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)"
12 November 2007

It's Not Just Who You Know...

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One of the delights, and difficulties, of making an historical documentary film is simply finding the documents and images you need to tell your story. For "Pancho", we've searched high and low, and in between, and found some amazing material. Never-before-seen photographs of Pancho will appear in our film, courtesy of a lot of private collectors, university archives such as UCLA and the University of Southern California, the Los Angeles Public Library, and other public and private institutions. Incredible motion picture film footage will debut as well, courtesy of private collectors, and a university archive. These are all things we've had to hunt for — that we've had to find. What's really, really neat, though, are some of the things that have found us.

Example: during the early stages of the project, I received a nice email from a woman named Roberta Serface. Turns out Roberta'd inherited the family collection of photographs, which included a series of shots of aviatrixes. Soon enough she sent us a photocopy sheet of her treasure-trove, which included a neat shot of Bobbi Trout at the Douglas, Arizona airport, and another with a familiar figure at Lordsburg, New Mexico. "Similar look to Pancho?" she wrote in the margin. Similar, indeed — because it is Pancho! That's the photo at right.

Another neat one, was an email from the daughter of a woman named Dorothy Harless. Turns out Dorothy had worked for Pancho at her Happy Bottom Riding Club in the early 1940's. She passed along some amazing stories about Pancho, and some rare photos of Pancho's husband Nicky (to right). Did I mention previously in the Production Journal that Pancho was married four times?! Nicky was #2. He was a student who enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program that Pancho was running just prior to WWII. The two found they had a connection, but after a brief time the marriage broke up. No wonder: he was in his twenties, about the same age as her son Billy, while Pancho was nearly 40!

Dorothy's photos are quite neat because they show what Pancho's ranch looked like circa 1943. In the photo at left, you're looking at Pancho's house. To the right of the building is a rectangular swimming pool — quite a luxurious item to have in the middle of the Mojave desert in those days! At the left is a field of corn. It's especially neat to have this view, because we have some photos of Pancho posing with some notables, including Western cowboy movie star Roy Rogers, in front of this same crop. We'd always wondered where it was taken, until we saw this photo and realized, heck it was right in front of Pancho's house!

One of our favorite pictures from Dorothy shows Pancho on horseback, looking like the natural horsewoman she was...well, Pancho had her own Shetland pony stallion at the age of four-and-a-half. According to Dorothy, the horse shown in this photo was named "Frosty". Dorothy remembers some other horses as well. "Redskin" was an American Saddle Bred, who was "poetry in motion and a mean devil." This horse, Dorothy remembered, "liked to bite the toes of spectators in the exercise corral." One time Pancho intended to ride Redskin in a parade in Lancaster, about an hour away in those days by car. But, the horse simply refused to get into the trailer. It was a battle of wits, but sadly for Redskin he had underestimated Pancho. She mounted him and aggressively rode him all the way to town. They made the parade just fine and, Dorothy notes, Pancho had no problem getting him into the trailer for the ride home!

Another person who found her way to us, is Jeannine Dixon Seely, the daughter-in-law of aviatrix Patty Willis. To be honest, Jeannine didn't exactly stumble across us. More like, we found her! You see, Jeannine sells reproductions of prints out of Patty Willis' scrapbooks on eBay. We happened to see some of her wares, and sent her a note. In response, we got a pile of photo prints and a book, Business Suits to Cowboy Boots which Jeannine wrote in 2005. It's the story of her and her husband Lee, who left city life in Los Angeles and went to work on a 1000-acre cattle ranch. Incidentally, you can buy Jeannine's book on the web here

Anyway, Jeannine's book contains some neat recollections of Patty Willis, who learned to fly at age 19, and was a contemporary of Pancho and "boyish flier" Bobbi Trout. When Patty fell ill in 1984, Jeannine and Lee helped take care of her. One priceless story she recounts is that a doctor asked Patty to go to an office on Pico Boulevard and inquired, "Do you know where Pico is?" To which she replied, "Hell yes I do! I landed a plane on Pico Boulevard, so I think I can find it with my car." One can only imagine what the doctor thought about that!

Here's a great photo from Jeannine that shows Pancho in her "Women's Air Reserve" garb, with Patti Willis to her right. Aviatrixes Mary Charles and Clema Granger round out the photo's left side, while Mildred Morgan stands on the far right. Note the "Ruth Elder Camp New York" emblazoned on the biplane!

"Contact!" -- Another great photo (possibly shot the same day, as the outfits and plane seem similar) shows Pancho, Patty and the rest of the gals about to pull an airplane

propeller. This image originally ran in the Los Angeles Examiner, and was typical of the 'gag' women flier photos of the day. It's a cute image, but an astute viewer pointed out that the underlying message seems to be: these poor gals don't even have the strength to crank a prop!

As if to make up for that subtly demeaning shot, Jeannine also sent us a nice photo of several of these very same gals, hanging from the Bendix advertising tower in downtown Los Angeles. They're actually at some lofty altitude, since the tower itself, perched atop a tall building, is itself 150 feet tall. It just shows how these womens' spirit could be summed up in one word: fearless.

Finally, speaking of the wonderful people who've contacted us while we've been making the film, I have to put in a mention of the fact that we've had several nice mentions in the news media. The Orange County Register included a nice article about Patrice Demory, one of our interview subjects, some time ago. KOCE-TV hosted director Amanda Pope and myself on the show "Real Orange" last year, and this year we've supplied information and photos for a number of articles. It's always a pleasure to help spread the word about Pancho, the women fliers of the 20's, the world of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, and of course tell the world about our project. But you never know what is going to fall your way! So, anyway, it was rather neat to be contacted a few weeks ago by Sivan Gazit, who helps produce a magazine for the Israeli Air Force. Would we be willing to help with an article about Pancho? Of course! And now here it is, Pancho in Hebrew (left). I think she'd be quite proud — after all, many of the pilots in the IAF are women!

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