Thursday, November 30, 2023

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.

Information Sign up

Sign up to be on our mailing list for updates.


Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"
24 October 2007

Pancho's Other Son

Print Email

Jimmy Doolittle once said that Florence "Pancho" Barnes had a "heart as big as a ham." That certainly seems to have been true. During the Great Depression, Pancho took in a lot of unemployed friends, making her San Marino mansion into a veritable hostel. After she moved up to the Mojave Desert, her generous ways continued. She put up Chuck and Glennis Yeager and their family at her hotel on several occasions, and gave Yeager a motorcycle so he could more easily commute to the Muroc air base. She helped a man named Kirk Kerkorian and a woman named Babe Story get their pilot's license (he founded a major airline, and she went on to become a Women's Air Service Pilot during WWII). And, she helped a poor orphan boy named Tony King, practically adopting him as her second son.

"My dad died. My mother was dead," Tony King explained during a recent interview at his house near Cantil, California, "And I was just a little kid -- like a saddle tramp on horseback -- going from ranch to ranch."

Tony met Pancho in 1934, when he was only about 14 years old. He was riding a horse in a parade when Pancho walked up, and asked if he would mind if her son Billy rode his horse next to him. He didn't object, and at the end of the parade, she caught up to him. "She said, 'I hear you're just on the street'," Tony remembers. "And I said, "Yeah I have no place to go." Next thing you know, Pancho offered Tony a job working at her Rancho Oro Verde. It was a position Tony was grateful for, but one he undertook with a bit of trepidation. The hard-talking, swaggering, swearing, smoking woman called Pancho made quite an impression on young Tony. "Boy," he says, " "I looked at her, and said 'Wow!' -- she'll probably eat me up alive if I don't behave."

Tony's first day on the job was memorable. To get to work that day, he took an 8-mile ride across the open desert on horseback. That was a typical jaunt for Tony, who even at that young age was about one of the best horsemen in California. (He later was inducted into a regional Cowboy Hall of Fame).

When Tony arrived at the Rancho Oro Verde, he found Pancho in a panic. "I just barely got there," he remembers,"When one of the pigs was having piglets. And there was nobody around." Tony enlisted Billy Barnes' help. "So we got in the hogs' pen, and we were just lucky the hogs were gentle, because some hogs'll eat you up," Tony says with a scowl. "You know what I mean, fooling with their piglets. So every time she'd have a little pig, I'd rub it down a little bit and blow in its mouth. I'd take whatever membrane it had in it, and take it out, so it wouldn't choke to death. And I'd hand it to Billy, and he'd put it in a basket, and that was it. She had 8 little piglets."

That day, Tony proved to be a hero. In a short time, he was practically running Pancho's ranch. He was also, thanks to Pancho, getting an education. "Well, she made me go to school," Tony nods. "Right in her living room. She says 'I'll teach you your ABCs.' Billy was a young kid, going to school, too. I had to stay in there at least an hour and a half with the books. I could hardly speak good English. Nobody'd taught me, till then."

At the time Tony King met her, Pancho had only lived in the Mojave for a short time. She'd been driven to the desert by the Great Depression, which essentially wiped out her finances. She'd gone from being a Pasadena heiress and a woman-about-town, to a rancher running a hardscrabble alfalfa farm. Times were tough but Tony, who'd lived quite a hard life by then, barely understood what Pancho was going through. He did, however, appreciate her business sense, and played a role in transforming the struggling alfalfa ranch into something much grander. His hard work and sweat helped make it possible. "She bought a dairy out, called Adair," he recounts, telling a typical story of those early days, "And when she bought the place, I had to milk 'em by hand. There were 40 cows! I had to get up midnight and ride that horse two miles from Pancho's place to where the dairy herd was."

Photo (above right): Pancho Barnes circa 1946 at the Rancho Oro Verde

Tony remembers some wonderful stories about Pancho's ranch, especially the era when it was called "The Happy Bottom Riding Club." In fact, one of his stories is about how the ranch got it's unusual name. "Pancho had a horse called Happy," he remembers. "A black horse. And after they came in from a ride, this one guy said, 'Gee my ass hurts.' Wow! And he was riding a horse called Happy. So that's where the ranch got its name -- Happy Bottom Riding Club. Because this guys ass hurt. But he said, 'it's happy though.'"

Tony can also tell you about the time Pancho put on a giant rodeo at her ranch, and advertised it with an outrageous poster featuring a naked woman riding on a Brahma bull. "Lady Godiva," he laughs. "She had long hair that covered her all. I don�t know what she had underneath that hair! But it was a big bull - whoof! With a big hump on it - kind of gray. That was an attraction of the ranch, seeing that." According to Tony, at one of the rodeos Lady Godiva actually put in a live appearance during an intermission. "The crowd went kind of goofy, they liked that," he remembers, adding that thankfully, "The bull was always under control."

Between the Lady Godiva act and the name, "Happy Bottom Riding Club" -- which seems a barely-hidden a double entendre -- you might think that Pancho had a bit of a racy mind. When director Amanda Pope asked Tony King about that, he said flat out: "Pancho was man crazy, and proud of it. Men flocked around her, I don' t know why. She wasn't good looking at all. My feel looked better'n her. She was just a Pancho that's all. I don�t know how come cuz she was uglier than a mud fence. I'm glad she's not here to hear that or she'd tear me up."

While there were many good times -- Pancho's wedding to her fourth husband Mac stands out in Tony's mind -- there were also bad times at the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Tony witnessed a terrible fire in the late 1940's that killed two of Pancho's stallions. "She had a 5-gaited show horse, it was called Santa Maria or Moreno, and we called it Red Skin, and she had a Thoroughbred gray called Tetraethel. After the gasoline. And they burned up." He also was there during Pancho's squabble with the Air Force, a battle that ended up in court and became known far and wide as the "War of the Mojave". Tony watched from the sidelines as Pancho's ranch was hit with another devastating fire, and then was seized by the USAF. It was a loss that hurt him deeply, too: after all, he'd worked hard to help build everything, and with his own two hands.

Photo (above left): Tony King (left) prepares for his interview. Director Amanda Pope is on the right.

Perhaps Tony's saddest memories of Pancho, were towards the end of her life. After she lost the Happy Bottom to the government, and her fourth marriage went sour, Pancho's health deteriorated. She could no longer properly care for herself, or the horses she kept on her property at Gypsy Springs. "We went over there one day, it was her birthday, July 29th," Tony recounts. "She had nothing to eat. And the horses had no water. They had no hay. And they were going bananas, trying to get out." Tony tried his best to help, but eventually realized that the horses would be better off in the care of the neighboring Thunderbird Ranch. He helped turn them over to them. His friend Pancho, who had once owned dozens of horses and been master of the Riding Club, would never own a horse again. Soon, she would move from Gipsy Springs to the small rock shack in Boron, where she passed away.

It's a painful story to relate, and Tony gets choked up explaining the details. Still, he says, the good times outweigh the bad. "She treated me like a son," he says wistfully. "You know, Pancho was pretty important to me. She give me every Christmas anything I wanted. If I say I wanted them two calves over there, I'd get em for a Christmas present. She gave me a Thoroughbred horse called Jackie Payne, 'cause I liked the horse so well. That was another Christmas present. And you know," he says resolutely," a lot of people won't give you the stock they got."

Facebook Box

You Can Help

Your tax-deductible donation can help make "The Legend of Pancho Barnes!" a reality.


News Letter

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