Wednesday, April 24, 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)"
06 October 2007

Preserving the Memory of Lowe and His Railway

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If you didn't know better, you'd assume that Pasadena resident Michael Patris, is a descendant of Thaddeus Lowe -- builder of the Mt. Lowe Railway and grandfather of Pancho Barnes (see Production Journal 12-06 entries). After all, Patris' home and office is filled with photos, documents, and souvenirs pertaining to Lowe and his family, many of them obscure and rare. "I am a third generation native of Southern California," Michael explains, "and I became interested in the incline railway known as Mount Lowe about 20 years ago. So, I thought that I would do some more research. Soon, I had come to find out that this man who had come to Southern California to build this thing -- Thaddeus Lowe --, was somebody who was renowned before he came here." Michael's passion for the subject led him to begin collecting artifacts related to the railway, and to become an expert about it, and its illustrious builder.

Photo (above): Michael Patris sits for an interview, conducted in the home of a friend.

Michael eventually founded the Mount Lowe Preservation Society and, earlier this year, he authored a book for Arcadia Publishing. The wonderful, 125-page softcover tells the story of Mt. Lowe while presenting some of the rare imagery in the MLPS archives. You can purchase it on-line and at many local booksellers.

Michael's command of Lowe family history is encyclopedic, and extends far beyond the mere history of the railway. Speaking to him, one can quickly grasp the allure of this Pasadena clan. As complex the mythical Magnificent Ambersons or the Royal Tenenbaums, all the members of the family were very accomplished and eccentric. Yet, in the end, the family lost much of their status, wealth and empire. There is no better symbol of this than the Mt. Lowe Railway itself, which was famous in its day. Yet, building it bankrupted Thaddeus Lowe, and it eventually fell into ruin, and it is now only a memory.

Still, there were glory days. Thaddeus Lowe accomplished things few in his era could have dreamed of doing. He was a daring American hero who was a distinguished inventor, soldier, scholar, and entrepreneur. A man of science, Lowe developed a method of producing hydrogen gas back in the mid-1800's, and built a passenger-carrying balloon before the Civil War. During the war, President Lincoln tasked him with building a Balloon Corps to spy on the Confederates and direct artillery fire at rebel troops. It was an extremely daring venture. "Being in a balloon," Michael Patris explains, "tethered down behind Union lines, right in front of the Confederates, Thaddeus Lowe was very much the most shot at man of the Civil War."

After the rebel surrender, Lowe made a fortune by in the gas business. "He took that knowledge of using gas to fly these balloons," Michael explained to director Amanda Pope, "and applied it in a civilian way. Before he came to Southern California, he was heating and illuminating nearly 2/3 of all the homes in the nation." Soon after he moved to Pasadena, Lowe became aware of a scheme to build a railway up to the peak of Mt. Wilson. He had the financial wherewithal to make the railway a reality. Eventually, his involvement would be far greater than just as financial backer: the Mt. Lowe Railway would very much represent the genius and vision of Thaddeus Lowe.

On the subject of Pancho, and her relationship with the famous man who she called her grandfather, Michael Patris is garrulous. She was, Patris notes, Lowe's favorite grandchild.

"Thaddeus Lowe, Sr. absolutely adored young Florence," says Michael with a broad smile. "He doted on her constantly. Anything she wanted, no matter what, he would get."

Pancho often cited the fact that it was her grandfather who inspired her to fly, and asking Michael about that prompts the following story. "When she was very, very young," Michael reminisces, "perhaps about four or five years old, he took her down to Long Beach to go down to the Pike (the amusement pier). And, it was here that there was the cutout of an airplane. And Grandpa Lowe put young Pancho in this cutout, and a still photographer took a little Kodak snapshot. Grandpa Lowe said, 'Close your eyes Florence, now you are going to be flying, you are going to be taking off in the plane. It is going to be nosing up, you are going to be flying over the clouds. Imagine all the little buildings and cities and towns you can see. And one day you are going to be able to do this for real.' And Pancho had this snapshot and kept it with her forever."

Another significant moment in young Florence's life occurred when she was age 9, and accompanied her grandfather to the nation's first air show at Dominguez Hills in 1910. "Grandpa Lowe was very much hurt that he was not invited to participate in this event," Michael recounts. "He was a world renowned balloonist at this time, but balloons at this time were very much passe. It was fixed wings and gasoline-powered engines that would drive these flying machines. And young Pancho was very much interested in this. And Thaddeus, being the man that he was, was able to meet all of the pilots and introduce young Florence to these people. And it was here that she really got the opportunity to see up close and personal what these flying machines were like and how they were rather simple to operate. Why could she not, at some point in time, have the ability to operate these machines?" Why not, indeed?

Photo (above): Frenchman Louis Paulhan's biplane rushes past the crowd at the 1910 Dominguez Hills Air Meet. Pancho and Thaddeus Lowe could be somewhere in the grandstand...

Asked to reflect a little more upon Thaddeus Lowe's impact on Pancho, Michael suggests that if anything, her grandfather's ability to attract attention to his feats -- he was a veritable P.T. Barnum of the air -- may have had an impact. That, and his ability to be an independent thinker. "Perhaps it was this thinking," he notes, "that allowed her to go on to be involved in the movie industry, and to be the outspoken pilot she was. And, perhaps," he says with a smile, "the individual that really most of us came to know -- a rebellious hellion."

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