The Comeback Kidder
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

barnabee
Henry Clay Barnabee left his historic collection of comic memorabilia to the Portsmouth LIbrary. But how did it get there? Why is it in the attic? And who the heck was Barnabee, anyway?

He may get the last laugh yet
-- scholars are taking him seriously.

 

 

 

One of the nation's funniest men was born and is buried in Portsmouth. That fact doesn't raise many eyebrows today since Henry Clay Barnabee's name has long faded from the comedy circuit. By his death in 1916, Barnabee's long career as a theater comedian and singer had been pushed aside by vaudeville and the rise of silent movies. How and when Barnabee's enormous private collection of memorabilia ended up in the attic of the local library is a tale more obscure than the actor himself.

According to local legend, two large crates appeared suddenly and anonymously on the front steps of the Portsmouth Public Library soon after the death of Henry Clay Barnabee. A librarian dragged them indoors. The cache included 21 of the actor's personal scrapbooks, 23 photo albums, 29 old scripts and thousands of playbills and bits of ephemera from the actor's long successful career on the road. When a distant relative of Barnabee was finally located in New York City, the collection was shipped there C.O.D.. But the crates came back, rejected by the family.

That tale, though colorful and often retold, conflicts with reports recently unearthed in an early Portsmouth newspaper. A small notice in the States and Union, eight years before the actor's death, indicates that the actor himself, not his heirs, donated the rare collection that chronicles the rise and fall of comic opera in America. In July 1908, the brief note reads, Portsmouth librarian Hannah Fernald confirmed that "the collection has just now arrived" from Mr. Barnabee.

henry clay barnabee in PinaforeA year later the top headline in the same newspaper offered an exclusive inventory of the collection. Barnabee was in Portsmouth in the summer of 1909, according to the news report, staying with his aged sister Mary Ann French. The actor had apparently decided to donate his extensive collection of books, autographs and photographs to the public library in the town of his birth. It was a plan "which only a limited few are aware of" according to the paper. Barnabee was apparently motivated to pick Portsmouth, despite offers to house his memorabilia in Boston and New York, because local writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a close friend of actor Edwin Booth, had done the same at his death in 1907. A "special room" at the library had already been set aside to display the Barnabee gift, the report announced, and it would soon be open to the public.

Barnabee himself apparently prepared the exhibit of his work at the library. In a follow-up front page story in September 1909, the States and Union reported that "the venerable actor with his own hand" had inscribed the placards describing items on display. The article includes detailed transcripts of a number of Barnabee's handwritten paragraphs that were to be posted on the walls of "The Barnabee Room".

No records have yet been found of the accession of the original Barnabee items, or of the opening or closing of the library exhibit. The actor was still writing the placards for his "memorial" exhibit in September of 1909. Barnabee was still hard at work on his exhibit to make it "just right", according to the States and Union, before the planned opening.

Clara Barnabee died three months later on Christmas Day 1909. It is possible that the exhibit was then never completed, but this seems unlikely based on the actor's avowed desire for public fame and affection. Less than a year later in 1910 Barnabee was back in town where he performed a retrospective of his long career at the Portsmouth Music Hall. His autobiography, dedicated to his "Guiding Light and Leading Lady" Clara, appeared three years later. It seems more likely that the Barnabee exhibit opened in his lifetime, and like the ephemera display in the Thomas Bailey Aldrich House nearby, was later packed away in storage as his fame dwindled in the early 20th century. Barnabee's hand-written guide to his collection still survives among the boxed artifacts.

henry clay barnabeeAccording to the Portsmouth Herald, a Boston scholar searching for the exhibit in 1943 was told by librarian Hannah Fernald that it had been "broken up" long ago. Some of the items were sent to collectors New York, she told him, and the rest went in the library basement.

The Barnabee collection sat in the basement of the Portsmouth Public Library for almost 50 years. Then it was moved to the attic. In 1980 an enterprising graduate student from Tufts University pulled open the boxes to catalog the contents. Grown valuable with age, the extraordinarily complete archive is now seen as a rare timeline in the history of American comic theater. We see Barnabee as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the comic opera "Robin Hood", a role he performed nearly 2,000 times. In dozens of lavish costumes he appears, among other roles, as a wealthy duke, a professor in a top hat, and a thickly bearded Rip Van Winkle. We see Barnabee in a kilt, in a toga, dressed as a cowboy, dressed as a soldier, a sailor, a tinker, a mayor, a nobleman and a fop. One ancient handbill announces boldly that Mr. Barnabee "will appear in his new female character, the UNPROTECTED FEMALE, in female costume".

Barnabee saw himself as the comic equivalent of tragedian Edwin Booth, likely the best-known American actor in the last half of the 19th century. In the opening lines of his autobiography "My Wanderings" Barnabee points out that he was born just one day after Edwin Booth in November 1833. That fact, he notes whimsically, proves the maxim -- "Mirth follows closely on the heels of tragedy."

Henry Clay Barnabbe in Robin HoodIn his 1913 book, written "from memory" when the actor was almost 80 years old, he waxes nostalgic over his formative years on the New Hampshire coast. His father Willis Barnabee drove the Portsmouth stagecoach back and forth to Boston, and once transported General Lafayette himself to town. When the train finally arrived in Portsmouth, eliminating the stage coach business Willis ran the Franklin Hotel downtown. Young Barnabee got his first dancing lessons from a French instructor staying at the hotel. He got singing lessons from a voice coach, formed a popular glee club with three talented male friends and acted bit parts in local plays. Barnabee earned kudos for his elaborately designed living picture or "tableaux vivant" in which costumed human figures were arranged with painted props into large motionless scenes onstage.

Willis Barnabee, a loyal Whig, had named one son after politician Henry Clay and another after Daniel Webster. He supported young Henry's artistic antics, but refused to consider acting a respectable vocation, so after finishing school at 17, the boy became a clerk in a downtown dry goods store. That same year young Barnabee made his first train trip to the nearby metropolis of Boston. There he attended a performance by the renowned Lucius Junius Booth, who performed with his sons Edwin and John Wilkes Booth. According to Barnabee, he decided then and there to become a thespian as soon as he came of age.

A dutiful son, Barnabee worked four more years in the dry goods store, learning business skills that later kept his life orderly and centered, even in the tempestuous acting profession. He met and courted Clara George of Portsmouth, who became his wife, script coach, costume mistress, and lifetime traveling companion. According to legend, Barnabee made his first smashing appearance on the Portsmouth stage when a local actor was taken ill. Somebody suggested that the funny clerk could perform excellent sound effects and sing. Barnabee did, and a star was born. At 21 he packed his trunk for Boston where he sang, at first, in churches and later helped form the popular "Bostonians" acting troupe.

It is difficult for the modern movie-goer to imagine the enormous appeal of the Victorian light comic opera in which Barnabee excelled. Seen today as stiff, melodramatic, long-winded and prudish, little evidence of it survives. Most accessible, perhaps, is an image of Barnabee as Admiral Porter in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pinafore", still loved for its rich costumes, spectacular scenery, witty lyrics and hummable tunes. The genre, a forerunner of the familiar musical comedy, died away, Barnabee wrote, for lack of good actors and good scripts.

Henry Clay Barnabee

He saw himself, in the end, as the last of the true comedians, actors who could enthrall an audience simply with a powerful and trained voice, a costume, a posture and a grab bag of facial expressions. He had no need for vulgar language or clownish pranks. After the death of his beloved wife in 1909, Barnabee returned to the Portsmouth Music Hall for a crowning farewell performance. His vigor, critics said, was undiminished. A month before his death at age 84, one witness wrote, he could still belt out a rousing rendition of 'I Am the Sheriff of Nottingham".

Yet Henry Clay Barnabee, despite his apparent ease and "virility" in performance, was plagued by a lifetime of almost paralyzing stage fright.

"It is all I can do, at times, to go on stage," he told a States and Union reporter in 1909. "I approach it with absolute fear, and sometimes, I fear, this dread that I fear I shall never leave it alive."

His collection, though still boxed up in the library attic, is gaining more attention from scholars. Ten years ago the items were again catalogued photographed and carefully archived. There is hope that the actor's collection may again go on public display. Plans for a proposed new Portsmouth Public Library include space specifically for display of its historic treasures. There may be life left in old Barnabee, even now.



All photographs courtesy of the Portsmouth Public Library from the Barnabee Collection.
Sources: "My Wanderings" by Henry Clay Barnabee, (1913); "Henry Clay Barnabee: Change and Stasis in America" dissertation by Paul Mroczka (1993); extensive vertical files at Portsmouth Public Library including research by Richard Winslow.

Clara and Henry Clay Barnabee