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.

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

George Hurrell and Pancho Barnes

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Without Dr. Lou D'Elia, we wouldn't be making a film about Pancho. Reason being, Lou and his business partner, architect Mike Salazar, have preserved all of Pancho's papers, photographs, and other materials. When I first met Lou, several years ago, he had just acquired Pancho's "stuff" from her estate, and was storing over 90 banker's boxes of it, floor to ceiling, in a room in his home. Such a thing might have overwhelmed many people — after all it's one thing to collect stamps or shot glasses but another thing entirely to try to preserve the life and memory of another person. But for Lou, Pancho is person he admires and respects on many different levels, and it's a task he loves.

Over the years, going through Pancho's papers, contacting her friends and being contacted by her admirers, Lou has gained enormous insight into Pancho's career, personal life, and antics. It's the antics that Lou loves the most — get him talking about Pancho for more than a couple of minutes and he's sure to tell some wonderful story. It might be about how Howard Hughes bent her plane's propeller, or how Ramon Novarro sent her lovely flowers on her birthday, how she got her wings after just six hours of instruction...or...if you're lucky, Lou will tell you how she helped set photographer George Hurrell's career.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The reason that Lou D'Elia knows all about Pancho, is actually because of George Hurrell. Hurrell (1904-92), became extremely famous in the 1930's and 40's as a Hollywood glamour photographer. "I had been collecting photography for many years," Lou told Amanda Pope during our recent interview. "Actually since I was 16. Started in 1967, while I was still in high school. And I started to collect the photography of George Hurrell." Lou's passion for finding and preserving Hurrell's photos — one of his collections is now in the possession of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — led him to seek out photos of Pancho, and ended up in his and Mike's acquisition of her estate.

The why is it exactly that Pancho Barnes is affiliated with George Hurrell? Well, she helped launch his career.

Photo above right: George Hurrell later in life, courtesy of

"At that time," D'Elia explains, "Florence Barnes was splitting her time between her home in San Marino and Laguna Beach. George Hurrell had come out from Chicago to further his painting career. They met in 1925 at a party at another painter’s house. Anyway, if he wanted to paint something during the winter months, he'd shoot photographs during the summer. And so Pancho knew that he could do photography. So at one point, Pancho wanted to learn how to fly. And she had heard that Orville Wright, who signed your certificate, didn’t want to see women applying for a license. And so she decided, okay if he doesn’t like to see a woman apply, I’ll dress up like a man and put her on my license. So she asked George Hurrell to take a picture of her dressed like a man. As a spoof. And she’s smoking a cigarette." The story continues, that to make up for the decidedly unglamorous pilot's license photo, Hurrell volunteered to shoot some "nice" photos of Pancho. She showed the results to her friend, actor Ramon Novarro. He was impressed.

Photo: Dr. Lou D'Elia being interviewed for the film in the "Pancho Barnes Room" in his home. Behind him on the right is a painting Pancho commissioned of herself. It depicts Pancho at sea, dressed like a man, during an adventure in Mexico in the 1920's.

"And so," Lou continues, "George Hurrell then took photographs of Ramon Navarro. And they turned out really terrific. In fact he took those photographs back to his confidante at the studio, Norma Shearer, who was married at that time to the head of the studio, Irving Thalberg. She had a problem of her own, in that she was sort of the sweet girl next door type in silent films. And she wanted to ramp up her image and play a broader array of roles, including a sexy vamp. And this script had come across her desk called The Divorcee, which required her to be this very sexy vamp. And um, she went to her husband and said, 'Oh hon, you know, I’d really like to play this role.' And he says, 'Oh Norma, you’re sexy but you’re not sexy in that way.' Well, that really upset her."

Photo: George Hurrell and Norma Shearer during a photoshoot, from

"So she was then talking to her friend Ramon Navarro said, “Well why don’t you use George Hurrell and have him take some great pictures of you and show them to your husband? Maybe that’ll convince him. So - she did. They turned out terrific. Not only did she get the role, their - her marriage improved. And uh she won the Academy Award for Best Actress that year. And it was after that that George Hurrell was offered a role as - a job at MGM as a portrait photographer, which set his career."

Photo at right: Director Amanda Pope and cinematographer Clay Westervelt during our interview with Dr. Lou D'Elia.

More on our interview with Dr. D'Elia in a future Production Journal. Meantime, visit the website for the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate,

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