Henry Barnabee's start in show business was hardly auspicious. A dry-goods clerk by profession, he enjoyed the sociability of other tradesmen; after he moved to Boston, he began performing in the skits and entertainments the city tradesmen sponsored every year. From these entertainments he became a fixture on the lyceum circuit in New England, telling stories and intoning ballads. He undertook formal schooling while working a side job as a church musician. In his later thirties he put down his ledger book and became a full time performer.
Though a fixture in comic operas during the last half of the 19th century, Henry Barnabee's fame in the annals of the stage depends on one role, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Reginald deKoven and Harry B. Smith's "Robin Hood." He estimated having played the Sheriff 1,900 times over his lifetime.
Barnabee reached a mastery of craft as both singer and actor in the 1870s as a member of the Boston Ideals. While performing with this company he created the definitive Sir Joseph Porter to appear in any American staging of "H.M.S. Pinafore." He had a lively music hall career as well, devising an act entitled "A Patchwork of Song and Story" the climax of which was his rendering of the comic ballad, "The Cork Leg." The leg was a mechanism so perfect it operated even after death, carrying the skeleton of its possessor about the countryside. David S. Shields/ALS