Sunday, November 17, 2019

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)"
31 July 2009

Living Off the Legacy of a Legend

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When Hollywood producers decided to make a movie version of The Right Stuff in 1983, or a TV movie entitled Pancho Barnes in 1988, they wanted an expert to consult with them about their depiction of Pancho.  There was only one man to call.  He was the same man who had worked with Pancho back in the 1940s, and who had married her back in 1952.  Even though he divorced her in 1968, he found himself so strongly connected to her legacy that he could not really escape it.  As a result, Mac McKendry – Pancho’s fourth and final husband -- ended up spending the final decades of his life trying to preserve and celebrate her memory.  Which was ironic because while she once loved him, by the time she died Pancho pretty much hated his guts.      

PanchoMacMcKendry3People we’ve spoken to who met Mac McKendry socially during the waning years of his life (he died in 2001) describe a charming, down-to-earth fellow who was still handsome after years in the harsh Mojave sun.  When Pancho first met him in 1946, he was a dashing farm boy turned ex-military pilot who was down on his luck .  According to Lauren Kessler’s book The Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho quickly turned things around for Mac, getting him a cushy job as a private pilot for magician John Calvert (photo at right).

Mac once told an interviewer that he and Pancho hooked up the day they first met, and kept up a romantic routine so rigorous that he recalled that it nearly wore him out.  Their romance flourished despite the fact that he was 26 -- and she was 45.

When the Calvert job ended, it was natural for Mac to begin working at Pancho’s ranch and airport. Eventually he became the ranch manager, and by most accounts did a fairly good job.  But the dashing young man was more than just a good boss to Pancho’s girls.   “We all had a crush on him,” remembers Pancho’s head hostess Dallas Morley.  “But she said, ‘Hands off, that one’s mine!’  He was a good-looking hunk -- big red beard.  Good looking.”

By the time Pancho and Mac decided to get married in 1952, Pancho was 51 and at the apogee of her success.  Her Happy Bottom Riding Club guest ranch was a terrific attraction, complete with a hotel, riding stables, pool, airport, restaurant, bar and dance floor, and Pancho was living large --  probably too large to be sustainable.  Their wedding was an exercise in largesse, with a a guest list supposedly approaching 1000 people.  It featured so many celebrities and military brass that it was covered in all the L.A. papers.  

PanchoMacMcKendryBut just a few years later the lovebirds’ situation would be irrevocably changed.  A government lawsuit, an FBI investigation, and two court cases later, Pancho lost her ranch and a great deal of her personal fortune.  According to Lauren Kessler, after the summer of 1954 “things were never the same between Pancho and Mac.”  They struggled to get their bearings.  They frittered away their money, and could not get their mojo back.   For Mac, who had thought perhaps that he was marrying into wealth and the excitement, prestige and energy that came with the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the prospect of having to pull himself up by his bootstraps was more than he could stand.  Within a short time he began disappearing for long stretches of time.  Pancho came to believe he was cheating on her with a waitress named Lenora.  She would eventually come to call her rival by a different name: “Lenore the Whore”.

By 1962, ten years after they were first married, Pancho abruptly filed for divorce.  She had probably just barely beaten Mac to the punch.   It was the beginning of a terrible legal row that would leave them both financially and emotionally exhausted.  Pancho got the worst of it; her health had never been very good and the depression she faced over the loss of her livelihood, beloved ranch, and husband must have been overpowering. 

So was her anger.  In 1966 a young woman named Patrice Demory lived with Pancho, and she vividly remembers the row between Pancho and Mac. “They had quite a bit of verbal warfare,” Patrice told us. “Pancho was constantly trying to find proof [of adultery] against Mac.  They were always like, who can get the other’s goat more?  There was a war between them.  But she was really hurting at the time.”

After a trip to Reno to finalize the divorce, Patrice remembers Pancho “madder than ten chicken hens, like ten cobras . . .  I mean you could imagine the worst torture that one could imagine, that one could put on any human being, Pancho would verbalize it.”   After it was all over, there was little relief for Pancho.  She didn’t even get alimony because Mac was too broke to pay support and apparently too lazy to find a job.  Pancho's friend Chuck Yeager summed it up this way: “McKendry was a pretty shrewd guy.  He saw Pancho as a good investment.  And he used her.” 

PanchoMacMcKendry2Yet while Mac apparently forgot all his feelings for Pancho, he never forgot that she was famous, or that for a time he had been part of the world she had created, in which everything seemed to revolve around her and her ranch.  Somehow, it all fell right into his lap.  First, when Pancho died in 1975, the only will that could be located was one from prior to Pancho and Mac’s divorce.  That document left everything to McKendry and nothing to Pancho’s son Bill.  Although Bill contested the will, McKendry ended up with most of Pancho’s personal property and memorabilia.

Then in 1980, Bill Barnes was killed when his P-51 Mustang caught on fire in flight and crashed.  Just one year prior to that incident, Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff electrified the nation.  Pancho was of course one of the most memorable characters in its pages, and the book’s popularity and Billy’s death had unexpected consequences for Mac.  Suddenly, he became the default expert on Pancho, and one of the people most identified with her -- just at the moment she was being re-discovered. McKendry was only too happy to step into the spotlight as “Pancho’s fourth and final husband” and speak about her.  He did just that at the first “Pancho Barnes Day” at Edwards AFB in 1980, and continued to do it pretty much right up until he died.

Photo (above): Pancho Barnes and Mac are seen together in Mexico, probably around the time of their wedding. (Photo below): In a dramatic image snapped by an unknown photographer, an elderly McKendry stands in the ruins of the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

PanchoMacMcKendry4More than anyone else, Mac worked to preserve Pancho’s legacy.  For thirty years he labored, trying to save every scrap of paper and every photograph that he’d gotten from his ex-wife’s estate.  He bought a surplus railway car, stacked her memorabilia inside it, and talked about opening a museum. He also pursued every scrap of material he could find that might have anything to do with Pancho.  According to various sources, if Mac found out that someone had been given a photo or document by Pancho – she was in the habit of making gifts of her papers to visitors – he would cajole and threaten them into surrendering the goods.  When that didn’t work, he involved the courts.  His lawsuit against Bill Barnes’ widow and other individuals over material he believed was rightfully his, outraged and horrified many of Pancho’s surviving friends.  He even went so far as to threaten one of her biographers with legal action, lest she distort Pancho's story.  It was obviously an extreme reaction, but Mac believed he was doing what he needed to do in order to preserve his ex-wife’s legacy.  Despite the misery they had caused each other at one point in their lives together, in death he had become her guardian and keeper. 

Mac didn’t glorify Pancho in interviews, but simply explained the woman he remembered – a tough, sometimes cantankerous woman who had turned his life upside down.  It is easy to see that he’d spent some of his most exciting, most memorable days with Pancho.  But while Mac could never acknowledge publicly the hurt and pain he’d caused her, or reveal that they’d never reconciled during her lifetime, neither could he move out from under her shadow.  In the end, he became better known as “Pancho’s fourth husband Mac” than for any other thing he’d accomplished in his own life.

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