Thursday, May 23, 2024

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)"
07 October 2008

Pancho's Own Great Depression

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or running combat patrols in Iraq, then you’ve certainly heard all about the nation’s gargantuan financial fiasco. The press and even the President call it the worst crisis since 1929. That’s something that resonates with everyone who sees our film, because the Great Depression factored in a big way, in the life of Pancho Barnes.

Flash back to the mid-1920’s. At that time, Pancho was worth an heiress roughly $8 million (in today’s dollars), and stood to inherit even more from her mother’s family, the Dobbins. She owned a mansion in Pasadena, and had a summer party house in Laguna Beach with its own airport. “Pancho roared probably louder than most of the people who were roaring during the 20s,” biographer Lauren Kessler told us in her interview, “The roaring involved bacchanalian parties, and much drink. Sometimes 3-day-long parties would take place in her mansion. She would sometimes actually leave the mansion and go away and do something else, and then come back a day later and the party would still be going.”

Photos: (Above) Pancho's airport and home in Laguna Beach, scene of many epic fiestas. (Below) Pancho poses proudly in front of the radical, twin-engine "Olympic", in which she had a financial stake.

Not every drop of champagne spilled at Florence’s parties was paid for from her inheritance. Funding some of it was an actual, hard-earned pay check. Pancho not only worked in the movie business as a stunt pilot and co-ordinator, but she had some business ventures as well. One of the more interesting ones, was an investment in a twin-engine airplane built by the Loughead brothers. The “Olympic” was supposed to be a world-beater that would eclipse the brothers’ famed Vega.

When Black Sunday -- October 24 of 1929 – hit, Pancho most likely wasn’t that worried. Like many other people, she might have thought that whatever impact would result, would be temporary. As work dried up in the film business, and this is a fact, she took it on herself to support friends who were out of work. “She bought apartment buildings to put up her friends who were pilots,” says Lou D’Elia of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate, “and paid for their groceries, to get them and their families through the Depression. And she was able to do this for many years after the crash. She really did not run out of money until about 1934.”

Exactly why Pancho ran out of money is an interesting subject. Certainly she must have been harmed by the bank failures and general economic ruination, but her profligate spending on fast cars, fast airplanes, and her friends did not help things. It’s fairly clear to me, that she was not only a big spender, but she lived in denial about the state of her finances. Just about the time that she was on the precipice, she distracted herself by organizing a highly publicized flight to Washington, D.C. The object of the flight, which we'll get to in a future Production Journal, was to personally lobby President Roosevelt on behalf of handsome Latin actor Duncan Reynaldo. Reynaldo, who was later known as the "Cisco Kid", was being detained and about to be deported due to a visa issue. Bobbi Trout, who accompanied Pancho on the mercy flight, recalled returning to Los Angeles completely broke. The dime in her pocket, she said, was pretty much her life’s savings! Things couldn’t have been much better for Pancho.

In all fairness, there was another factor weighing on Pancho. That brick was a dispute with her mother’s brother, Horace Dobbins, concerning her inheritance. According to D’Elia, the Dobbins family – from the high society ranks of the Philadelphia Main Line – had very little respect for cousin Pancho. The fact that she was a noted aviatrix and somewhat famous, was exactly the opposite of what they viewed as proper behavior. Plus, as Lou D’Elia points out, “Pancho was very much a free spirit and hung out with a lot of people from Hollywood. Hanging out with people from Hollywood (in those days) was worse than hanging out with gypsies. So the Dobbins’ thought she was a disgrace on the family.” The price Pancho paid for offending her relations was significant. The estate would be tied up for thirty years, and when things were finally settled in the 1940’s, Pancho got very little of what she felt was owed. In any case almost none of the money was available, when she truly needed it.

It’s unclear exactly when the wings came off Pancho’s high flying, big spending life. It seems like it was probably 1934 when she hit bottom, but a telegram written in January of 1931 seems to indicate she was struggling for some time. In it, she wrote to her friend Magnus Thomle that “(I) am in a desperate circumstance and need money immediately…please wire me money so that I will receive it on or before Tuesday 26th…” Slowly Pancho sold off her assets, including cars, houses, and airplanes. By 1934, with nothing left to her name except an apartment building, she decided to make a big, and very serious move. She traded the apartments for an alfalfa farm in the desert near Muroc, and left Pasadena high society and the lights of Hollywood behind forever. “She had to really give up that lifestyle that she was brought up in and choose her own path,” says D’Elia. It was a heck of a change, from a society girl in the center of it all, to a dirt farmer in the middle of the Mojave desert!

Photos: (Above)Pancho poses with some of her favorite stunt pilots. "We had more fun in a week," she liked to say, "Than most weenies had in a lifetime!" (Below) A telegram dispatched by Pancho to a friend in 1931, when the Depression hit home, in which she asks for the immediate return of a large personal loan.

People always wonder why exactly Pancho fled to the desert. It’s hard to say of course, but perhaps she felt it was time for a quieter, calmer life. She’d spotted the alfalfa farm from the air, while flying maximum load tests for Lockheed on the Rogers Dry Lake, and once explained that its green fields looked like a bit of paradise in the middle of the parched expanse. That was maybe just the sort of retreat she needed, in hard times.

What’s ironic is that, even before she’d made the move up to the Muroc vicinity, Pancho’d had suffered a terrible disappointment in that place. I don’t know if she accompanied them, but in March of 1931 Allan Loughead and his chief test pilot E.L. Remelin brought the twin-engine “Olympic” – the plane Pancho’d invested in -- out to the dry lakes for critical flight tests. (It seems like Pancho was probably there, as the photo seen earlier in this entry of the plane, looks like it is on the Rogers Dry Lake.)

One can imagine the palpable excitement everyone must have felt that day, at seeing this promising, ultra-modern aircraft put through its paces. But things did not turn out as Pancho and the Lougheads hoped. After a brief flight, the plane landed and one of the engines stalled. Pulled by the one powered prop, the plane whipped around violently, collided with a support vehicle, and flipped over on its back. A newsreel camera man, who’d been brought out to record the plane’s triumphant flight, filmed the disaster in its entirety. Fortunately, Remelin wasn't killed. But Pancho’s “world beater”, like many other things in her life in that era, ended up broken and on its back.

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