Pancho Barnes Celebrates Film Star Ramon Novarro’s 31st Birthday at MGM

Ramon Novarro and Pancho Barnes, September 1928.  Photo by George Hurrell.  Copyright Estate of Pancho Barnes

Once Upon a time in the golden age of Hollywood, the daring and unconventional aviatrix Pancho Barnes received a special invitation from her close friend, the dashing and talented actor Ramon Navarro. Ramon Navarro was a world-famous leading man and one of the top box office stars of the 1920s and early 1930s. It was February 6, 1930, and the film industry was booming. Ramon was celebrating his 31st birthday on the set of his latest film at MGM studios, and he wanted Pancho to be there as his honored guest. Their friendship was a unique bond, built on mutual admiration and respect.

Pancho was thrilled to attend Ramon’s birthday party and knew she had to make a special effort for her dear friend. She decided to trade her usual pilot’s attire for an elegant dress, a rare sight for those who knew her well. Pancho even enlisted the help of a talented baker to create an amazing vanilla birthday cake to surprise Ramon on his special day. Vanilla cake with vanilla frosting was Ramon’s favorite. The top of the cake was adorned with intricate icing details resembling Ramon’s most famous film role as Ben-Hur racing across the top of the cake in his chariot.

On the day of the celebration, Pancho stepped into her limousine, feeling both excited and a little out of her element in her elegant dress. As the limousine glided through the streets of Hollywood, Pancho couldn’t help but smile, knowing the surprise she had in store for Ramon.

Ramon Novarro on Pancho Barnes’ Travel Air bi-plane, 1929.  Photo by George Hurrell.  Copyright Estate of Pancho Barnes

Upon arriving at the MGM lot, her driver pulled right up to the open MGM sound stage.  Pancho stepped out of the limousine, and a hush fell over the crowd gathered for the party. They were stunned to see the famous aviatrix dressed so elegantly, a testament to her deep friendship with Ramon. As Pancho unveiled the exquisite cake, the crowd gasped in admiration.

Ben Caitlin (Pancho’s flying instructor), Ramon Novarro, and Pancho Barnes taken after Pancho first solo flight, September 6, 1928.  Photo by George Hurrell.  Copyright Estate of Pancho Barnes

Ramon, who had been chatting with other guests, turned around to see his dear friend Pancho and her glamorous attire, holding the beautiful cake. His eyes lit up with delight, as he rushed over to greet her. “Pancho, you look absolutely stunning!” he exclaimed, embracing her warmly. “Thank you for being here and for this incredible cake!”

Pancho smiled, responding, “Anything for you, Ramon! I wouldn’t miss your birthday for the world, and I wanted to help make it a memorable celebration.”

The entire cast and crew gathered around to sing “Happy Birthday” to Ramon. Before cutting the cake Pancho, who had hired her friend, photographer George Hurrell to document this special event, took a humorous group photo of the party attendees. After cutting the cake, Pancho and Ramon spent the rest of the day reminiscing about their adventures together and sharing stories…and some wild tales…. with the cast and crew assembled.

Pancho Barnes on set at MGM with Ramon Novarro celebrating his 31st birthday, February 6, 1930. Photo by George Hurrell. Copyright Estate of Pancho Barnes

As the party drew to a close, Pancho said her ‘goodbyes. Ramon hugged her tightly, grateful for the incredible day and the unforgettable memories they shared. With a promise to meet again soon, Pancho climbed into her limousine and waved goodbye to her dear friend Ramon. As the car pulled away, Ramon couldn’t help but feel touched by the extraordinary lengths Pancho had gone to make his birthday truly special, a testament to their enduring friendship.

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Dr. Louis F. D'Elia is the custodian of the Estate of Pancho Barnes and a Trustee of the Flight Test Museum Foundation at Edwards Air Force Base.