A Biographical Sketch
The son of two show-business parents, Barry Shipman (1912-1994) spent a lifetime in the film industry. He made cameo appearances in silent films, scripted some of Flash Gordon’s and Dick Tracy’s most memorable adventures, penned television Westerns, and produced technical films on the space program and Cold War weapons systems. His father, Ernest Shipman, was a theatrical producer and financier who met Barry’s mother, Nell, an actress, when she auditioned for a part in one of his shows. They married on the road in 1911, settled in Southern California, and become pioneers in the emerging film industry. There Barry was born, on February 24, 1912, in South Pasadena.
When Barry was small, his mother wrote scenarios for the silent screen, but as he grew older, she began acting again, and Barry spent a good part of his childhood in the Hollywood studios or “on location,” meeting many of the great stars of the silent era. Nell Shipman became a star herself, playing leading lady to the likes of William Duncan, Lou Tellegen, and Gayne Whitman, and appearing regularly in, and on the covers of, the fan magazines of the day. Nell Shipman’s ambition, however, was to make her own movies, and after she divorced Ernest Shipman, Barry accompanied her on many of her filmmaking ventures. Big Bear, in the San Bernardino Mountains, was a frequent haunt. Barry spent most of 1922-1924 with Nell in Spokane, Washington, and at her ill-fated “movie camp” on Priest Lake, Idaho. His childhood adventures in the wilds of North Idaho, snow-bound in the winters, miles from the closest towns, with the colorful characters and the wild animals that made up his mother’s menagerie, formed indelible impressions that he would revisit in writings much later in his life. When Nell Shipman’s Idaho filmmaking venture collapsed in1925, Barry accompanied her East, to Connecticut, Florida, Spain, and Florida again, before returning with her California in 1928. Together with Nell’s partner, Charles Austin Ayers, their two children Daphne and Charles Ayers (born in Spain), and good friend Dick Diaz, they set out on their cross-country automobile trek from Miami immediately after the close of Nell’s stage play , “Are Screen Stars Dumb?” Barry had a major role in the play, but image-conscious Nell Shipman, hoping for a Hollywood comeback, told the press that her handsome teenaged co-star was her younger brother.
Back in California, Barry Shipman began acting and dancing and worked with the Mission Play in San Gabriel before landing small parts in film. In 1934 he married Beulah McDonald, a contract actress with Paramount, who as Gwynne Shipman, appeared in some of the Hopalong Cassidy films of the ‘30s. But Barry Shipman turned his career toward the writing end of the business, instead. His first story to make it to the silver screen was Shakedown, produced by Columbia in 1936, but most of his early work was for the serials. His first was the Republic Pictures adventure Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936). He also wrote for Dick Tracy, Lone Ranger, and Zorro, among others, for Republic, and Flash Gordon for Universal. His mother often tempted him with offers to collaborate on the independent projects she envisioned, but, with a wife and daughter to support, he always declined, as gracefully as he could, in favor of the relative security of studio work. During World War II, along with a number of his Hollywood colleagues, he served with the Marine Corps Photographic Section at Quantico, Virginia. Looking back on his World War II service forty years later, he wrote: “Me?… I saw all the action at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Pearl Harbor, you name it. Yes sir! I sat through almost every USMC Pacific operation in either my Quantico or Ford Island [Hawaii] projection booth and rose in rank from 1st Lt. To Major doing it!” He was slated to lead a contingent of Marine Corps photographers during the invasion of Japan, but the sudden end of the war brought his military career to an end as well.
After the war, Shipman returned to Hollywood, and resumed his work writing for the studios, making his most notable mark with the Durango Kid serials for Columbia. With the fade-out of the Saturday morning cliffhangers in the early 1950s, though, he switched to television, working as a story and scriptwriter, both freelance and on contract, mainly for Revue Studios. Among his television credits are episodes of Death Valley Days, The Adventures of Kit Carson, Lassie, Shotgun Slade, and State Trooper. He also wrote motion picture screenplays for a number of Westerns in the late 1940s and 1950s. One of them in particular, Stranger at My Door (1956), directed by his friend William Witney for Republic Pictures, received a good measure of critical claim.
Bills, writers’ strikes, and the inconsistent pay of freelance work impelled Shipman to look for steadier employment, so in 1962 he went to work as a consultant for the U.S. Navy, writing scripts for training films. Three years later he became a fulltime civilian employee of the Air Force, writing and producing films for its audio-visual service, first at Lookout Mountain, California, and later at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino. He traveled extensively in that work, including trips to Vietnam and the DEW line in the Canadian Arctic. Once, while on assignment to gather information for a film on the space program, he encountered some uncooperative engineers. “Me and my little tape recorder didn’t even exist until I happened to make the remark that my knowledge of space was limited to the Flash Gordon serials, some of which I had written. ‘Hey!’ the word went out. ‘He used to write the Flash Gordons!’ The young egg-heads had grown up on the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers stuff…bubbling dry ice, smoke from rocket ships drifting in space and all! From then on I had no more problems getting the information I wanted.” He retired from government service in 1979.
Shipman’s retirement coincided with a revival of interest in the films and career of his mother, Nell Shipman. Though long forgotten by the general public, she was fondly remembered in North Idaho, and in 1977 (seven years after her death), a point of land projecting into Priest Lake was named “Shipman Point,” in her honor. Barry Shipman and his family traveled to Idaho to attend the dedication ceremonies, and he became reacquainted with many of his childhood friends and associates. Then in 1984, he received a telephone call from Tom Trusky, an English professor at Boise State University, who was investigating her life and career as part of a project to identify Idaho films and filmmakers. So began a collaboration between the two which resulted in the posthumous publication of Nell Shipman’s autobiography, reconsideration of her career by academics in the U.S. and abroad, and screenings of her films at festivals from Idaho to Italy. Barry wrote extensively about his mother’s career and their experiences together, particularly at Priest Lake, and he enjoyed promoting her revival. He seemed a bit bemused, however, when he himself was “rediscovered” by fans of the serials and began receiving invitations to film festivals and conferences featuring his own work. He was scheduled to take part in the Western Film Caravan in Knoxville, Tenn., in early 1994 but became too ill to attend. He died in San Bernardino on August 12, 1994, at the age of 82. At the time, he was working on a screenplay based on his experiences with Nell Shipman at Priest Lake.
Barry and Beulah Shipman had three children, a daughter Nina, born in California, and twin sons, Michael and Noel, born in Virginia during Barry Shipman’s military service in Quantico. An amateur inventor as well as a writer, Shipman held several patents, including one for a sun-tanning device known as the “Sun Tan Tree.” Professionally, he was a member of the Screen Writers Guild and Writers Guild of America and was active in both. In his retirement, he billed himself as a “Media Imaginist” on his personal letterhead. Reflecting on his mother’s and his own life experiences, he sometimes mused on the conflicts that creative artists encounter when trying to balance the practical, financial requirements of life with the goal of unfettered artistic freedom. Nevertheless, he wrote in 1987, “I’d rather be the author, playwright, conceiver of a good show than be the owner of six downtown parking lots.”
-- Alan Virta
Quotations above come from a letter to Douglas Bankson dated May 11, 1987, found in the collection (Box 13, Folder 9)
Link to the Finding Aid for the collection
Link to the Memorial Tribute by Mike Newton