Tuesday, October 22, 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)"
27 March 2007

Doors, Photos and Where You Find 'Em

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There's an old saying in science, "Research is the act of going up alleys to see if they are blind." Well, the same thing could be said to apply to the archival research I've been doing in support of the Pancho Barnes documentary. Making a film like this one, about a person who was somewhat but not hugely famous, can be a lot more difficult than making of a profile of someone like, say, Eleanor Roosevelt. Sure, Pancho was photographed by the media and interviewed even before her flying days in the late 1920's, but finding these tidbits can be time-consuming. Fortunately, thanks in large part to the Internet, research is a bit easier nowadays. In fact, I've got a lot of leads as to where the "bones are buried" so to speak. The trick now is finding time to dig them all up!

Some of the things you get to see when you do this kind of research are quite neat! For instance, if you travel up to Edwards Air Force Base and visit the Flight Test museum, you get to see the door to Pancho's ranch pick-up truck (above). It's displayed in a corner. Neat...but not necessarily that important from the standpoint of making a film. More important are the materials preserved in the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive, whose caretaker is Dr. Lou D'Elia. In Lou's collection you'll find thousands of items ranging from Pancho's personal papers, to photos, a painting painted by Pancho when she was a young lady, and . . .well would you believe it? Another door (left) from Pancho's pick-up truck!

Sometimes chasing down a "lead" on some Pancho-related materials can be quite exciting. A great deal of the work takes place over the phone and email, but of course it's a lot more interesting when there's a local connection. A recent example, is that in early January I visited with the Los Angeles Public Library's photo curator, Carolyn Cole. A true renaissance lady, Carol has the enviable job of presiding over a collection of something like a zillion (well okay maybe just a half million or so) rare photographs that tell the story of Los Angeles. In fact you can visit their database on-line, at this site:

LAPL Photo Collection

The database on the site is growing every day, as Carol and her staff digitize photos and make them available for the public. Meanwhile, if you want to really peruse the collection and see what's not yet on the website, you have to make an appointment.

Anyway, my visit was simply thrilling. It turns out a number of years ago Carol helped set up a special exhibit featuring images of aviation in Los Angeles. Not only did she know all about Pancho, but she took time out to sit with me as I went through some of the photos in the Security Pacific Bank Collection. Some of them are terrific, including several I'd never seen before. There was Pancho, posing in front of a Lockheed Vega before doing some maximum load test-flights...and there she was with Bobbi Trout dressed in a "Betsy Ross Corps" flying uniform. Truly exciting stuff, and getting to meet Carol and see some of her favority photos was worth the price of admission. There really are some amazing photos in the L.A. Public Library but. . . no car doors! At least that's what I thought. Then Carol pointed out that if I did a search on the website I might be surprised. Sure enough, the search terms "car door" brought up this delightful photo (below). The subject? The driver's side car door on gangster Mickey Cohen's Cadillac, showing off the bullet proof glass!

 

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