Voice coach Barbara Walter is one of the Island’s hidden treasures. Her name might not be instantly familiar but she has spent a lifetime in the theatrical business performing and teaching.
As one of the founding members of the Shanklin Stagecoach theatre group, scores of children have passed through her hands including the Island’s own West End star Laura Michelle Kelly.
Some of Barbara’s earliest memories are ones of singing.
“My father used to have card games round the house and he would come and get me out of bed to sing to his friends. I’d be half asleep singing songs. It was good though as they all used to throw in a sixpence.”
Barbara was born in Cardiff, Wales. Her father was from a Welsh mining background and her mother was English. By the age of nine she was singing between shows at her local cinema and was spotted by an agent who was keen for her to go to London to sing.
“This was during the war and my father refused to let me go. They were quite rightly worried about all the bombing raids London was experiencing.
“I wasn’t happy about it at the time but in those days mum and dad definitely had the last say. It didn’t make much difference in the end because I was still doing dancing shows and concerts.”
At the age of 17 Barbara became the youngest member of the Welsh National Opera where she stayed for three years. Her career then moved on to clubs and variety shows.
She says: “The clubs were more of a necessity. It was all down to money. Clubs paid more than the Opera.” Variety led to Barbara working with some of the biggest names in showbusiness from Morecambe and Wise to Petula Clark and Tommy Steele. She was also a great friend of Shirley Bassey.
“We lived at the opposite ends of the town from each other and were in lots of shows together in our early days and when we both went up to London.”
Barbara continued to work after marrying and having two children, a son and a daughter. She adds: “Work meant having to go away rather a lot. My mother and my father were fantastic at helping me out with the children.
“But it was hard working away from home, especially if you are family orientated like me.”
It was whilst doing a summer season at Southsea that Barbara visited the Isle of Wight for the first time. “A group of us came over for a visit and we were all so struck by it that we all said we would come here to retire one day.”
As it turned out, Barbara ended up moving to the Island earlier than she had planned. “My mother had a stroke and we made the decision to come to the Island permanently. We ran the Montague Hotel in Sandown for four years and I continued working at Shanklin Theatre as a professional.”
In more recent years Barbara has found her work teaching and coaching young people of all abilities particularly rewarding.
“It’s fantastic whether it’s a child you see has the ability and determination to go on and make it as a professional or whether they are just going to go on and enjoy performing in their school productions.”
Barbara’s most well-known pupil has been Laura Michelle Kelly who shot to fame two years ago in Cameron Mackintosh’s West End production of Mary Poppins. Since then Laura Michelle has performed on Broadway in Fiddler On The Roof alongside Alfred Molina. And she has recently been cast in a film version of Sweeney Todd with Johnny Depp and in a musical of Lord of the Rings. Barbara has a close relationship with her protégéé.
“She’s always asking me to her first nights which is lovely and I was able to go and see her in New York in Fiddler. Sometimes she will ring me up just for some advice and we’ll discuss how best to reach certain notes, that sort of thing. They are such a lovely family and Laura Michelle hasn’t changed at all. She is just the way she’s always been.”
Barbara now has the ear of the Vice President of Disney Productions, Tom Schumacher. She says: “I met him at a First Night and he said how wonderful it was to have a performer like Laura Michelle. He said if I come across any more like her I must tell him immediately.”
Barbara continues to sing herself when she can although she has a tendency to suffer from laryngitis.
Despite not being in the best of health – Barbara says she has recently had a double heart bypass and a new valve – she still teaches every day.
She adds: “Maybe in a year or two I might think about retiring.” Until then, no doubt, the show will go on.