Tuesday, October 15, 2019

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 April 2008

How Pancho Ended up in Time Magazine

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In the early spring of 1949, Time magazine decided to make Chuck Yeager its “Person of the Week”. It was a long-overdue gesture. Some fourteen months before, in April of 1947, Yeager had become the first man to break the speed of sound in an airplane in level flight. The Air Force kept the achievement secret for many months, before finally acknowledging it in December of ‘47.

Time dispatched one of its best photographers to provide visuals for the article, entitled Man in a Hurry (click to read it!).

Although he was still in his twenties at the time, Murray Garrett was no journeyman. During high school in the early 40’s, he’d worked part-time for Graphic House, a leading photographic agency. Just after the end of WWII, he was sent to Hollywood to open a West Coast bureau. He ended up shooting movie stars from Brando to Marilyn to Sinatra, and became Bob Hope’s personal photographer. Despite the glitz of Hollywood, he always enjoyed any opportunity to cover news, and was delighted to spend the day up at Edwards Air Force Base with Yeager.

The test pilot turned out to be more handsome and dashing than Garrett imaged. “I was blown away by (Yeager),” Garrett remembered in a recent interview. “He was a knockout."

Yeager had a reputation, at the early part of his career at least, for being a little shy. But, that wasn't the case on this day. "I knew what he’d done," Garrett recalls, "and it turned out we were just a few years apart in age. We struck up an immediate friendship. I wasn’t awestruck, and he could relate to me age wise, and I could relate to him. Most test pilots, you had to kowtow to, because they were hot stuff. But Yeager didn’t have that attitude.”

So trust was not an issue between subject and photographer. The challenge for Garrett, as it would be for any shooter worth his salt, was to show the fastest man on earth in a way that would reveal a bit of his character, and portray him in a way that was both interesting and unique.

Photo (above left): Pancho and Chuck share a laugh at the Happy Bottom Riding Club. This photo appeared in Time in 1949. The names of the hostesses and the guest on the right are, alas, unknown.

“As I recall, we talked about following him around, doing a typical day,” Garrett says. Yeager took him on the flight line and posed with aircraft and in his flight suit. Then, the pilot brought him to his house, and introduced him to his wife Glennis and their children, and Garrett snapped photos. “Next, Yeager said to me, 'There is a woman named Pancho Barnes who is a kick in the ass and a real good friend',” Garrett continues. “He said, 'If there is any way, I would like to get some photos with her.' I remember, (Glennis) thought it was really stupid for us to go there.”

Despite Glennis’ objections, the two men made their way out to Pancho’s ranch. The Time article would describe it this way:

Pancho's Fly-Inn (or the Happy Bottom Riding Club) … has its own airport, lighted at night, so that guests, friends and airborne wayfarers can fly in at all hours. The Fly-Inn is a much-buzzed place. Standing alone on the flat desert with only a few low trees, it invites the dangerous prank that all young pilots play, no matter what the threats of flying field managers or military C.O.s. Chuck Yeager has roared low over the ranch in every sort of airplane, including the fastest jets. When he buzzes the place in a jet plane, the slap from the zipping wing jounces the bar.

“I really wasn’t sure whether it was part whorehouse, part bar, part eatery, or what,” Garrett says with a laugh. “And Yeager wasn’t emphatic about spelling it out.”

Pancho was hospitable to Garrett, and he was immediately impressed by her rapport with Yeager. “He had absolutely a strong bond with her,” he remembers. “He was her boy, because he was a kid, really, and she was in her late forties.”

Photo (above right): A never-before-seen shot from the same set-up at Pancho's. (Below): Another set-up, this time with the piano. Pancho's boyfriend (and later fourth husband) Mac McKendry stands to her right.

Yeager implored Pancho to pose for some shots, but initially she was cool to the idea. “I anticipated that she would be a tough customer,” Garrett says. “And she didn’t like the way she looked at the time. But, I got one or two shots. We rigged it up, and we tried to trick her into a couple things. That is why you see some of the weirdly composed shots.”

Only one of the photos at Pancho's ran in Time. The rest were put away, as part of Garrett’s collection of tens of thousands of negatives. Just last year, the pictures found a new home, when Garrett decided to donate them to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science Library. Yep, the house of that famed golden fellow, Oscar.

“I had a decision to make about what to do with my life’s work,” Garrett explains. “And I got offered a lot of money to sell my collection. But at some point I realized that if I did that, they would stop being my photos. AMPAS doesn’t sell photographs, and they treat them with reverence. So, I made a contribution.”

 

Thanks to Garrett’s gift, the photos of Pancho and Chuck are in the AMPAS archive, along with things like Jack Warner’s personal papers and Clark Gable’s contracts. With Garrett’s permission and the assistance of AMPAS staff, we were able to locate and then print up some of the “never before seen” photos from the day Garrett and Yeager spent together. They provide a window back in time, and portray Pancho and Chuck Yeager’s friendship in a wonderful, forthright fashion.

You can read about Murray Garret’s amazing career at his website, MurrayGarrett.com There are now two wonderful books featuring his amazing photographs of Hollywood stars in print: Hollywood Moments and Hollywood Candid. You can find them here.

 

Photo (above right): Chuck Yeager gets a little attention, as he relaxes with a cup of coffee at Pancho's place.

Speaking of Hollywood photography… Pancho’s friend, MGM chief portrait photographer George Hurrell is the subject of a retrospective show at Santa Monica’s California Heritage Museum link.

The show, which runs through June 29, showcases some of George Hurrell’s astonishing portraits of Jean Harlow, Joan Collins, Clark Gable and yes, Pancho herself. The show was organized by none other than our own Lou D’Elia (see 7-15-07 Production Journal). Ironically the Museum is right in line with the flight path of the former Clover Field Airport (now Santa Monica's municipal airport), so perhaps Pancho flew over it back in 1929! The show incidentally, is terrific and definitely worth a visit.

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