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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)"
08 July 2009

How it Came to be "Happy Bottom"

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One of the most charming, humorous and memorable moments in Pancho Barnes’ life, was when she re-christened the rather conventional-sounding Rancho Oro Verde the “Happy Bottom Riding Club”.   A luscious, suggestive name, “Happy Bottom Riding Club” was pure Pancho.  When the locals in nearby Lancaster heard about the switch, it must have confirmed to many what they’d always suspected -- that Pancho was running not a guest ranch, but a brothel.  That was almost certainly Pancho’s intent, since she would have understand the double-meaning implicit in the words.  She was one of those people who believed that bad publicity, and a lot of talk, was still good publicity.  But while it seemed quite racy, the actual origins of the moniker may have been terribly tame.  Then again, it might have involved famous actors and military heroes . . .

Let me back up a second.  When I first wrote an article about Pancho several years ago and saw one of the membership cards Pancho'd printed up (example at right) I was naturally curious about the origins of that rather, uh, unique name.  I asked several people about it, and one of the more knowledgeable ones informed me that in fact Medal of Honor winner Gen. Jimmy Doolittle had suggested it.  Apparently Doolittle had visited the ranch, gone on horseback, and told Pancho afterwords that he had “a happy bottom”.  That was the version of the story that ended up in my article, and later in our publicity trailer for the film.  But while it sounds great, it was probably not true.

The reason I can say that is, in the course of making the film, several other “creation myths” surfaced regarding the “Happy Bottom”.  One of the more intriguing ones, was that during World War II movie star Edward G. Robinson was asked to name a B-17.  He responded that he’d like to name it after his wife, Gladys.  B-17 Happy Bottom and Edward G. RobinsonThat sounded harmless enough but then Robinson went on to explain that it should be called “Happy Bottom” because he called his wife “Glad-Ass!”  Whether or not that story is true, and whether or not Pancho may have heard about it and been inspired, is hard to say.  But there was a B-17 that flew combat missions in the 381st Bomb Group with that name, and Robinson did name it (photo at left).

Barbara Schultz, in her biography Pancho, notes that she’s heard at least four stories about the name.  One of them fits nicely in with what Pancho’s ranch manager Tony King told us.  “[Pancho] had a horse named Happy,” King explained.  “A black horse.  And [someone] was riding this horse and he came in from a ride and said, ‘Gee, my ass hurts.’  He was riding the horse called Happy and that’s where the ranch got its name, because this guy’s ass hurt.”  Pancho told a similar story to Don Kuhns, as related by Schultz in her book.  “It was named after a horse called Happy Bottom,” Pancho said to Kuhns.  “He was called this because he had such an easy gait.”

That may sound fairly definitive, but it turns out it may not be the end of the story.  As Schultz points out, Pancho told another tale during an interview with Barbara Little in 1962.  At that time she gave a lot of credit to Dr. Fred Reynolds, an eye surgeon who worked at Edwards AFB.  “Dr. Reynolds noticed that all newcomers hurt in some tender areas after their first ride,” Pancho said.  “So that they couldn’t even sit down to eat.  The old timers had happy bottoms because they were toughened from riding a lot.  Fred proposed naming the full-fledged members part of the Happy Bottom Riding Club.”  

That’s probably how it happened.  But, the fact that there is some confusion about how the name came into being, doesn’t surprise me in the least.  As many of you know, a few years ago I wrote a series of articles and later a short book (see it here) about the controversies surrounding the origins of “Murphy’s Law”, which was allegedly discovered at Edwards AFB.  In that instance I concluded we’d never be able to really know the truth definitively, and that’s likely the case here. 

Still, it’s a great name, and its muddled origins are a bit of a giggle. Perhaps Barbara Schultz put it best when she wrote in Pancho that “the original source [of the name] may have been lost through years of yarn-spinning, but much to the chagrin of those looking for a more erotic derivation, at least one horse story will have to do.”

Photo: Pancho Barnes and a black horse -- possibly named "Happy"?

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