Barry Shipman : A Memorial Tribute
To a Friend
by Mike Newton
Reprinted from Classic Images, no. 232 (October 1994)
A storyteller without equal, a weaver of fantasies and dreams in a Never Never Land of brave heroes, virtuous heroines, and dastardly villains—and a good friend. To me, Barry Shipman was all of these things.
He held the secret to the location of the Durango Kid's hideout cave. He knew the true identity behind the masks of the Lone Ranger, Zorro, the Lightning, the Spider, and the Mysterious Mr. M. He helped to design the Wing, a futuristic airplane that came to life on the serial screen in 1936 and later became the blueprint for a U.S. Air Force strategic bomber. He knew the literal translation of the term "Oom-Gowah" and what "Kemo Sabe" really meant.
Each week, he thrilled us with his creations: the rushing torrent of water sweeping the Santa Monica Tunnel as the hero attempts to escape it on a motorcycle; a taxi cab with no windows and locked doors, being filled slowly with poisonous gas as Dick Tracy and his G-Men struggle to escape; leaps across rooftops that would challenge any Olympic hurdle jumper, but were all in a day's work for the Durango Kid.
As a boy, Barry Shipman had dreamed up his own monsters that lurked under the bed and then imagined himself as the superhero who killed them. It was these boyhood fantasies that he transferred to paper for a generation of Saturday afternoon fans. For those of us in the audience, not yet old enough to take on the responsibilities of adult life, Barry Shipman allowed us to live vicariously through the thrilling deeds of the hero on the screen. When we learned the following week that the hero didn't really die in that raging ride or explosion, we didn't feel cheated. After all, he was the hero and there were more chapters to come. That was Barry Shipman's talent—making the implausible seem plausible.
"I wrote for the 12-year-old mind," he once said. "For the twelve-year-old in all of us."
The list of screen heroes he helped to create are legendary: Dick Tracy, the Lone Ranger, Zorro, the Three Mesquiteers, the Durango Kid, Flash Gordon, Ramar of the Jungle, Kit Carson, and the Daredevils of the Red Circle.
His villains were no less memorable: the Lightning, Ming the Merciless, the Spider, Don Del Oro, and some heavies who didn't have colorful names but were still nasty.
Among his personal friends were Ralph Byrd, who portrayed Dick Tracy on screen; Charles Starrett who wore who wore the mask of the Durango Kid; and director William Witney who directed many of the serials Barry wrote.
On the first serial for which he was credited, “Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island,” Barry created an extra chapter out of footage already shot and made it an entirely new episode. The serial was the only one Republic ever made with 14 chapters. The rest were either 12 or 15 chapters.
The "Lone Ranger" serial was in production before it was decided which of the five suspects would be unmasked as the Ranger. Suspicion of the Ranger's identity was shared between Lee Powell, Hal Taliaferro, Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett, George (Letz) Montgomery, and Lane Chandler.
Barry suggested a poll be taken among the production crew, excluding the actors. It was decided that Lee Powell would be the face behind the Ranger's mask.
&During WWII, he served with the U.S. Marines, working with a combat photography unit documenting the war in the Pacific.
After the war, Barry returned to Hollywood to write the last serial Universal would ever produce, “The Mysterious Mr. M.” It would be the last serial he would ever write.
Going over to Columbia, he would write for the “Durango Kid” series starring Charles Starrett from 1946-52. This masked Robin Hood of the Old West would become associated with Barry and was one of the last B-Western series to leave the screen, a casualty of the new medium of television.
By this time, Barry and his wife Gwynne [Beulah Shipman’s stage name], a former Paramount actress who had worked in a Hopalong Cassidy film, had three children. At bedtime, the Shipman children were rewarded with one of their dad's to-be-continued stories, with less red-blooded action than he wrote for the screen.
Beginning in 1950, Barry began writing for television, in between screen assignments. Kids of the post-war Fifties thrilled to the adventures of Kit Carson, Ramar of the Jungle, Shotgun Slade, and others that came from the Shipman typewriter.
Before it closed its doors, Republic Pictures produced “Stranger At My Door” from Barry's script about an outlaw who crosses the path of the minister who reforms him just before he is killed. Critics who usually regarded Republic westerns as juvenile entertainment recognized this film as a masterpiece.”
Barry was finally given visual recognition when he was interviewed on “Our World,” the television program that examined different years each week. Along with Jock Mahoney, Charles Starrett's stunt double, he was interviewed for his contributions to the "Durango Kid" series.
It was through that program that we became acquainted. His letters were informative, warm, friendly, and always much too short. Always begging off to make more time to work on his various projects, including a play on his famous mother Nell (a pioneer in the silent film industry), he answered as many questions as his time would permit and a 50-year-old Front Row Kid could dream up.
"Instead of sitting there, gathering moss, why don't you put that typewriter to work and start gathering rejection slips," he gently chided us. This advice came from a man who was already at an age when many people are content to sit back and reminisce about their past laurels.
In his brief appearances on a couple of television documentaries on the serial and his mother, Barry showed a sense of humor and vitality that had not been dampened by the adversities of life.
He loved animals and always had a kind word for our cat Sparky and dog Skippy. His dog Muffin would never know a better master.
We were supposed to meet finally in person at the Knoxville Film Festival in May. It would be a Republic Reunion. Barry, his wife Gwynne, their daughter Nina and granddaughter Lani, both actresses in their own right, would all be there. Billy Witney would be there. Peggy Stewart, Helen Talbot, Penny Edwards, and Frank Coghlan would all be there. So would the 50-year-old kid from the Front Row.
There would be laughter, stories shared, and friendships rekindled. But reality doesn't go by a script. It has no respect for dreams and hopes. Sometimes it can be awfully cruel.
We learned too late that Barry wouldn't be attending because he had an incurable cancer, something that couldn't be written out of the script in the next chapter.
Barry treated his illness just as a bad break, one of those curveballs life sometimes throws our way—the kind that goes over the plate before we have a chance to swing.
His conversations on the phone were always optimistic and upbeat. No matter if we called while he was entertaining family and friends, he always had time to talk.
On the evening of Sunday, August 14, we got the call we had been dreading. His daughter Nina took her grief like a professional trouper and called so that we would be spared the pain of reading it in cold, black print.
But some friendships never die. We have all of Barry's letters, videos of his films, and his appearances on camera. Those along with some great memories of sitting in a darkened theater long ago watching his stories on the screen, will keep the "12-year-old" alive in this 50-year-old Front Row Kid for a long time.
And that's the best legacy and friend can leave behind.
Reprinted with permission of Mike Newton
Mike Newton has donated his collection of Barry Shipman’s letters and videos to Albertsons Library at Boise State University