30 August 2009

The Right Stuff at the Aero


"Just beyond [Muroc AFB], to the southwest, there was a rickety wind-blown 1930's-style establishment called Pancho's Fly Inn, owned, run, and bartended by a woman named Pancho Barnes..." Thus begins the section in Tom Wolfe's wonderful book The Right Stuff about our friend Pancho.  It was Wolfe's book, first published in 1979 RightStuffand based on a series of Rolling Stone magazine articles in 1973, that really inspired The Legend of Pancho Barnes.  I first read it in 1987, when I was a junior at University High School in Tucson, Arizona, and like many readers I was completely enthralled.  Not just with Wolfe's magical, swashbuckling language and soaring descriptions of people, places, ideas and events, but with the whole conceit of the book.  It was a downright American story about heroism, and history told in a way I had not imagined possible -- funny, real, and populated with fascinating characters who seemed far removed from the dullards populating my eleventh grade history books.   

One character stood out for me more than any other, and that was the woman with the name of a man.  Even years after I'd read the book, I remembered the lines Wolfe had used to describe Pancho.  She "shocked the pants" off people with her "vulcanized tongue".  Yet according to Wolfe, she had been born into a wealthy family from San Marino, California, and had once been married to a priest.  She seemed to be a veritable haystack of contradictions.  To top it all off, this woman Pancho was on a first-name basis with some of the greatest test pilots in the world, apparently because in an earlier era she'd been a famous pilot herself.  Wolfe didn't get into that bit of her background in any depth, but it was clear Pancho Barnes was a character to be reckoned with...   (It's interesting to me now, because looking at the book, I see that pretty much all that juicy prose that I remember so vividly, actually amounts to perhaps four pages of a 400+ page book!)

RightStuff2I first saw Philip Kaufman's epic film of the book while in film school in 1992, in a second-run movie palace in Los Angeles that had spitballs all over the screen.  Even though the venue was less than ideal the movie, which  featured Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager (photo at left) and an all-star cast, simply shone. KimStanely It seemed a letter-perfect cinematic adaptation of a book I'd assumed simply couldn't be adapted.  And once again, one of the characters I truly found unforgettable was Pancho.  As portrayed by Kim Stanley (right), she was a profane, rollicking, no-holds-barred woman who could drink and curse with the best of them.  What was Pancho's story?  Where did she come from and how did she end up at Muroc of all places?

Flash forward to the year 2000.  By now I've graduated from film school, and I'm conducting interviews for a documentary film I'm directing about the Regulus missile-firing submarines (click here).  One of the people I interviewed for the film was a famous, and very serious, flight safety expert and pilot named C.O. Miller.  The Chance-Vought built Regulus missile was tested at Muroc AFB beginning around 1950, and C.O. spent many eventful months flying a P-80 chase aircraft to monitor "the bird" in flight.

Things really were a bit different back then, and just as described in The Right Stuff.  Wolfe described how Chuck Yeager used a piece of broom handle to close the door on the X-1 before his first supersonic flight; the story I remember from C.O. was that he and the chief project officer lay down on the wings of RightStuff3the Regulus and acted as ballast during high speed taxi tests.  Imagine doing that nowadays!  Anyway, while I was interviewing C.O. the subject of the primitive Air Force base and less-than-ideal living conditions came up.  "It was out in the boondocks," C.O. exclaimed, "It was a shock.  They had a thing called a bachelor’s officers quarters.  Those of us who qualified lived in it, and the rooms were about 8x10 so prisons then and now would exceed the acoutriments or whatever you want to call it..."  Then C.O.'s face lit up in a way it hadn't all day, and he said," We were all members of what was called the Happy Bottom Riding Club, better known as Pancho’s Dude Ranch.  And we don’t talk about that too much publicly, especially since I got married just a few days before I joined Chance-Vought."  And with that, his very serious visage broke into a broad smile.  Clearly, he had wonderful memories. I tried my best to get him to share them but all he would do was smile.

C.O.'s Chesire cat grin led me to take my copy of The Right Stuff off my shelf and re-read it, and you know where this is going, my renewed interest eventually led to the creation of the documentary.  Of course there were a few more steps in between, but if anyone ever asks me what inspired The Legend of Pancho Barnes, I refer them to Tom Wolfe's book and my friend C.O. Miller.  (Another factor?  My lifelong desire to make a film about a very accomplished woman who changed history.  But that's another tale to tell!)  I just wish C.O. were around to see the film, as I know he would have enjoyed it.  Sadly, he passed away in 2003 at the age of 79.  If there is a place called Heaven, then I expect he's sitting at the Happy Bottom Riding Club up there right now, talking flight safety.

Meanwhile, The Right Stuff lives on both in print, and on screen.  Which is why, when the staff at the American Cinematheque asked if there were any movies that we might show in concert with our premiere, I unhesitatingly said "The Right Stuff"!  Thanks to Gwen Deglise of the American Cinematheque and Grant Moninger at the Aero, it's now going to happen.  So if you're coming to our premiere on September 10th, please consider coming back on Friday, September 11th for one big rollicking good time of a movie.

By the way, the tagline for the film when it first debuted was: "America was looking for a hero who had what it takes to become a legend. America found seven of them."  Thanks to Tom Wolfe, I also found Pancho Barnes.