared in many serious roles, as well as comic ones. Recently, in recalling the phenomenal run the Bostonians made of “Robin Hood,” Mr. Barnabee said that he had played the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham nearly 1,900 times. The Boston Ideal Opera Company, which was the outgrowth of a celebrated church choir, outdistanced all its rivals in the production of the opera at a time when forty or more companies were touring the country with it. This company also led in the production of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas, Mr. Barnabee appearing in them all.
He was known to thousands through his singing of the ballad of “The Cork Leg,” which told of the merchand from Amsterdam whose patent cork leg possessed such perfect mechanism that it walked on and on after the old man dies, carrying his skeleton. According to his own estimate, he sang this song more than 5,000 times, giving as an encore “The Patent Arm.”
Mr. Barnabee was born at Portsmouth, N.H., Nov. 14, 1833, “the day following the birth of Edwin Booth,” he would say, “an exemplification of the fact that Mirth follows close on the heels of Tragedy.” He started life as a dry goods clerk, but in his leisure he indulged from the first in an amateurish display of his talents. He could tell a story, sing a song, speak a piece and run the whole gamut of grimaces.
In Boston in 1854 he became a member of the Mercantile Library Association, which gave many semi-public entertainments in which several men, who later became actors, received their first stage training. Then for a number of years he was a choir singer in Boston churches. He gave up mercantile life in 1865, and made his forma debut on the concert stage in Boston.
Mrs. Barnabee, who was Miss Clara George, a New Hampshire girl, and who always toured with him, died on Christmas Day, 1909, only a few weeks after the couple had celebrated their golden wedding.
The funeral service will be held here on Tuesday. The burial will be at Portsmouth, N.H. (Text transcribed from The New York Times, 17 December 1917).
In 1913 Henry Clay Barnabee's autobiography "My Wanderings" was published.
Henry Clay Barnabee's papers are held by the Portsmouth Public Library (Portsmouth, New Hampshire). Alltogether, the Barnabee collection consists of 12 boxes with scrapbooks, photographs, albums, books, souvenir books, opera music scores and much more.
Clara George Barnabee
1834–1909 (m. 1859)