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)"
18 January 2010

Pancho Gets a Gold Record ... Almost!

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One aspect of Pancho Barnes' life that we didn't get to cover adequately in our film, was her career as Musica songwriter.  That's right, in addition to being a movie stunt pilot, adventurer, animal wrangler, barkeep and hotelier, Florence "Pancho" Barnes was a prolific composer of music and lyrics for popular song.  The Pancho Barnes Trust Estate has a huge stack of her sheet music like the one at right, penned in Pancho's inimitable bold penmanship.

It's not that surprising that Pancho developed a career in writing music because music and entertainment were a big part of the Rancho Oro Verde.  All sorts of bands and musical personalities would find their way up to Pancho's hotel including the Sons of the Pioneers, Stan Worth and Jerry Wallace.  Relentlessly creative in all pursuits be they business or pleasure, Pancho found an outlet at the piano.

But this wasn't just fun and games — Pancho wanted to be a big name in the music business and she almost succeeded thanks to her musician friends.  At least eight of her songs were recorded and released including "Christmas, Christmas", "Hello Heaven", "Moon Crazy", "Turn That Page" (seen at right), "You Can't Get Me Down, Down, Down", by Stan Worth.  (Bandleader and musician Worth is perhaps best known for writing the theme to TV's "Hollywood Squares".)  The Sons of the Pioneers recorded "Ghost of the Badmen" and the Kings Four put "Yippee It's Rodeo Day" out on vinyl.  (This last song is currently the only one available on the internet.  Click here to take a listen.)  As you can guess from the titles, many of the songs had a definite country-western flavor, perfect for the dude ranch life Pancho was living and the Western-obsessed era.  Other songs were in different genres including romantic ballads and sentimental love letters of the type commonly heard on the radio in the late 40's and 50's.

Music2When the U.S. Air Force came into being as its own separate branch of service in 1947, Pancho imagined that it would need a service song to rival the Navy's "Anchor's Aweigh" and the Marine hymn.  She boldly wrote music and lyrics for a new "Song of the Air Force" and had sheet music printed up (seen at left) featuring the supersonic Bell X-1 rocket plane on the front.  She then sent the music to highly-placed people in the military in an attempt to convince them that her song should be adopted as THE song.  (I forgot to take a picture of the rear of the sheet music, but if memory serves it has a nice picture of Chuck Yeager and a couple of Pancho's other USAF friends on the back giving endorsements to this concept!)

Lauren Kessler describes Pancho's Song of the Air Force in her book The Happy Bottom Riding Club this way: "...the lyrics celebrated the accomplishments of the high-flying, faster-than-sound, circling-the-earth pilots whom Pancho knew and loved.  It was a rousing, singable military march, simple and catchy, with a node to Stephen Foster.  The pilots sang it loudly and happily at the Club."

It seemed absolutely fitting to Pancho that as the granddaughter of Thaddeus Lowe, the real founder of the U.S. Air Force, that she should be the author of the service's pep song.  Unfortunately, she had reckoned without a little ditty that had been in circulation since the mid-1930s.  Adopted and sung frequently by the U.S. Army Air Corps, it began with a line in it you may find familiar: off we go into the wild blue yonder. That particular song, written by Capt. Robert M. Crawford, had actually won a competition in 1938 against over 750 rivals to be selected as the official USAAC song.  Pancho's good friend Hap Arnold actually was involved in the selection of Crawford's "U.S. Army Air Corps Song" as the winner, and he or his successor rubber stamped a revised version (substituting "Air Force" for "Air Corps") as the official service song.

While Pancho's attempt to dethrone the AIr Force Song with the Song of the Air Force failed, her musical career knew better days, Recordincluding the time "Moon Crazy" was performed on TV.  According to Barbara Schultz's biography Pancho, one of Pancho's biggest musical successes was as a result of a challenge made by Bob Roubian, the owner of the popular Crab Cooker Restaurant in Newport Beach.  Roubian had apparently written a popular song entitled "Too Pooped to Pop" (probably not the song made famous by Chuck Berry, but I'm not sure!)  Anyway Pancho felt the "popcorn" song was ridiculous, and set out to top it.  The result was "By Your Side" which her friend Jerry Wallace promptly recorded for the Challenge label.  Can you believe it, the song ended up as a B-side on an A-side single entitled "Primrose Lane" that by happenstance ended up becoming Wallace's top hit ever and the song that defined his career. (You can see a cheesy video of "Primrose Lane" here ; "By Your Side" I could not find on-line at present).   As sales of the single went through the roof, Pancho began receiving fat royalty checks in the mail.  It was an enormous success, although with qualifications of course.

Photo at right: the million-selling single of By Your Side.  You can make out the Barnes name on the far left, underneath the title of the song.  She apparently shared writing credit with three other people.  The most commonly-available piece of Pancho Barnes memorabilia sold on eBay, you can usually get a copy of this single for $3-$10 if you're interested. Just search for "Primrose Lane".

By Your Side was something of a fluke and Pancho knew it.   Although she was elected into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in the 1960s and collected royalty checks on her catalog, she never did have another big chart success.  While she had talent, she lacked focus and follow-through.   As Lauren Kessler notes, "Although Pancho was good at everything she tried ... she was a starter, not a finisher...(so) despite the success of seeing a number of her songs recorded, she tired of composing and moved on."  That wasn't the only reason, of course.  Most of Pancho's interest in songwriting and her inspiration for it probably derived from the Rancho Oro Verde and the talented musicians and composers who visited. Once she lost the ranch, she no longer saw these people and the music biz simply lost its appeal.

The PancHyperho Barnes Trust Estate keeps Pancho's songs under copyright, and has plans to make the back catalog available again.  Who knows, maybe they will release some of Pancho's recorded music on iTunes or elsewhere.  Stay tuned for that.

One Pancho-related bit of music is available on iTunes.   In 1996 the heavy metal band Hyper inexplicably named their album The Happy Bottom Riding Club.  I've auditioned a few tracks on iTunes, and I can tell you honestly that although one suggestive song on the album is entitled "Ride the Pony", I have no real idea what the connection is between Hyper and Pancho's guest ranch!  And no, "By Your Side" is NOT on this album.

A fairly complete list of Pancho's copyrighted music is available here.




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