Peter Barbour

Variety stilt-walker
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The Independent Online

The variety artiste Peter Barbour towered - quite literally - over his contemporaries, in a career which encompassed six decades. He was a stilt-walker in an unusual speciality act that took him to all the leading British music-hall and variety theatres and to many foreign countries too, ending up with a long stint in America for the Walt Disney organisation.

The son of a comedian and stage producer, Roy Barbour, who was noted for summer shows, revues and panto, Peter was the middle of three sons who all went on to become stilt-walkers. He was born in Skegness in 1922 and began as a dancer and comedian in variety and revues, joining his elder brother, Roy Jnr. Within two years of his stage début at the Leeds Empire Theatre, he was appearing in London. He and Roy followed in the elongated footsteps of the celebrated Little Tich by performing the difficult long-boot dance as a speciality.

The Second World War interrupted their success on the stage, Roy being drafted into South-East Asia Command for four years, while Peter enlisted in the Royal Artillery for five. Later, they were both able to work together in the Ensa production Stars in Battledress, touring in Germany. It was there that Peter met his future wife, Jean Dooley, a singer in the show. Demobilised in 1946, the brothers resumed their stage career and in 1952 Jean joined Peter and Roy in the long-boot dance routine and also mastered the high stilts, which became a hallmark of their act, a debonair top-hat-and-tails dance number.

They worked in every major theatre and, at one time, also travelled with their own revue company before Roy left to form an act of his own, puppetry on stilts, with his wife, Billie. Peter recreated his "Little Tich" dance routine for a Royal Variety Show performance at Drury Lane in 1983.

Peter's daughter, Sue, took her mother's place in the act eventually and father and daughter forged a successful version of the stilt-walking act for the West End premiere in 1981 of the Broadway musical Barnum, which starred Michael Crawford. In 1983, they were asked to join the cast of the show for its Berlin premiere but returned later to London for Crawford's revival of the show at the Victoria Palace.

After they had spent five years with Barnum, a Walt Disney talent spotter auditioned the Barbours for a role at one of the American company's theme parks, which resulted in their playing for seven years as stilt-walking Beefeaters at the Epcot Centre in Orlando, Florida. It was while later working at the Orlando theme park of Universal Studios that Peter Barbour suffered a stroke which necessitated his retirement from show business.

D. Nevil