Saturday, December 02, 2023

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)"
13 April 2007

Photographically, my dear Watson.

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Delmar Watson comes from a special family. So special, in fact, that they have their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! The Watsons, as it happens, have special DNA that has a camera lens and shutter in between the base pairs. You see, nearly every Watson for a generation was a photographer. The photo you see at right shows the Watsons — including his five brothers and his uncle — in action. It's hard to believe, but for a time this group of people with the same last name were photographers for the L.A. Times, Daily News and the Herald Express and other papers now defunct. Delmar's uncle George had the foresight to compile all the photos shot by this illustrious group of relatives, and they've ended up in the Delmar Watson Photographic Archive. It's one of the largest photo archives in private hands in California if not the U.S.A., and it virtually chronicles the history of Los Angeles.

Delmar Watson runs this business, located in Hollywood just two blocks from the family star. He spends his days helping people like me find photos of people, places and things, and at night he does lectures and slideshows on favorite subjects including Babe Ruth. The day I visited he was preparing to do a Shirley Temple tribute. All in an average day for this 80+ wonder! I visited the Watson archive at the suggestion of librarian Carolyn Cole. "Sure", Delmar told me on the phone, "I have a few pictures of Pancho Barnes. I've been waiting for you to call. Where have you been these last fifty years?" That last bit was with a laugh — because when you have a collection of tens of thousands of photos you never know who might ask for what. Every phone call or email is an opportunity to share your wealth.

In the end, I came away from the Watson archive with three nice photos of Pancho, two of which I'd never seen before. The one shown here features Bobbi Trout on the left, and I think that's Gladys O'Donnell (identified by our super production assistant Pam Dotson) in the middle. Note the cigarette in Pancho's right hand and her beret, which features the "Betsy Ross Corps" insignia.

Anyway, my wife when she saw this photo commented that the style shown by these three is marvelous, and it really is!! Look at those jodphurs and string ties. Ralph Lauren catalog covers have nothing on this photo!

Delmar Watson and his wife and co-archivist Antoinette listened to me tell a few stories about Pancho, and then shared a few dozen about his extraordinary life. In 1946, he became a United Press photographer in Los Angeles. After two years, he joined the Mirror-News where he was a staff photographer for 10 years. In 1958, he entered the commercial photography business with his brothers... Needless to say, he saw history as it happened through the finder of a Speed Graphic. He photographed celebrities, Presidents, and America's favorite dog, Lassie. Life Magazine gave him a award in the 1950's and he's got a heap of them from all sorts of organizations elsewhere in the office.

If you're interested in visiting the archive, the best place to start is on their website, here

Follow up: Antoinette informs me via email that Delmar notes that he doesn't have tens of thousands of photos as I indicated...but two million. Well...if a picture is worth a thousand words...

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