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)"
14 May 2008

Growing Up With Pancho

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The very last interview conducted for the Pancho film was with, who else?, a remarkable woman.

Bondi Abraham grew up in the Mojave Desert during the late 1940's and early 50's. Her father, Henry Winters, actually was the man who officially claimed the Muroc Dry Lake as U.S. Government property, and one of the five men who set up what would eventually become Edwards AFB. Winters was taken with the area. Soon after he left the Army Air Force to work for Lockheed in Los Angeles, he quit and returned to the Mojave. Clark Gable owned a large hunting lodge near Muroc named Rancho La Berenda, and Winters and his family lived there as managers, while running their own spread. Later, after Gable died, they bought the place.

Clark Gable's hunting lodge was not that far away from Pancho's spread, and she and the Winters lived as western neighbors do, helping one another get by in tough times. "We'd help her with the mustangs, " remembers Bondi, "and she would come over and help us with our castration and de-horning of the animals. All the people who lived around there would."

Herding the wild horses was an especially exciting event for young Bondi. "Pancho would take me out and put me on a chair," Bondi recalls. "Then she and my father would drive the mustangs down right towards me. And here's Pancho on one side, and Daddy's on the other. She's pushing the mustangs away to make sure I don't get hit. But I get to see everything that's happening. All of them would pass, and then she'd break away and come back, pack me up, and I'd go on the back of her horse. And I'd hang onto her and we'd start breaking the mustangs little by little."

Photo: Pancho holds Bondi in her lap, circa 1949.

Clearly, Pancho and Bondi had a special relationship, one that made a strong impression on the young girl. At the time she was in an awkward phase, and had a severe self-image problem. Pancho knew exactly where Bondi was, psychologically, and did what she could to let her know that. "The first time I ever met Pancho, I looked at her," Bondi notes. "And I didn't look at her as other people looked at her, and she knew that. She did equate to my homeliness, and she wanted to let me know that it was all right, and that some day it might be different. And that's how she formed my life for me. To me, she was a beautiful person."

The Winter family's time in the Mojave was full of hard work, which not only included normal ranch life, but hosting hunters who came out to shoot geese and ducks. Every now and then something exciting would happen. On a few occasions Hollywood production companies arrived to shoot something else -- movies -- in the desert nearby. The Winters hosted stars like Roy Rogers, Tim McCoy and even Ronald Reagan. "They'd bring him home and we'd chit-chat," says Bondi. "Ronald Reagan was a neat person. And we met an actress who was later on the Waltons. She did all her own stunts, and she'd come over and borrow Pancho's buckboard. They set her up there and taught her how to drive a team of horses."

Photo: Bondi and her brother Michael outside the family's ranch in the Mojave. Clark Gables' former hunting club, which the family also occupied, was down the road a ways.

There were some uninvited guests, too. After Pancho had expanded her alfalfa farm and dairy into a full-blown guest ranch, visitors often confused Rancho La Berenda with Pancho's. "The service men would go to town and drink, and they wanted to have entertainment." says Bondi. "We were always told, if there was a knock on the door in the middle of the night, not to answer the door. Sometimes things would get a little hairy and Dad would have to come out and address the issue."

While difficult, life in the desert seemed idyllic to Bondi and her brother Michael. But, when the government decided to expand Edwards Air Force Base, it all came to an end. For a time ranchers like Henry Winters and his neighbors tried to protest the government's seizure of their properties. Pancho of course was the most vocal of the bunch, going so far as to actually sue the government.

In the middle of the suit, and a federal investigation, part of Pancho's guest ranch burned to the ground. It was a terrible day, one that Bondi will remember forever. "You have to remember that the Muroc Dry Lake is flat and reflective. So you see things coming off of it. I saw the big fire," Bondi recalls, her voice quivering. "(Panco) came over (to my father) and said, 'Aw, Henry, it's gone. And I can't go on anymore I just can't do it anymore, I'm going to let them have it." Bondi pauses and then says, "It's not fun to see a woman like that. That defeated. Because she was totally defeated. She had taken on the United States Government and they had won."

Despite what she may have said that day, Pancho did not give up. Although she did eventually lose her ranch, Pancho won a larger settlement than any other person in the area. By then however, Henry Winters and his family had moved on, and Clark Gable's hunting lodge was bulldozed. Bondi's memories of the place faded, but not her affection for that time in her life, or for Pancho.

"What she showed me and told me was," Bondi says, her voice breaking, "Even as a homely little girl… Someday if you go for it, someday if you keep trying, some day it will happen." It did for Bondi. A successful artist whose pieces are highly collectible today, she's lived an extraordinary life, and determined who she is and she's made of, on her own. Her verve, strong personality, and sense of herself are wholly reminiscent of Pancho.

"She was the type of woman that I wish we had today," Bondi says with a sigh. "She was not ashamed of her looks. She was good to everyone, and she accepted everyone for what they were or were not." She pauses, and then continues. "I wish the women of today had the strength and attitude that Pancho Barnes had."

Photo:Amanda Pope (l) interviews Bondi Abraham in summer, 2007.

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