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Shipman in 1921
|Born||February 5, 1899|
|Died||April 13, 1984|
Early life and career
Helen Shipman was the daughter of William H. and Annie L. (Mitchell) Shipman of Pennsylvania. Her full name was Helen Phyllis Shipman. Helen's mother was a stage actress of some note in her youth, and her father was a printer who died in 1925. Her exact date of birth is unknown; however, it is believed that she was born in 1899.
Helen began performing at the age of three doing impressions of famous adult stars in the entertainment business. Her first professional job was as "Baby Phyllis" at the Duquesne Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She later (in 1908) toured on the B. F. Keith show circuit in a play titled Little Nemo. After that tour, she moved with her mother and older sister to New York City to advance her career, however, she continued to tour on the B.F. Keith show circuit. Between tours, she worked in variety shows at the Palace Theatre in NYC where she sang songs composed for her by the well-known lyricist, Neville Fleeson. It was in these shows that she got to know other entertainers such as Jimmy Durante and the Marx Brothers. She was childhood friends with Ira and George Gershwin, the latter of which became enamored with her. Nelson Eddy was also one of her suitors when she was a teenager in New York.
In 1915, Shipman was invited by Florenz Ziegfeld to co-star in his new Midnight Frolic production on the rooftop of the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City. She had her first starring role on Broadway in the musical Oh, Boy! in 1917, and followed that with another Broadway musical comedy, Oh Lady! Lady!. She then took the 1919 Broadway musical, Irene, on tour playing the title role and introducing the song "My Sweet Little Alice Bluegown" to audiences in places like Cleveland and Chicago. Her longest running Broadway play was The Lady In Ermine which ran for 232 performances at the Ambassador Theatre in 1922. She also starred in many other Broadway plays. Helen also performed in at least 14 movies including Christopher Bean (1933) with Beulah Bondi and Marie Dressler, Naughty Marietta (1935) with Nelson Eddy and Frank Morgan, San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, and Small Town Girl (1936) with Robert Taylor and James Stewart.
In 1937, Shipman married the Broadway, movie, and radio actor Edward Pawley while he was in Hollywood performing in movies. Pawley had been a star on Broadway and was the first actor to portray Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry character on the Broadway stage in 1928. Shipman effectively quit show business after their marriage and focused more attention on her other interests, such as gardening, the arts, reading and music. She was also an active member of the fraternal order known as the Rosicrucians. In 1951 when her husband left his starring role as 'Steve Wilson' on the very popular radio show, Big Town, they retired to Rappahannock County, Virginia. She died there of heart failure on April 13, 1984 at the age of 85. She did not have any children.
Helen Shipman has sometimes been confused with Helena Shipman who was born in the State of Washington and who married actor Robert Keith and had a son, Brian Keith, who became a famous actor in the movies and on TV. Helena Shipman was also a stage actress for a while, but never achieved the fame which Helen Shipman attained.
NOTE: Information contained in this article was taken from the book titled "Edward Joel Pawley: Broadway's Elmer Gantry, Radio's Steve Wilson, and Hollywood's Perennial Bad Guy", Outskirts Press, 2006, by Robert Gibson Corder, Ph.D.