Exclusive Interview Dick Barrymore from Powder (October 1980)
This story was interview is originally featured in the October 1980 issue of POWDER Magazine.
Before the printed world, in what we laughingly refer to as “primitive society”, there existed a very honorable, respected and essential profession known as the storyteller. These animated, engaging, fascination spellbinders were historians, educators, and entertainers all in one. They were the life of every prehistoric party and the keepers of their culture. They were the Dick Barrymores of their time.
Five minutes after I first met Dick Barrymore in Sun Valley, he was lying on his back on the floor describing his hilarious parody of the “egg position” (which he called the “omelette position”) in a thick Churmann accent and enjoying every minute of it, as if we were the best of friends and he had never told that story before. A half hour and two or three more great stories later, I invited Dick to do an interview for POWDER in honor of his upcoming anniversary—20 years as a ski film-maker. He agreed, marked a fate down on his shredded calendar and launched into another story even though he had a plane to catch and was running a little late. I figured that when it came time to really talk with him, I would need a lot of tape for the recorder and no more than one or two questions to get him rolling. I should have known better. I didn’t need questions at all.
Barrymore: People always wanted to know how I got started in skiing, you know, “How’d you get started making ski movies?” So the other day I sat down and asked myself, “When did I really first start skiing?”, which was kind of interesting because I’ve been skiing for over 30 years not, and it didn’t seem like a lot ’till I added it all up. Anyway, I started when I was in the Cub Scouts. It was 1948, and everybody was going to the snow. Whenever it snows, the Cub Scouts pit their rubber boots on, everybody grabs a piece of cardboard, 5 mamas drive their cars and everybody goes and plays in the snow, right? So this was a snow day, and since I was a good guy and had earned all my badges, I was going to go to the Frazier Park and go play in the snow. I was delivering newspapers in Highland Park then and on my route was a guy who owned a sporting good store. I used to chat with the guy about skis (he was a ski jumper in college back East somewhere) and I was fascinated, so I rented a pair of skis from this guy. They were old things with cable bindings, and they came with a pair of poles but I didn’t have any boots. So I went home and got a pair of army paratrooper boots, the kind with double buckles on the top. Then, I took a file and filed a groove all the way around the rubber in the heels in both boots so the cables would fit. So here’s all these kids showing up with a piece of cardboard, and rubber boots and the whole thing, and here comes Dick Barrymore, the weirdo of Troop 212, and he’s got 7-foot skis, and poles, and paratrooper boots. The mothers are saying, “This isn’t going to work, where’re we going to put the skis? You’ve screwed up, Richard, you’re the only kid in the whole troop….” But I finally convinced them to put the skis inside and everybody had to sit on the tips. So we all drove up to Frazier Park, and got out. And started walking up this hill, there were no lifts or anything, and it’s sloppy, wet, heavy snow, which I thought was normal, and I carried these things all the way up to the top of the hill, strapped these mothers on, and everybody down at the bottom yelling, “Richard, we hope you bust your butt,” because they’d been sitting on my tips for hours. I’m standing up there on the top of the hill, and (you know what’s going to happen), down I go in this junk, and, of course, I bury both my tips after about 20 yards, and do a complete elbow roll, and come up all wet. Well, everybody thought that was great, and I spent the day traipsing around up there with these old skis on and I didn’t really think it was that much fun to tell you the truth.
Powder: Can we title this interview, “The Weirdo of Troop 212″?
Barrymore: Weirdo of Troop 212, right. Anyway, that was the way I started. Then a few years later, a kid I was in school with said, “You’ve got to go skiing!” I said, “Oh, thanks, but I’ve already done that.” He said, “No, you’ve got to go. It’s really great!” So we borrowed a pair of skis from his brother, and I borrowed a pair of lace-up boots, and went to Snow Valley, that was in 1949m and I had the time of my life, and we rode that rope tow and snow plowed down and by the end of the day I could turn right and turn left and stop and I was hooked, and that was it. From then on I diverted almost all my energy into the sport of skiing.
Barrymore: I was about 15.
Powder: When did the camera enter into it?
Barrymore: Well, the camera entered into it years later, after I’d done a whole lot of other things. I’d been in the Air Force, and I’d become a fireman. And I’d sit in the fire station and was Jack Douglass’, Search For Adventure, and Golden Voyage on the T.V. And there was always some guy paddling a kayak up the Nile, or “Tonight in our studio audience is Dr. John Goddard who’s just returning with some exciting footage…,” and here’s this guy with a little Bolex and as far as I was concerned the guy was making a fortune. (The only guy making money was Jack Douglass, but I didn’t know that). And I’d sit there and watch these travel shows in the fire station, and I’d say, “I can do that. I’ve done a whole bunch of things like that.
Powder: Have you done a whole bunch of things like that?
Barrymore: When I was in the Air Force I was in survival school for 4 years, and I was a survival instructor. So I traipsed around Hawaii, living off the land in Kalalau Valley, and I also surfer the North Shore when I was there in ’55 and ’56, and I skied a season in Aspen as a ski bum, and worked up there for the Forest Service and fought fires in ’52 and ’53. So I was sitting around the fire station with a good job, but I also had 20 days a month off. I decided I could make these travelogues and put them together in the fire station, so I took off and went to Hawaii to relive the experience I’d had in Kalalau Valley, living off the land for a month, backpacking in, and doing the survival thing in paradise. I bought a Bolex and went over there with my wife and a couple of my surfing friends from Seal Beach, and we did just that, and I made a film of it to make my fortune on the Jack Douglass Golden Voyage Show. They paid me 375 bucks. That was my first sale. I went on the show and the announcer said, “Here we are taking a Golden Voyage with Dick Barrymore back into the Valley of the Lost Tribe.” The following year, I decided to go into the ski movie business.
Powder: Did you feel like a celebrity?
Barrymore: Well, I was a celebrity in the fire station.
Powder: What did the trip cost you?
Barrymore: $1,800 I think.
Powder: You didn’t see a great future in films then?
Barrymore: Well, I spent $1,800 and got back $375 and I had to borrow from the credit union to do it.
Powder: Recently I saw the “Last of the Ski Bums” one of your early films. Was that your first film?
Barrymore: No, that was my 7th, but it was still an early film.
Powder: The whole time I was watching it, I had the feeling you were having a tremendous time filming it, I had the feeling you were having a tremendous time filming it. Now, two questions. One, were you having a tremendous time filming it, and two, are you still having a tremendous time making ski films?
Barrymore: I had a good time filming it, because as a film maker and a skier, I was able to start with an idea and take it from the beginning to the end, personally, I had no help. I just had those three guys, Ron Funk, Ed Ricks, and Mike Zutell, and we started with a $12,000 budget to make a 90 minute picture in Europe. We just made it up as we toured around the Alps ski bumming. We were living in the can and taking refuge from whoever would give us a room, whether it would be the tourist office or some girls who had a bath. We were looking for baths and things like that.
Powder: Like girls?
Barrymore: Girls too. There was a lot of pressure. We were trying to get the job done before we ran out of money. Although we had a $12,000 budget, we didn’t have all the money with us. When we were in Chamonix, about half way through, I send my brother this panic telegram that said, “Douglass, we’re out of money, please send money immediately in care of Tourist Office in Chaminox.” We were staying at the hotel Du ‘Midi, it was a five-flight walk up with no bath, I remember that, and finally the girl at the tourist office tells me, “Dick, the telegram’s here,” and I said, “My money’s here!” I ran to the tourist office and opened it up, and it was a telegram from my brother that had crossed mine in the mail, and it said, “Going under here in Dana Point. Send back some money!” So there we were, my brother didn’t have any money, he was expecting me to send him some of the money I took over, and I was expecting him to send me some, and we were half way through the movie.
Powder: Didn’t you see that as a flash of things to come?
Barrymore: Not Really. We did get an advance from the French Tourism Office in New York and we finally finished the film.
Powder: Where’d you get the money to do “Ski Bums” in the first place? Did the tourism office finance everything or did you have outside investors?
Barrymore: No, that was our 7th picture, so we’d been in business 7 years. I was only about $100,000 in debt at the time, but we figured this would be out big hit, and Bruce Brown was making a fortune with the Endless Summer so we figured this was a natural. I had an office next door to Bruce Brown in Dana Point then, and Bruce kept coming over to my office every morning to get coffee, (I had a coffee machine). He would come in with the day’s mail and say, “Look at that, I got another check for $100,000 bucks, look at that.” I’m sitting there trying to edit my film, and Bruce would get a cup of coffee, and say, “Look at these great reviews in the New York Times, ‘Endless Summer, does great in the box office,’ ” and I’m sitting there going broke.
Powder: Things aren’t quite that bad not are they?
Barrymore: Well, “20 Years of Skiing” is going to be a good film, I think. It’s a classic film about the highlights of 20 years of skiing and making ski films. Now, if you ask me if I had the same enjoyment making this one, remember, the pressure’s on when you try to outdo yourself every year for 22 years. To make a film as good as the one last year is not too difficult, because I know what people will buy, and I know what they like, but it’s difficult to sit down and be creative when you know you have to come with a 90 minute picture next year that’s different and better than last year’s film.
Powder: What’s the best film you’ve ever made?
Barrymore: There are different films for different reasons. There are films that are the best experiences, there are films that are the most successful moneywise, and there are films that I’ve received the most enjoyment out of making. The most successful I ever made was a 90-minute film, The High Cost of a Free Ride. Why? Because I had a chance to diversify, I had a chance to do some hand-gliding. It was a chance to go to Hawaii with Mike Doyle and spend a little time shooting some surfing. I could do a little skateboarding. It just let me apply new things to a ski movie. To me, it was a rewarding film, because it wasn’t 90 minutes back-to-back of people jumping off of rocks, doing kickouts. So, personally, that was my most successful film. As far as public goes, it was Vegabond Skiers, last year’s film. I know because I didn’t have anybody complain. You always find somebody complaining. And I’ve always had trouble with women who say, “Why aren’t there more women in the film?” It’s not because I don’t like girls, it’s just that good female skiers are harder to come by one the slopes than guys are. This year I didn’t get any complaints.
Powder: What about The Performers?
Barrymore: The Performers was the most successful promo-film I ever made. When you talk about promotional films and lecture films, you must distinguish between the two. A promotional film is a film that has some sort of commercial message into it that is sponsored by a ski area or by Buick or Schlitz or K2, even if it’s a soft sell approach, there’s still a product. So the ski movie business is divided into two markets, the The Performers, which I did for K2, always has been, and still is, a very enjoyable film to watch.
Powder: Do you know when you’ve got a winner like that?
Barrymore: When I put the five guys together that I had, I knew we had a winner. It came out 26 minutes long, and we were all together, under contract, for a whole year. We started putting the program together in October and by December we were on the road East in a bus and living together. It was a great experience and the film shows it.
Powder: You don’t think there’ll come a time when some manufacturer will ask you to do a pure powder film?
Barrymore: Well, I’d like to do it, but there just isn’t anybody that manufactures anything that would pay for a feature powder film. That’d be a fun film to do. As far as I’m concerned, the heliskiing footage I did for CMH was the best job I ever had. I got to ski powder for 5 weeks at the expense of Hans Gmoser, and Hans was paying me to do it. I skied a hundred thousand feet every week for 5 weeks and went to 5 different ski areas all through the Canadian Rockies. That, for me, was one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve had in a long time.
Powder: Since you’ve sampled all the other vices know to man, how would you rate helicopter skiing in the bugaboos or the cariboos?
Barrymore: As a personal experience it’s the only skiing I ever get really excited about now. You get a little jaded year after year. As you ability changes, your sense of enjoyment from skiing changes. I don’t get the same enjoyment out of going out on a mediocre day when it’s flat light and rattling my way through icy bumps. People say, “Let’s go skiing.” I say, “No way. I’m not going to go out there and do that.” I do get excited about a really good day at Sun Valley because I know the mountain well and can ski it fast, just really rattling, and, of course, I love helicopter skiing in Canada. I started heli-skiing in 1969, and I’ve always said the same thing, it’s a religious experience. It always has been for me. And, for what little religion I have, that is it. Just standing on top of that mountain and looking around, just being there is 90% of it. And then to be able to make turns and not be worried about somebody sneaking up behind you, that, to me, is the best skiing in the world. And plus, if you do it on a single ski, it’s even better.
Powder: So when everybody’s gone, God goes back there and skis?
Barrymore: Right. That’s his spot.
Powder: You mentioned Sun Valley. Of the lift-service areas, is that your favorite? Or is that not a fair question?
Barrymore: No, that’s fair. I live there, but I get to ski a lot of places. When the valley’s good, and, granted, Sun Valley is a small, relatively dry, inter-mountain area, and we don’t get the huge amounts of snow, but when Sun Valley’s got good snow, and it doesn’t take much snow to get Sun Valley good, the it’s the best place in the world. There just isn’t any place better.
Barrymore: Well, for one thing, everything is relatively close. You get to the top of a lift and you’ve got a place to go down. You don’t ski across any flat spots. It’s downhill all the way. You go around the world and you’ll find a lot of hills where you ski down and then flat and then down and then flat, the hill goes up in steps, but Sun Valley is all downhill for 3,300 feet and you’re putting the brakes on the whole time. Most of the lines are short because they have a good system for moving people and Sun Valley is small enough (there’s no Denver, or Salt Lake, and Los Angeles piling up in there every morning), so it’s just the people who are staying in Sun Valley or Ketchum who are using the mountain. So you’ve got short lift lines, you’ve got a hill that’s maintained well, groomed well, and you’ve got good snow.
Powder: So are you thinking of becoming a Mormon now that the new area owner is a Mormon?
Barrymore: No, I already was one.
Powder: Were you really?
Barrymore: Yep. I was 3 years old.
Powder: Is your family still Mormon?
Barrymore: Oh, yes. The family’s all Mormon on my mother’s side. My father was a Russian cowboy.
Powder: Wait a minute. Your father was a Russian cowboy?
Powder: You expect us to believe that?
Barrymore: It’s true.