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Barbara Rowland, a good friend of Pancho's, once told me that Pancho had confessed to her that the "big love of her life" was a stunt pilot who died in a plane crash. It's a mystery exactly who she meant -- Pancho had affairs with a lot of stunt pilots and carried on quite a bit with famed flier Ira Reed -- but I'd wager ten dollars to petunias that the fellow in question was Frank Clarke (below, pictured in the cockpit). Clarke, Pancho wrote in her unfinished autobiography (printed as The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus -- see Nov. 29, '09 entry), was "the most talented and colorful" of all the stunt pilots. He was a "diabolical soul" who could fly her airplane and "make it talk". Blessed with such good looks that people often compared him to Clark Gable, Frank Clark ran rum during Prohibition days, and got his adrenalin satisfied by flying stunts, getting into fights, and running wild. "I adored him," Pancho says in Pegasus. "I was his shadow. He was the most exciting man in my life. He was not boy friend or sweetheart but someone I loved and wanted to be around all the time."
Clarke (pictured with another friend of Pancho's, Paul Mantz at left) answered to the nickname "Spook", because he seemed to know a lot of things simply by intuition or instinct. "If I called him on the phone," Pancho recounted, "He'd always answer 'Hello Pancho' before I said a word." Like all the stunt pilots, he drank, gambled, caroused, and played rough. Once, he and a friend named Hugh Kimmel were drinking heavily and got into a fight. According to Pancho, Kimmel landed a punch that broke Clarke's jaw, and Clarke then promptly bent Kimmel's arm back until it broke. "Then they both cried," Pancho recalled, "and, arm-in-arm, went to the hospital." Another time Clarke got miffed at fellow pilot Roy Wilson, who accidentally flew to close and clipped his plane while performing a stunt. Wilson didn't make things right, so the next day Clarke flew a head-on game of aerial chicken with Wilson, recklessly chased him, and then managed to lock wings with him. Needless to say, Wilson kept a wide berth after that.
His peers called Clarke the "greatest living stunt pilot" and "The King of Hollywood" for many reasons. Much of his reputation came from his work on Hell's Angels. He built "Caddo Field" where the production took place, and served as lead pilot and co-ordinator for dozens of planes and pilots. According to Don Dwiggins, who profiled Clarke in his magnificent book The Air Devils, Clarke learned to fly in 1918. Supposedly the same day he soloed, he took up "twelve passengers at ten dollars a head". He later took up wing walking and made a career out of doing wild stunts like plane-to-plane mid-air transfers while crowds watched, bedazzled. Then there was the bit of madness where Clark would climb out on the tail, and have his co-pilot dive the plane so that he could then leap forward into the cockpit. It was the type of insanity you just don't see today, not at the X-Games, the Red Bull Air Races or even in the movies. "I never heard of a man saying 'I want to be a wing walker'", Clarke once told a reporter. "Flying stunt men just appear."
(Photo at right: Clarke stands at upper left, while Pancho sits at lower right in this official membership snapshot of the Motion Picture Stunt Pilots.)
Once Clarke broke into Hollywood, he cemented his reputation rather quickly. For the movie Stranger Than Fiction with Katherine MacDonald, he had his Jenny biplane assembled atop the roof of the 13-story Los Angeles Railway Building (photo below), then under construction in downtown Los Angeles. In a bit of daring right out of James Bond, Clarke flew the plane off the roof using sheer guts and a small wooden ramp that provided some lift assist. Not only was it a spectacular stunt, but an amazing publicity grab. Clarke barely escaped being arrested -- it turned out anxious officials were moments away from seizing his plane when he took off! The headlines were splashed with news and photos of the stunt, and it became the stuff of legend. Clarke's career was full of these kind of stories. Who knows how much of what you read in these accounts is really true? Supposedly Clarke once flew by a hotel in Tucson and threw a love letter through the window of the woman he was romancing. He also allegedly once distracted a passenger on his plane, and then ducked into the depths of his cockpit unnoticed and started flying it using the control cables. The terrified passenger, producer Jerry Fairbanks, was convinced Clarke had actually bailed out. Of course it was all just in good fun ... and no one was hurt although I am sure Fairbanks lost a year or two out of his life that day.
Clarke crashed many planes during his storied career, both intentionally and unintentionally. One time he got distracted by a pretty actress on the set of a movie and flew right into a tree. That time and many others he managed to walk away. The last, and fatal accident, occurred in 1948 when he was making a visit up to his and Pancho's old friend Frank Tomick at a remote silver mine. According to Dwiggins' book, Frank Clarke decided to have some fun with Tomick and for that purpose loaded a sack of manure into his BT-13's cockpit. He intended to dump it on Tomick but the manure bag slipped and jammed behind the plane's control stick, locking it. The plane slammed into the ground and exploded right in front of a stunned Tomick. According to Dwiggins, "all the old timers showed up at Clarke's funeral, but there were not many tears. Clarke had died the way he would have wanted to go, pulling off a gag for a friend." The one nasty aspect of the incident, Dwiggins noted, was that Clarke's passenger also died that day. That was something Clarke would have been upset about.
It is a shame Clarke didn't live a longer life, but so few of the early stunt pilots achieved longevity. For Pancho his loss was obviously deeply personal. One has to wonder, had he not been killed, could Pancho have convinced Clarke to marry her. Now that would have been quite a stunt!
On a side note, we used a lot of footage from a wonderful old public domain stunt flying film The Air Maniacs in the documentary. The featured pilot in that movie is none other than Clarke, and in fact when you're watching our film and you see Pancho buzz her husband's church -- you are in fact seeing her good friend Frank Clarke, fly one last final stunt. Appropriate, isn't it?
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The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club will be screening at the world's largest aviation event, the EAA's AirVenture — also known as "OshKosh" — as part of An Evening of Champions on July 25th at the famous Theater in the Woods. We'll make a formal announcement when we have all the details in place. Special thanks to Diane Titterington and the Aviation Speakers Bureau for making this possible.
There will be additional screenings of the film at the EAA's SkyScape Theater during the week, and a series of DVD and poster signings. For a full list of appearances click here.
Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 August 2015 04:31 12 May 2010 Nick Spark Hits: 2412
I've spent some time in the Production Journal detailing some of the wonderful people who've attended our events, some of whom have brought a scrap of Pancho-related memorabilia. Recently we had an attendee who showed up with what I consider one of the all-time great Pancho items, a souvenir booklet from one of the two rodeos she put on in 1949 and 1950.
Now we all know the story about how Pancho promoted her rodeo with "Lady Godiva" -- a nude woman (well, she wore a body stocking) on top of a giant bull. Turns out that wasn't the only outrageous bit of promotion Pancho schemed up for these events. Pancho flew National Air Race announcer Archie Twitchell in to call the event, and according to biographer Lauren Kessler she rented searchlights that could be seen from thirty miles away, and bought a Chevrolet so it could be raffled off. Another thing she did, this time for the 1950 rodeo, was to produce a souvenir booklet called the Happy Bottom "Blister", and this is what recently surfaced at our event. Running about 22 pages, the over-sized booklet sold for a costly 25 cents. In my view the black and white cover alone was worth the quarter, as it bears a cartoon of a shapely woman on horseback wincing in pain from a gigantic saddle sore -- yikes!
The first page of this "official organ" (yes, that's what the front cover says, and yes it was absolutely intended to be a double entendre) looked like a newspaper. Only, this was Pancho's version of The Onion complete with wild headlines like "Honest John Accused of Rape" and "Godiva Rides Again For Same Damned Reason". An astute reader would learn on page 3 that the "Honest John" accused of assault on page one, is actually a prized horse that is being used as a stud -- typical Pancho humor! The rest of the publication is filled with informative articles about the rodeo activities such as "Team Roping" and "Bronc Busting", and a slew of dirty jokes, sayings, and naughty anecdotes designed to make you smile. (Not surprisingly, there are a couple racist jokes in there as well that make a modern-day reader's skin crawl -- but keep in mind this was 1950 and things were very different back then).
Also interspersed throughout the Blister are advertisements for real local businesses, but many of them contain racy cartoons or double-entendre headlines. "Be sure that if you're killed you're insured" says an ad for an insurance broker, while another says "Suburban GAS service" and still another says "If you want your MEAT INSPECTED have it done by us". Another one offers a ruler-shaped device called a "Peter Meter", with appropriate captions per inch.
Stealing from her standard repertoire, Pancho put a "Notice of Our Non-Responsibility" for the contents on the front page. Aside from sloughing off responsibility for the contents, the notice also declares that Pancho takes no responsibility for the people attending the rodeo. It contains one of Pancho's favorite lines: "We're not responsible for the bustling and hustling that may go on here. Lots of people bustle, and some hustle, but that's their business and a very old one."
Looking through the Blister you get a great sense of Pancho's personality, sense of humor, pride and showmanship. You also get a sense of how fearless and confident she was -- one of the naughty anecdotes even features an imagined exchange between Pancho and Col. Al Boyd, the commander of Edwards AFB! It's also clear how much fun Pancho liked to have, as the whole kit and kaboodle is just a gas. The rodeo, from promoting it to hosting and running it, must have really been dear to Pancho's heart.
From a publicity standpoint, the rodeos were an incredible success, with grandstands packed and people flying in from all over California and Nevada for the weekend. Financially though the events proved to be disastrous, as Pancho'd let the budget get out of hand by -- what else? -- buying Chevrolets to be raffled off, hiring searchlights to point 30 miles in the sky, and oh yes, printing lavish joke souvenir booklets to commemorate the event. After losing roughly $20K (over $150K in today's money, according to an inflation calculator) putting on the 1949 and 1950 rodeos, Pancho wisely decided to take a breather, and she never did get the opportunity to host another one.
It's too bad really that there never was a third rodeo, because Pancho always liked to top herself. What would the program from the 1951 Pancho Rodeo have been like? I can only imagine!