Friday, March 01, 2024

The Emmy™Award-Winning Documentary Film

"Broadcast" version now airing on most public television stations.

"Uncensored" version now on DVD and in film festivals.

Synopsis: A charismatic figure featured in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, Florence "Pancho" Barnes was one of the most important women in 20th Century aviation. A tough and fearless aviatrix, Pancho was a rival of Amelia Earhart's who made a name for herself as Hollywood's first female stunt pilot. Just before WWII she opened a ranch near Edwards Air Force Base that became a famous -- some would say notorious -- hangout for test pilots and movie stars. Known as the "Happy Bottom Riding Club", it became the epicenter of the aviation world during the early jet age. Chuck Yeager celebrated breaking the sound barrier there in 1947, and Howard Hughes and Jimmy Doolittle caroused in the bar. The Club's destruction by fire in 1953 is seen by many to mark the end of a Golden Era in post-WWII aviation. In the same fashion Pancho herself has become something of a legend, a fascinating yet enigmatic icon whose swagger is often celebrated, but whose story has been largely unknown. Until now.

A documentary film produced and written by Nick Spark and directed by Amanda Pope. Featuring interviews with test pilots Bob Cardenas, Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and biographers Barbara Schultz and Lauren Kessler. Narrated by Tom Skerritt with Kathy Bates as the voice of Pancho Barnes.

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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"
18 March 2011

One Wonderful Artifact

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People who have read the Production Journal, attended one of our screenings, or listened to the commentary track on the DVD know that our entire project started as the result of a chance meeting.  A few years ago while trying to write an article for Wings magazine about Pancho, I happened to speak with Dr. Lou D’Elia.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Lou and his friend Mike Salazar had recently purchased thGuestbookcovere bulk of Pancho Barnes’ estate.  Lou didn’t mention that on the phone when we first talked.  Instead he simply invited me out to his Pasadena apartment to see some “stuff”.  When I arrived, Lou had arranged a large cardboard Banker’s Box  on the dining room table.  It turned out that inside, were many wonderful treasures including photos of Pancho with Jimmy Doolittle, Pancho with Amelia Earhart, Pancho posing with Bob Hoover, Jack Ridley and Chuck Yeager, Pancho’s original pilot’s license, brochures from the Happy Bottom Riding Club and more.  It wasn’t until we’d reached the bottom of the box, and I’d seen many treasures, that Lou leveled with me and explained that he had over ninety additional boxes from Pancho’s estate.  That was the moment that I realized that I’d have to follow my article with a full-blown documentary film – but that’s another story.

Artifacts have been on my mind recently for one simple reason — I was just interviewed for a TV show called History Detectives that uses unique, antique items to delve into history.  Anyway, it got me thinking.  Out of all the "Pancho" things I saw that day, and in the subsequent months and then years (!) of work on the film, certain artifacts in Lou and Mike’s collection really stand out.  For example, there are stacks of photos of Pancho shot by famed Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, each one of them painting a different portrait of this tough, wonderful woman.  There is an actual painting, done sometime after she returned from Mexico by an anonymous artist, a stylized scene showing Pancho the adventurer standing on the deck of a sailing ship in her masculine disguise.  There is the wild and crazy poster promoting Pancho's rodeo, featurGuestbook5ing her own version of a nude Lady Godiva and a note that "children are welcome" to attend.  There is a pistol, an ancient and probably non-firing relic that Pancho supposedly kept hidden in her famous bar just below the cash register, in case some of the customers got a little too rowdy.  And there is that pilot’s license, signed by Orville Wright and featured prominently in our film.

Guestbook3But none of these can really compare to the one wonderful artifact that I saw that first day, that last item in fact which was at the very bottom of Lou’s cardboard box.  It was something I initially thought must be a photo album, because it was just over a foot long by maybe ten inches high, and a couple inches thick, and had a 1940s wooden cover decorated with a cut-out bucking bronco (see photo above).  I was disappointed to open it and see there were no photos in this album, and then stunned to realize what it really was: the guest book from the Happy Bottom Riding Club, circa 1946-47.   I flipped through its pages and found a window into the era of “The Right Stuff”, and a real testament to the affection all the greatest pilots in the world had for Pancho.  They loved her and her establishment, and the fact that it was one place they could truly let their hair down and have some fun.

Flip through the pages of the guest book with me now and you’ll see some things that draw a smile, many of them — what can we say — typical of bad boy pilots then and now.  The drawing at left is typical.  There's also a nude with the caption “It’s tough to find in these here parts”, scrawled by Republic Aviation’s Nicholas Marchitell.  Another inscription points an arrow between a set of sexy legs with the comment, “Kilroy was here!”  “If you ever get her address,” writes Walter Moore next to a similar sketch of a vivacious-looking bunny, ”let me know.”

So the majority of the sketches in the book are primitive or a tad obscene, and the best are usually both.  But others are neither…  On one page Ward Kimball, one of Walt Disney’s best animators, drew a sweet cartoon depicting a flight up to the ranch with his wife Betty.  “Shooting stars all night!” is the caption, and if you’ve been in the Mojave Desert at night you know the magic of which he writes.

A few notable scribbles are a bit cryptic, but give a hint at what went on at Pancho’s place — stress relief.  People imbibing to the point where they’d see not only shooting stars but pink elephants. “We all enjoyed our visit and drinks” writes someone with a wink, while another comments “it’s been quite an experience” and a third comments “while we are still able to write, our names are Lucille and Walter.”   Another visitor, Walter Muller, dubs Pancho’s place the “World’s greatest service station” and it certainly must have been.  The next nearest food and libation was quite a long ways away, and the proprietor couldn’t of had a hundredth of Pancho’s character.Guestbook7

Famous names abound on these brittle pages, and while the ink may slightly faded and the handwriting hard to decipher, it’s worth the trouble to try.  Pilots and aviation folks like Dick Frost, Walter Williams, and Gene May are all here. In October of 1947, probably just days before it happened, May wrote “Pancho — a big party is scheduled at Rancho Oro Verde upon accomplish of Mach 1.00  Look forward!”   Below that is an inscription by one J.W. Russell stating, “Supersonic days are here.”  Just a few pages away the man who made it happen, Capt. Chuck Yeager, penciled in a “reservation” for New Year’s Eve (above).  His rival, Bell pilot Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin also put his inscription on the very first page of the book, dated December 10, 1946, along with this fitting comment that seems to just sum up the place: “Anything can happen here  — and usually does.”Guestbook6

It’s so much fun to flip through this book, that you feel cheated when it abruptly ends, sometime in December of 1947.  Certainly there must have been more —  but perhaps the other guest books (if there were any) were consumed in the fire that destroyed Pancho’s spread, forever relegating the place to memory and lore.  The wonderful thing is, at least this piece of history survives and, thanks to Lou D’Elia and Mike Salazar, it can be preserved and shared with the world and today, with you!

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The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club ©2008-2010 Nick Spark Productions, LLC.