Saturday, April 10, 2021

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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
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Please Donate to the Pancho Barnes Documentary

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Well folks, April 15th is right around the corner. Tax time can be a pain, but it can also present an opportunity to make a difference. Please consider donating to the Pancho Barnes documentary. Your gift, made through the KOCE-TV Foundation, is tax deductible, and it will help make the Pancho film a reality. We appreciate your support.

Lucky To Be With One of the 'Mercury 13'!

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None of the gals who flew in the original Powder Puff Derby in 1929 are alive today, but after meeting Gene Nora Jessen last week, I feel like I've met one of them. (That's Gene Nora on the right in the photo, with director Amanda Pope on the left). A calm, self-assured, steady and smart woman who began flying in the late 1950's, Gene Nora is a former president of the Ninety-Nines group of women pilots and an air racer. What's more, back in 1961, she volunteered for a female human factors research program at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gene Nora and twelve other women were subjected to the same extreme tests as male astronauts, and came through with flying colors. Known collectively as the "Mercury 13", they should have had a shot at flying into space. Instead, that opportunity was not given to an America woman until Sally Ride flew on the Space Shuttle in 1983. I'm sure you can guess the reason why!

In 2002 Gene Nora's love of flying and history led her to write a book about and entitled "The Powder Puff Derby of 1929". During our interview, Gene Nora recounted that the project was actually over ten years in the making. Her unique position as an advocate and activist in the world of women's flight gave her entree to speak to all sorts of people who knew about the Derby, and to collect the kind of details about the event that truly make it come alive. Jessen was privileged to work with and interview aviatrix Bobbi Trout, the last survivor of the group of twenty women who competed in the race, before her death in 2003. The book is available in many bookstores and through

During the interview, Jessen spoke at length about the strides women made in aviation in the 20's and 30's, and provided some fascinating insights. She also talked about Pancho's unique contributions to the event. The first stage of the race ran from Clover Field in Santa Monica to San Bernardino, a short hop that was really just a warm up for more dangerous, over-the-desert flying. Everyone landed by the late afternoon, and that night a special dinner was put on for the participants. As a special bonus, the movie "The Flying Fool", which featured stunts flown by Pancho, was shown at the dinner. It must have been an extremely exciting banquet, and Pancho must have been terribly proud to be a front of all her new aviatrix friends!

Incidentally, let me take a moment and thank a few people who made our interview with Gene Nora Jessen possible. That includes Si Robin of Sensor Systems, who allowed us to use his beautiful Staggerwing as a backdrop. We also owe a debt to Paula Sandling and Michael Sandling, who patiently helped us get situated, and Bob Jessen.

Broken by the Sound Barrier

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The time when Pancho Barnes owned her "Happy Bottom Riding Club" — located just outside Muroc (now Edwards) Air Force Base — is well remembered as the early jet aircraft era. Tom Wolfe wrote about this time, when dozens of experimental jet and rocket aircraft were developed and tested, in his landmark book "The Right Stuff". This one, roughly ten year period after WWII, saw man break Mach 1.0 and then fly to the threshold of space. It was as significant a time in aviation history as the 1910's, and Edwards in many was as important a place as Kitty Hawk. And...Pancho was a part of it. Her bar, hotel and restaurant were one of the few places available for the men who "rode the dragon" to blow off steam.

If you're interested in this era, and not opposed to a little creative license being taken with it, then there's a website you should pay a visit:

This is the website of the short film "A Lonely Sky" directed by Nick Ryan, a director of TV commercials in Ireland. Nick, who is as big an enthusiast of the "golden era" of flight at Edwards as you'll find, has painstakingly re-created the look and feel of that time and written a taut little "what if" drama. It's an exciting, and tragic little romp that involves a sister ship to Chuck Yeager's Glamorous Glennis. And much of the action takes place at a little bar that, well architecturally the exterior doesn't resemble the Happy Bottom, but the interior and the spirit of the place is lifted right out of Pancho's guest book.

What's really amazing, is the use of computer graphics to tell this story. Ryan created a CGI model of a B-29 and composited it into background plates he shot in the vicinity of Edwards Air Force Base, to create a look and feel that's very real. He also filmed inside the B-29 at the March Air Force Base Air Museum located near Perris, California, and was therefore able to achieve a highly realistic look. True, some of the interior parts of the X-1 are not totally authentic, and the characters are fictitious, but this is Hollywood after all and one hell of a well-realized daydream.

How does this all apply to the Pancho documentary? Well most likely it doesn't! We're not planning to re-enact Pancho's life or stage dramatic scenes with actors, and almost everything we plan to use on screen will be derived from photographs, documents, and historic film footage... This is a documentary film, after all. Whic h is not to say we won't use special effects or a computer to tell our story. In fact, we plan on doing both. Stay tuned!

Florence Barnes Goes Hollywood

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Remember, before she went to Mexico and became known as Pancho, she was known as Florence Lowe Barnes... The Barnes part of it stemmed from her marriage to the Rev. Rankin Barnes in 1921. The wedding and the birth of her first and only son Billy nine months later, kept her occupied in a way that must have chafed at the hide of the normally uncontainable, unrestrainable Florence.

One of the outlets she sought out, as soon as she could separate herself from the obligations of being an Episcopal minister's wife, was Hollywood. The bright lights and glamor of it all must have enthralled her, and offered an escape.

One of the earliest movie sets Florence may have seen was a Mary Pickford movie that filmed on her parent's estate. Photographs of Pickford are in the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive.

In 1924, family friend Malcolm St. Clair directed The Lighthouse By the Sea in Laguna Beach, where Pancho and her family maintained sizeable homes. Florence got a job as a stand-in, doubling for actress Louise Fazenda.

In recent days, we've been making scans of some old negatives in the Pancho Archives. Lo and behold, there are two interesting photos which may date from the filming of Lighthouse. The first photo shows Pancho on the beach with a couple of actors — note the movie cameras on the right side of the photo — and then the second photo shows her replaced by an actress. Could it be Louise Fazenda? We're not sure. Based on photos on the internet, I don't think it is her.

Just for kicks, I watched Lighthouse (copies of the film are available on home video) to see if I could spot this scene in the movie. To my surprise, it doesn't appear that this scene or shot appears in that film, nor do these actors. (The movie incidentally is about a blind lighthouse keeper and his innocent daughter, and stars the dog-star Rin Tin Tin!)

The photo makes it look like whatever movie this was, it took place in an Asian or polynesian locale, complete with grass huts. So the question is...who are they...and what movie is this? Anyone out there who knows the silent era, feel free to chime in!

An Interview with Lauren Kessler

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Author Lauren Kessler has written ten books, among them the critically acclaimed Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family and a recently-published biography of Cold War spy Elizabeth Bentley, entitled Clever Girl. Her subjects are often women, especially badly behaved women, because as she notes with a smile, badly behaved women change the world. It's perhaps little surprising then that one of Lauren's books is a biography of Pancho Barnes, The Happy Bottom Riding Club, published in 2000 by Random House.

Last Saturday, Lauren Kessler sat for an interview about her book and Pancho at the historic Fenyes Mansion in Pasadena.

This wonderful location was made available for the interview by the Pasadena Museum of History, and was the perfect locale. After all, Pancho grew up in a similar mansion in nearby San Marino, and may have even known the Fenyes family.


Lauren Kessler's biography of Pancho is a rich, and very readable book that has broad appeal. During the interview, Lauren told director Amanda Pope her belief that Pancho would have made a name for herself in any arena. If airplanes hadn't existed, she still would have probably been famous or, perhaps, infamous.

The interview was wide-ranging, beginning with a discussion of Pancho's childhood, and then touching on her failed marriage, her expedition to Mexico (where she took on the name "Pancho") and her exploits as an aviatrix. Of course no interview would be complete without a discussion of "The Happy Bottom Riding Club". So does Lauren Kessler believe Pancho was a madam? Stay tuned...or read the book! (You can get it on or your local bookstore or library).

Incidentally, we couldn't help but ask Lauren what she's working on now. Turns out her new book Dancing with Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer's will be published on June 4. Based on her work as a minimum-wage caregiver in an elder care facility, this promises to be a heartwarming, and heartbreaking, read.

The Shooting Has Started !

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It's been many months since we wrapped the first phase of shooting on the Pancho documentary. That first round of interviews was really something — we spoke with many of Pancho's favorite friends including R.A. "Bob" Hoover, Buzz Aldrin, Gen. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager, Brig. Gen. Bob Cardenas, Women's Air Service Pilot Babe Story, and others.

After concluding those interviews, we took a hiatus so that we could fundraise for the film. Now, we're back in production! As of this past Saturday, the second phase of interviews is — finally — underway.

Our first interview subjects were Seth and Shirley Hufstedler, accomplished attorneys who became friends with Pancho during her legal cases against the Air Force in the 1950's. Like Pancho, Shirley Hufstedler is a woman who broke the mold. She passed the California bar in 1950, at a time when fewer than 10 women per year accomplished that feat . Later in 1968, she was appointed as a judge on the Ninth Circuit, and was appointed as the first Secretary of Education by President Jimmy Carter.

Shirley first met Pancho and her fourth husband Mac in a law library. At that point, Pancho was acting as her own attorney in a lawsuit against the U.S. Government. At issue was the price the government intended to pay for acquiring the Happy Bottom Riding Club and all of Pancho's ranch land and airport. (The USAF wanted to extend the runway at Edwards, and Pancho's ranch was in the way). After doing some consulting work with Pancho, Shirley brought in her husband Seth, who worked for an attorney who specialized in so-called "taking" cases. In the end, with the help of Seth's firm, Pancho won a judgement for about twice what the government had initially offered.

Unfortunately, Pancho's legal victory was something of a Pyrrhic one. Although she gained a lot of money in the settlement, she lost her ranch and with it her association with Edwards Air Force Base.

Shirley and Seth kept in touch with Pancho after her legal victory, and took a memorable trip with her and Mac to Mexico. One of the most memorable aspects of the trip was that Pancho's ex-husband Don Shalita came along just for the fun of it!!

Shirley also shared some nice memories of Pancho's force-of-nature personality, quick wit, and sense of fearlessness, and spoke about some of the anecdotes Pancho related about her adventures in Mexico in the 1920's and 30's.

All in all, it was a great day, and a great way for us to get "back in the saddle" with the filming.

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