Thursday, May 23, 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)"
12 May 2010

Pancho's Rodeo "Blister"

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I've spent some time in the Production Journal detailing some of the wonderful people who've attended our events, some of whom have brought a scrap of Pancho-related memorabilia.  Recently we had an attendee who showed up with what I consider one of the all-time great Pancho items, a souvenir booklet from one of the two rodeos she put on in 1949 and 1950. 

Now we all know the story about how Pancho promoted her rodeo with "Lady Godiva" -- a nude woman IMG_0001(well, she wore a body stocking) on top of a giant bull.  Turns out that wasn't the only outrageous bit of promotion Pancho schemed up for these events.  Pancho flew National Air Race announcer Archie Twitchell in to call the event,  and according to biographer Lauren Kessler she rented searchlights that could be seen from thirty miles away, and bought a Chevrolet so it could be raffled off. Another thing she did, this time for the 1950 rodeo, was to produce a souvenir booklet called the Happy Bottom "Blister", and this is what recently surfaced at our event.  Running about 22 pages, the over-sized booklet sold for a costly 25 cents.  In my view the black and white cover alone was worth the quarter, as it bears a cartoon of a shapely woman on horseback wincing in pain from a gigantic saddle sore -- yikes!  

IMG_0003The first page of this "official organ" (yes, that's what the front cover says, and yes it was absolutely intended to be a double entendre) looked like a newspaper.   Only, this was Pancho's version of The Onion complete with wild headlines like "Honest John Accused of Rape" and "Godiva Rides Again For Same Damned Reason".  An astute reader would learn on page 3 that the "Honest John" accused of assault on page one, is actually a prized horse that is being used as a stud -- typical Pancho humor!  The rest of the publication is filled with informative articles about the rodeo activities such as "Team Roping" and "Bronc Busting", and a slew of dirty jokes, sayings, and naughty anecdotes designed to make you smile.  (Not surprisingly, there are a couple racist jokes in there as well that make a modern-day reader's skin crawl -- but keep in mind this was 1950 and things were very different back then). 

Also interspersed throughout the Blister are advertisements for real local businesses, but many of them contain racy cartoons or double-entendre headlIMG_0007ines.  "Be sure that if you're killed you're insured" says an ad for an insurance broker, while another says "Suburban GAS service" and still another says "If you want your MEAT INSPECTED have it done by us".  Another one offers a ruler-shaped device called a "Peter Meter", with appropriate captions per inch.

Stealing from her standard repertoire, Pancho put a "Notice of Our Non-Responsibility" for the contents on the front page.  Aside from sloughing off responsibility for the contents, the notice also declares that Pancho takes no responsibility for the people attending the rodeo.  It contains one of Pancho's favorite lines: "We're not responsible for the bustling and hustling that may go on here.  Lots of people bustle, and some hustle, but that's their business and a very old one." 

Looking through the Blister you get a great sense of Pancho's personality, IMG_0006sense of humor, pride and showmanship.  You also get a sense of how fearless and confident she was -- one of the naughty anecdotes even features an imagined exchange between Pancho and Col. Al Boyd, the commander of Edwards AFB!  It's also clear how much fun Pancho liked to have, as the whole kit and kaboodle is just a gas.  The rodeo, from promoting it to hosting and running it, must have really been dear to Pancho's heart.

From a publicity standpoint, the rodeos were an incredible success, with grandstands packed and people flying in from all over California and Nevada for the weekend.  Financially though the events proved to be disastrous, as Pancho'd let the budget get out of hand by -- what else? -- buying Chevrolets to be raffled off, hiring searchlights to point 30 miles in the sky, and oh yes, printing lavish joke souvenir booklets to commemorate the event.  After losing roughly $20K (over $150K in today's money, according to an inflation calculator) putting on the 1949 and 1950 rodeos, Pancho wisely decided to take a breather, and she never did get the opportunity to  host another one. 

It's too bad really that there never was a third rodeo, because Pancho always liked to top herself. What would the program from the 1951 Pancho Rodeo have been like?  I can only imagine!

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