16 January 2008

The Fire

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Although we didn't think to do it, we probably should have had a moment of silence in the cutting room on November 14th. (Moments of silence when you're editing, and debating how to edit, are rare moments indeed!) But the reason for a bit of solemnity on that day, is that it was on November 14, 1953 that a fire destroyed part of the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Despite the desperate efforts of firemen from Mojave, Tehachapi, and Edwards Air Force Base, the inferno consumed the ranch's large dancehall, and Pancho's home. Pancho explained to the press, in the wake of the fire, that she and her husband had lost all of their personal property, including clothes and Pancho's jewelry, fur coats, paintings, art work, and memorabilia -- including many of her aviation awards.

Photo (above): a view of Pancho's ranch on fire, snapped by an unknown friend.

Pancho and her husband Mac weren't home at the time of the fire, but arrived as the embers were being extinguished. They'd apparently seen the tower of smoke on the horizon, and initially thought what everyone in those parts thought in those days, when they saw such a thing — a plane from Edwards must have crashed.

Thankfully, no one was killed or injured in the blaze. But the damage to the ranch, estimated to be in the $300,000 range, would signal an end to the "happy days" at the "Happy Bottom".

Photo (left): The remains of Pancho's house, and the dance hall, still smolder after the fire. The circular swimming pool, visible in the photo, was supposedly drained a couple of days before the fire for maintenance.

From the start, the fire seemed suspicious. Jack Leird, the ranch foreman, told a reporter that the blaze started in the dance hall "with a puff of smoke" followed by a loud explosion. Other witnesses stated that the explosion had so much force, it blew out one end of the dance hall. Pancho was convinced the blaze was arson -- perhaps even a bomb.

That explanation made sense, for a couple of reasons. A few years before, Pancho's stables had been torched in a blaze that was determined to be deliberately set. That fire, while devastating, was contained fairly quickly. Nevertheless, Pancho's prized stallions were burned to death. Although there was an individual believed responsible, no one was ever charged, and Pancho never knew the reason for the crime. Was somebody simply getting a thrill, or was someone settling a score?

In the case of the 1953 fire, Pancho didn't have to look hard to find a person who, she believed, might be responsible. The prime suspect, in Pancho's eyes? An officer in the United States Air Force. Specifically, Pancho told friends that she believed General Stanley Holtoner, the commander of Edwards AFB, was involved. The charges seem incredible to anyone who wasn't there at the time... How could Pancho, the self-described "Mother of the U.S. Air Force" actually believe that one of its finest was out to get her?

Actually, Pancho was not acting crazy, and although some would say she was overly paranoid, she had her reasons to be that way!

Flash back to 1952, when the Air Force announced plans to expand Edwards, and indicated that they would condemn Pancho's property and that of her neighbors as part of the project. While her nearby rancher neighbors sold out their properties for what the government offered, Pancho chose to fight the seizure of her property, arguing that the Air Force wasn't offering her proper compensation.

Photo (above right): Pancho shown immediately after the fire with one of her prized Dalmatian dogs. Photo (below left): the papers featured extensive coverage of the devastating fire.

During the squabble surrounding her property, Pancho had a falling out with General Holtoner. (Actually, they never really got along from day one...a topic we'll cover in a future production journal). The result of the animosity between the two of them, was that Pancho's place was put off limits to personnel at Edwards.

Supposedly, during one of their "discussions" -- more likely arguments -- in April of 1952, Holtoner told Pancho he could arrange to have her ranch "napalm bombed off the desert". It was a remark he'd come to regret. When Pancho brought up the threat in court, the judge took it seriously, and the Los Angeles paper ran a story about it. A small article even appeared in the New York Times with the headline, "Threats to Bomb Ranch Charged to Air General."

So, roughly six months later, when an explosion and fire racked the dance hall, it was only natural that Pancho would believe Holtoner was responsible. Yet, the fire marshal couldn't find any evidence that Holtoner was involved, and refused to determine a cause for the blaze due to lack of evidence. So...perhaps the fire was arson...or perhaps it had some other cause.

"There have been a lot of accusations over the years about that fire," Edwards historian Raymond Puffer explained to us during an interview for the film. "[Pancho] was in the way of the base expansion. She did not particularly care for the commander, let us say. And right at that exquisitely sensitive moment, was the fire that destroyed the Happy Bottom Riding Club... So it was a very sordid matter. But officially we don't know. Officially, the fire's origin has never been judged."

One fact described by Pancho about the fire did turn out to be either untrue, or at least slightly exaggerated. In the wake of the fire, she told many people that she'd lost all her personal memorabilia in the blaze, including all her photos and scrapbooks. While a tremendous number of precious items were destroyed, many things did survive the fire.

From what we've heard, some of the people who were at the scene apparently dashed into Pancho's burning house, risking their lives to save whatever they could. They managed to retrieve many of the photos, negatives and scrapbook-bound articles that appear on this website.

Some of the photos in the collection of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate have burned edges and water damage, a lasting reminder of that fateful day that signaled the end, of the glory days at the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

Photo (left): The silhouettes of Pancho and her husband Mac are visible in this image, taken as the fire was extinguished. November 14, 1953 was probably one of the worst days of Pancho's extraordinary life.