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Henry Clay Barnabee was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1833, the son of a stage-driver turned innkeeper in Portsmouth. At the age of twenty, Barnabee moved to Boston, where he worked in the dry goods business while also pursuing acting and amateur singing. In 1859, he married Clara George of Portsmouth in Warner, New Hampshire, where her family originated. They made their home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. In 1865, Barnabee made his formal performance debut and began touring New England with a concert troupe. In 1878, he joined the Boston Ideals, a group formed to present Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, H.M.S Pinafore, though the Ideals would go on to perform other operettas. Barnabee and two other actors from the Boston Ideals formed the Bostonians in 1887. The latter group toured widely, making a number of transcontinental trips, until it finally disbanded in 1904. Its mainstay production was Smith and DeKoven’s comic opera, Robin Hood, in which Barnabee played the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Clara George Barnabee died in 1906, the year in which Barnabee’s career essentially ended. Henry Clay Barnabee published his autobiography, My Wanderings, in 1913 and died in 1917.

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