Monday, July 22, 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)"
06 November 2008

Pancho Barnes Returns to Laguna !

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After a brief hiatus, owing to the arrival of my son Jake (8lbs, 4.6 ounces and both baby and mother are doing nicely, thanks), Amanda Pope and I are back have committed to a series of new events in support of the film. The first of these will take place on Monday night, November 17th. We hope you'll join us at 7:30 pm down at Laguna City Hall for a special evening hosted by the Laguna Beach Historical Society. There is no charge for admission, and there's no need to RSVP. You can read the details on the website: click here

Doing an event in Laguna represents a bit of a homecoming for Pancho -- or Florence Lowe, as she was known in her youth. After all, members of her mother Florence Dobbin's family, were important cogs in Laguna's social machine in the 20's. As a young girl, Florence Lowe most likely went to Laguna each summer. What better way, in a world where air conditioning was in its infancy, than to escape the summer heat of Pasadena by going to the shore?

Photo at left: Pancho's extended family including her mother Florence Mae Dobbins (right) pose at the family home in Laguna, circa 1915. Her father Thad Lowe is the man at the top of the stairs, on the left.

In her late teens, Florence Lowe studied painting in Laguna, and became friends with many of the artists in the community. One of them, George Hurrell, became one of her best friends. There were other, wonderful distractions as well. In the year 1924 when she was 23, Malcolm St. Clair directed the Rin Tin Tin / Louise Fazenda movie "Lighthouse by the Sea" in Laguna, and Florence helped out on the set (see 2.22.07 entry).

When her mother unexpectedly died in 1923, Florence inherited her house on Emerald Bay. It wasn't until a few years later however, after Florence had run roughshod all over Mexico and returned with the name "Pancho", that she really began to make her mark in the social world of Laguna. And what a mark it was!

The house by Emerald Bay is no longer there, but even now people in Laguna remember the parties that were thrown there. In the middle of the dry desert dull drums of Prohibition, Pancho had a way with liquor. She managed to keep things wetter than the Pacific by brewing a steady supply of bathtub gin, and supplementing it with honest-to-gosh booze. That was flown in from south of the Border by, who else, flying rum-runner pals.

Photo: A 't' marks the spot of Pancho's airport in Laguna.

Delivering the rotgut was easy to do, because shortly after she'd gotten her pilot's license, Pancho had a runway graded onto her property -- which perhaps qualifies it as Laguna's first and possibly only airport. The neighbors hated the noise of the Travel Airs and Stearmans flying in all the time, but nothing could be done about it as there were no regulations in those days. Pancho's home also boasted a large swimming pool, and guests including Wallace Beery and Ramon Novarro can be seen cavorting in it, in photos now in the collection of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate. Some of them were likely shot by Hurrell, who dropped his paint brush and picked up a Kodak. It would be thanks in part to Pancho, that Hurrell later became MGM's chief portrait photographer. (See 07-15-07 Journal).

While many people in Laguna society shunned the spotlight in those days (and still do), Pancho seems to have been all about publicity. She sent photos of herself and important friends, both in and out of her pool, to a number of news services. Perhaps it was because she was having so much fun, she just needed to share. (One of the best images, which must have been slightly shocking for its day, shows Pancho in a tight one-piece bathing suit, lit cigarette in hand!)

Photo at left: Wallace Beery (left) and Ramon Novarro (right) lounge by the pool.

Unfortunately, it was publicity of the wrong sort that eventually dimmed Pancho's 10,000 watt party bulb. In July of 1930, a biplane flying into her Laguna airport suffered some kind of calamity, and dropped 200 feet into the bay. It took nearly an hour and a half for rescuers to locate the wreckage, which had sunk fifty feet below the ocean surface. When it was hauled up by grappling hook, the pilot was identified as millionaire sportsman Maurice Dodds. He and his passenger, a Union Oil Company representative named C.F. Lienesch, appeared to have been killed instantly on impact. Dodds' parachute showed no sign that he'd tried to use it.

The cause of the crash was impossible to determine. Pancho and several witnesses firmly believed that Dodds' engine had failed in flight. Other parties speculated that the biplane had hit an air pocket, and suggested that these kind of down drafts were common along the coastline. In the end, this view seems to have forced the closure of Pancho's airport.

Even if the crash had never occurred, Pancho's days in Laguna were numbered. Strapped for cash by the othercrash -- on Wall Street -- she eventually had little recourse but to sell the property and move on. (See previous journal entry for more about Pancho and the Great Depression.)

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