02 November 2009

An Aviation Historian Interviews an Old Sky Queen

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Those of you who have watched the Bonus Features on the Legend of Pancho Barnes DVD have doubtless heard the audio segment featuring Pancho in her own words.  Don Kuhns, a junior college student who knew very little about Pancho’s life and times, recorded that interview for an article he planned to write for a class assignment.  When you listen to it, you can hear the surprise in Don's voice as he slowly realizes that the old lady he’s interviewing is either lying, or actually knew Amelia Earhart, had a grandfather who flew balloons in the Civil War, and who at one time masqueraded as a man and sued the U.S. Government!

That kind of shock and awe effect happened a lot with people who spoke with Pancho late in her life.  Even aviation historian James H. Farmer, who interviewed Pancho around the same time Don Kuhns did, seemed thrown off by the old sky queen.  To give you some background, James Farmer is the author CelluloidWings3of Celluloid Wings, a terrific book about aviation history and Hollywood.  He still writes and lectures about that subject.  During the late 1960’s and early 70’s, while I was still in diapers, Farmer was busy interviewing living legends of aviation.  What an amazing array of people were around at that time!  Some of the people that he managed to sit down with included Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan, Richard Halliburton’s pilot Moye Stephens,  Kirby Grant (of “Sky King” fame), “Pappy” Boyington, and Jacqueline Cochrane.   While on the trail of information about stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who had recently been killed flying a stunt for the film The Flight of the Phoenix, Farmer was put in touch with Pancho.  Since he knew most of her friends from her stunt flying days, and had seen all the movies she’d worked on (including many she’d work on, but never bothered to actually see in theaters), they had a fascinating conversation.  Fortunately for us, Famer had the foresight to tape record it too, although unfortunately he did the interview under rather trying conditions.  Which is simply to say that the recording quality is rather awful.  Still, it does allow a bit more of Pancho’s amazing story to be told in her own words.  With permission from James H. Farmer, here's some of the highlights of his interview with the amazing Pancho Barnes!  (These extrats have been edited and in some cases re-arraganed for clarity's sake; special thanks to James Farmer for permission to use excerpts from this copyrighted interview.)

Farmer: So what kind of aircraft have you flown?

Pancho: I started off flying a little OX-5 motor – no, it was a Travelair (biplane), one of the first Travelairs, in 1928.  And then there was a Waco, after the Travelair spun in.  And then I went on with the Waco.  Then, I bought a Travelair.  Then, of course, I flew (WWI vintage Curtiss-Jenny biplanes) a lot for the fun of it. I don’t think a Jenny could go over 90 miles an hour.  And if you cut the engine, it was just like a streamline brick and it went

Farmer: When did you take up flying? When was your first flight?

Pancho: 1928. Well, it’s more interesting...  Tthe first one I ever had a ride in, because it was one of the Ducks (amphibian airplanes) on Catalina Island.  That was because I went over there with my whole family, and I got seasick.  And I went on boats over there, and I got seasick, so I decided to never get on a boat again.  So I’d have to spend the rest of my life on Catalina. My cousin said by God, if I was a goner, he’d stay with me.  So we watched all the family take off on a big steamer ship, back to Los Angeles, and this was in my early 1920s.  1924.  There was this Duck sitting out there. And we found out that you could charter it to the mainland.  We were on the dock when (my family) came in, which of course, was amazing to ‘em, like magic show. 

Farmer: How did you get into the picture business?

pancho7fPancho: Well, I was always interested in pictures.  I was a toe dancer at 5 years old.  My mother was interested in the arts.  You know, music – she was a musician, and the dancing, and arts, pictures, she sent me to art school finally and so forth.  Anyway, one of the first pictures I worked in was The Lighthouse by the Sea in 1923, and I doubled the leading lady Louise Fazenda. And they built this tremendous big lighthouse at Laguna Beach, and I rode my horse in the picture, and also, I worked a police dog in the picture. I was an animal trainer. Then, somewhere, I got started on Westerns training horses.  I had a wonderful horse, he’d do anything.  I’d ride my little horse, and use whistling in pictures to call him.  And I can bring him to me, and send him away, and anybody could ride him, and so forth and so on, he’s a beautiful animal.  So I did that. In 1926, I went to work for Von Stroheim as a writer, and…

Farmer: Amazing.  I know Hollywood was different back then but how do become a writer for someone like Erich Von Stroheim?  Finesse, showmanship?

Pancho: Well, showmanship – both of them combined. But, well, anyway, I worked with Von Stroheim for about six years. I got along with him.  He was arrogant, as you knew the word. He’d fight with his employees.  He’s produce fights with em.  And just tear em to pieces, not because he wanted to fight with them, because he would be able to bring out certain reactions.  He did it with his actors too.

Farmer: Go from 1927 to your first aviation picture?

Skybride1Pancho: Well, in the first place, I always knew I was gonna fly airplanes.  Now, this sounds stupid maybe, but my grandfather Lowe, who started Cal Tech incidentally, built the Mount Lowe Railway, and built the observatory on Mount Lowe.  This sounds silly, but he was in charge, he had the balloons for Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. And when I was little, he took a great fancy to me.  He had a lot of grandchildren, but he seemed to like me very much. And he took me in 1910 to Santo Domingo State for the first air show, that’s down where Watts is now.  And he told me I was going to fly airplanes.  He says, “Course, everybody will, by the time you’re old enough.”  So I always knew I was gonna fly airplanes.  So, this was something I knew.  And my cousin took up flying.  I palled around with him a lot.  He said, “Why don’t you come out and fly?”  I said, “Well, I’m going to fly anyway, you know.  I guess I might as well start now as anytime.”  So I went out there in Arcadia, about where the golf course is now, right next to the race track, and that’s where we had our first flying field.

Farmer: So when did you start flying for pictures?

Pancho: I can’t remember how I got started.  You see, I’d already been doing so many stunts for pictures and everything.  And I don’t remember what I flew in, or where or why, but I got to flying around these pictures.  Paid no attention to what they were, because you know I wasn’t at least in awe of pictures I think, because I’d had so many years of work with pictures.  I flew, here and there, for this and that.

Skybride2Farmer: You knew (stunt pilot) Frank Clark.  What was he like?

Pancho: I’ll tell you a little background on Clark.  Clark was a bootlegger.  Ran trucks and stuff in San Francisco.  I believe it was loads of rum.  Frank Clark was a very handsome person.  I tell you that he looked kind of like Clark Gable. I mean, he was a very handsome person, and he was a big man. And he was like a cat in the air.  He absolutely – he could take a ship out and bring it out for everything it has in the last hour, and they didn’t come apart with him  And anybody else it would come apart with.  I mean he knew just how far he could go.  It was almost – well, it was funny.

And he was one of the very first pilots flying pictures in Jennys. And they were flying Jennys around , they were raising hell.  He used to do stunts all the time at shows and things.  And he flew a Jenny off the L.A. Railway Building in Los Angeles.

Farmer: What about Paul Mantz?

Pancho: Now, I got along with Mantz. I knew him well. Everyone liked him, good friends. He used to come up and stay at my place and fly up here when I had the dude ranch . We were friends right up till — I saw him about 2 weeks before he was killed.

(N.B.: Pancho and Farmer spoke in depth about Mantz, who Farmer hoped to profile in an article. Pancho knew quite a bit about him, including details of his famous affair with Amelia Earhart.  But all that is for another Production Journal!)

Farmer: What about (stunt pilot) Garland Lincoln?

HellAngelsPancho: Now I’ll tell you about Lincoln. He was nuts - nobody could work with him. He was in an insane asylum for a little while and he’s very lucid and everything now. He remembers everything and everything’s fine. But he used to fly off the handle, used to have a terrible temper and used to hate everybody. Now I’ll tell you about Lincoln. He was a guy that could  - he was one of the greatest pilots you ever could find to do a stunt.

Farmer: So you were working on movies as a pilot yourself?

Pancho: I was off and on all the time for about 6 years. You see I had nice bosses.  I worked for Union Oil (as a pilot) for three years.   If I had to make a picture I could leave and make a picture.  I was on the payroll by the week. And I could just take off and do anything else I wanted and they didn’t give a damn you know what I mean?

Farmer: And you started the Motion Picture Stunt Pilots Association in 1929?  How did that come about?

CockoftheAirPancho: About 29 - It was during Hell’s Angels. I’ll tell you exactly how that started.  Howard Hughes was making two air pictures, at once. They were real cheapies. One was called Cock of the Air and the other was called Air Devils. Now Howard Hughes was a cheapskate you know. If he could gyp someone out of a nickel he’d do it. So for all the easy stuff he was, he was hiring student pilots, take-offs and landings and this and that. And they were even carrying passengers. So I went to the FAA or CAA and I raised hell.

They had on this film a VH, a double-winger airplane with a liberty engine. And they had it with other little ships. Now the actress (for the film) was Billy Dove. You remember her? Billy Dove, she was a very great actress, real fine, real pretty and everything. Howard Hughes was in love with her so he was putting her through the picture business. Now Billy Dove took a yen for (stunt pilot) Frank Clark. Howard Hughes never turned up for any of these pictures but AB Green was reporting everything back and forth. So AB Green reports back that Billy Dove and Frank Clark are acting too friendly. So Howard throws a hissy and AB Green comes back and says that Frank Clark is working for Howard Hughes.  He’s being paid. And when he’s not flying yet he shall sit next to the VH and guard it.  So he puts Clark out to guard it. So we get very incensed about this so we move a regular Indian camp out next to the VH. And Billy Dove moves out and we all move out with our automobiles and our sandwiches and our bottle things and we all guard the VH out in the middle of the field.

And Billy Dove and Frank carried on their flirtation. And everybody is madder than hell.  Green’s being as tough as he can with Frank Clark. He’s just trying everything. So I got mad. So between the pilots he’s hiring and the student pilots he’s hiring to do landings and take-offs and he didn’t even have a license, why I say we’re going to organize.  Of course we have the backing of the cameramen because they don’t like to have people that aren’t organized in the union on pictures. So the cameramen immediately backed us up. I went out and got the labor union organizers…

One incident that I think is amusing.  We pilots thought Cock of the Air was a very vulgar title so we renamed it Penis of the Ozone.

Farmer: How did you set a union rate? TheFlyingfool

Pancho: [While Hughes] was still working on Hell’s Angels, Pathe made a motion picture called The Flying Fool. And the star of that was Bill Boyd, the Hopalong Cassidy Bill Boyd, with Tay Garnett as director.  Tay Garnett chose me as the technical director for the Flying Fool. Well he went so far as to leave all the shooting up to me. He never even appeared on the field and I directed all the flight work. So I hired the three best pilots that I thought was the best: Frank Clark, Leo Nomis, and Roy Wilson. So I hired them and they were working for me. I started paying ‘em 100 bucks a day. Up until that Howard Hughes had only paid ‘em 25 dollars a day, see.

And in the meantime Hughes started up Hell’s Angels again. These were his principal men too and he was shooting stuff where Frank Clark was supposed to be personally in the film as Baron Von Bruen. So he came around to me and he and I - I’d had already had some flare-ups with him. A public fight in which I called him a two-for-a-nickel son-of-a-bitch, when he was trying to cheat us and so forth. So I liked Howard and this was - I’d fight him personally.

So Howard came to me and asked me for those pilots. And I said uh-uh, I’m making a movie with them. He said Hell’s Angels is very important, I’ve gotta have them. I said, 'My picture is just as important to me as Hell’s Angels is to you. And you can’t have them.' So Tay said,'Look Pancho we got to do it. That’s all there is to it. You can get some other pilots.'  So I said, 'Okay I’ll let him have them. But from now on there’s a written agreement that any pilot [Hughes] hires he pays 100 dollars a day.'  That was the way it is.

Farmer: When you were working with Clark, Wilson and Nomis, what about the woman thing? Did they object to taking orders from you?

Pancho: Oh no not me. I’ve never had any trouble with men. I can beat them on any basis.  And besides I’m a nice person. I’m not belligerent. And I’ll tell you something else about me. And I hate to say this really but I think it’s true. I’m the only woman I know that never asked for any little help because I was a woman. I could get in and beat [men] at their own goddamn game and I never said, will you help me with this, or I wanted to do this or I can’t do this or you know what I mean? I mean I’m afraid of this. Because I wasn’t, and I’m the only one I know who didn’t have a man helping them. I was on my own and I did it on my own.

James Farmer’s books, Celluloid Wings (a chronicle of stunt pilots), Broken Wings (Hollywood’s air crashes) and America’s Pioneer Aces (about Eddie Rickenbacker and Frank Luke) are all available on Amazon.com