Tuesday, June 25, 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)"
11 August 2008

The People You Meet...

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There's an old Chinese saying, that the journey is the reward. It's a phrase I've heard repeated this week, what with the Olympics opening in Beijing. While I’m really not much of a fan of cliche, I have to say that in the case of the documentary, the experience of making it has been terrific, and for all sorts of reasons. The one I would put at the top of the list is that, by making the film, Amanda Pope and I have met so many fascinating people. If you've read the Production Journal, then you've met some of them as well.

But, it's not just the people who we interviewed for the film, that we've relished meeting. Because almost every week, as we conduct research, travel, do presentations, and answer our email, we meet a lot of really cool people. Pancho was such a strong personality, and accomplished so much, that she became friends with all sorts of folks from all different walks of life – movie stars, artists, airplane designers, stunt pilots, test pilots, writers, and on and on. Turns out, she still has the ability to attract and inspire people who have very rich personalities, and all sorts of things going on in their worlds.

Some of the people we've met in the last few weeks include an octogenarian who worked at the Douglas Aircraft factory in Santa Monica before WWII, a recent retiree in his sixties who is building an experimental airplane, and a woman in her twenties who just earned her wings and joined the Ninety-Nines. We met a woman adventurer who flew all over the USA, a famous stunt pilot who flew Spitfires in The Battle of Britain, a test pilot who flew the SR-71 Blackbird back in the 1960s, and a captain for United who flies the 747. All of them had an encouraging word to say about Pancho and our project, and a story to share.

Sometimes, though, it's the stories you don't hear that end up touching you. That's been the case recently, when I received word that a friend of the project had passed away. Donald Martin, who I knew by his distinctive email address "Explorer001", contacted me back in June of last year. He'd stumbled across our website and felt he just had to write. "I have an uncle that lives out in the Lancaster area," he noted, "He is a pilot and even has a plane out at Fox Field. But all this time, I did not know about Pancho and her ranch!"

Don told me he couldn't donate to the project, but that if we needed any help touching up photos, he'd love to give it a shot. I explained that we always need help restoring things -- it's a slow process that still is on-going -- and ended up emailing him a few things to work on. One of them was a headline about the death of aviatrix Marvel Crosson in the Powder Puff Derby. It was just a clipping, I explained, and we wanted a full headline. Using his Photoshop skills, Don obliged us. He did excellent work (at left).

Well, I was a bit taken aback when a few months later I received that email, telling me Don had passed away at the age of 49. Up until that point, I had no idea he was that young -- I'd pictured a man in his seventies. I sent my condolences, of course. I didn't really expect to hear anything more... but sometimes you get lucky.

Just the other day, Don's partner Kathleen sent me an email and introduced herself. She was compiling a memory book about Don, she explained, and asked if I had anything to contribute? So, I called her and told her about my correspondence with Don, and how I was sure he'd be happy to hear, that the image he retouched will be in the finished film.

Kathleen then told me a few things about Don. About how he'd developed MS as a child, back in the early 1960s. About how, against all odds and perhaps even the wishes of his family, he had tried to get out in the world and accomplish something. He developed considerable skills as a graphic artist and a poet and writer and, perhaps because his own body was in decline, he became obsessed with learning how to fix things. He volunteered at a Detroit area movie palace, the Redford, and soon became the head of their restoration efforts. To do some of the work he wanted to do, such as scraping layers and layers of paint off the woodwork to reveal the original decorations, the staff actually dangled Don and his wheelchair off a balcony. It paid off in spades, as you can see if you visit the theater website, it's simply beautiful.

Since that phone call, I find I've been thinking about it. . . I never did ask Don about why he was interested in our project, but I think I understand it now. Pancho struggled mightily in her own life and times for recognition, and overcame a lot of odds. So did Don Martin, and that's why he was worth knowing.

Photo: Don Martin at work restoring the Redford. Courtesy Redfordtheatre.com

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