Biography of the Real Ida Barr (1884-1967)
"Britain's Premier Singer of Rag-Time Melodies; Red-Headed and Proud of It; Re-Headed but Clever; A Star with the Personality of a Star.
"The strapping daughter of an Army sergeant-major Maud Barlow saved her father's blushes by adopting the name Maude Laverne on making her Music Hall debut in 1897. Eleven years later she became Ida Barr, her six feet of solid femininity prompting the comment "Ida Bar? She could 'ide a bloomin' pub!"
"The artist married comic singer Gus Harris but his jealousy of her superior drawing-power destroyed their union, and, unencumbered by children, she fled to conquer the New World.
"Despite years of intercontinental stardom and a repertoire of such standard favourites as Oh, You Beautiful Doll and Everybody's Doin' It Now, Miss Barr died in a public ward leaving only £637."
-- Excerpt from Grace, Beauty and Banjos by Michael Kilgarriff, Oberon Books, 1998
The man behind Ida Barr, Chris Green charts the sometimes spooky process of developing his music hall/rap star pensioner persona, Ida Barr.
I was putting together a series of events at the Café de Paris in London. I had got some Arts Council money to resurrect old style variety. I needed a character to host the evenings. Whilst researching in the National Sound Archive at the British Library I heard a live recording of a minor Music Hall star in 1967. I was immediately thought 'that's it'. I'm going to resurrect this woman. A strange decision and probably unethical. She was called Ida Barr "the original ragtime gal", and her two big hits were "Everybody's Doing It" and "Oh You Beautiful Doll". I put together the basics of the character, without doing any more research but referenced (ie nicked) some of Ida's creaky gags.
I didn't perform again as Ida for a long time. During that period I worked with an old time drag legend Dockyard Doris, who out of the blue said, "You remind me of a lovely old music hall turn I used to go and see, Ida Barr". Hmmm.
Over the last 18 months I started performing the character more and more, culminating in this Edinburgh show, Artificial Hip Hop. About a year ago I decided to do more research. There is not a great deal available. Ida was not a major star - just a jobbing performer who sustained a moderately successful career for over 60 years. Which is one of the reasons I am interested in her. Who could fail by the pathos of the brief biog on the back of that album in the British Library. "Despite years of intercontinental stardom and a repertoire of standards, Ida lives alone on National Assistance, but always remains cheerful"
I performed the character in Sydney Australia in 2001 and was amazed when, after the show, a lady said she remembers her mother talking about going to see Ida in Melbourne in the late 20s.
In the reference book mentioned above, Grace, Beauty and Banjos by Michael Kilgarriff, there is a short biography of Ida. I was amazed by the following facts. I present them as coincidence - I don't know if I care to read anything more into them than that.
- I was born just over 9 months after Ida died.
- I had just completed a show called Pop Junkie, a sizeable part of which was about being proud of having red hair. I didn't know Ida also had red hair. Not only that but she was often billed as "Red Headed - and proud of it!" and my favourite "Redheaded - but clever!"
- Ida was only 1 inch shorter than I am, at 6' - extraordinary for a woman born in 1882. I'd assumed my stature was totally inappropriate but apparently not.
- Ida's close friend and colleague throughout her career was a performer called Dolly Harmer. My wonderful husband was called Harmer also.
At the end of last year, thanks to the British Music Hall Society, I spent a couple of weeks in the company of the trunk Ida donated to the Society on her death. Whilst there were no more strange coincidences it was wonderful to see all the personal effects of the woman to whom I am proud - and slightly bewildered - to be giving a new lease of life.