c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article originally appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine.
“Say, boys, if you give me just another whiskey, I’ll be glad
And I’ll draw right here a picture of the face that drove me mad.
Give me that piece of chalk with which you mark the baseball score –
You shall see the lovely Madeline upon the barroom floor.”
The above poem by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy has been the subject of barroom stories for decades. It’s an intriguing tale, yet the truth behind it is one of the little-known tales of western folklore. The mysterious and alluring faces of various women began adorning tavern floors across the nation roughly a century ago. Each had their own story to tell, and Colorado is no exception to the ongoing folklore.
At one time, there were as many as eight portraits known to be painted on barroom floors across America. Each seemed to have been inspired largely D’Arcy’s poem, “The Face Upon the Floor.” The verse tells of love lost by a lonely artist. One day, the woman of his affections spots a portrait the artist is painting of another man. Ultimately, the artist loses his girl to his subject, takes to drink, and tells his sad tale in exchange for whiskey. The artist then renders a stunning likeness of his lost love on the tavern floor, only to fall dead upon the finished portrait.
Little is known about Hugh Antoine D’Arcy. He was born in France in 1843, and it is thought he composed his famous poem in about 1898. “The Face Upon the Floor” appears to be his most outstanding accomplishment, and he lived to see it put into both movie and song. The poem was first immortalized in 1914, when Charlie Chaplin adapted it for a film called The Face on the Bar Room Floor.
Most people believe that the famous face on the floor at Central City’s Teller House was the first, and only, portrait of a woman’s face to be painted on a wooden floor. But the first portrait to appear in Colorado history was actually recorded on the kitchen floor of a private residence in Cripple Creek. The picture is thought to have been painted in the teens or 1920’s, in a house once owned by saloon keeper Herman Metz. Charles Walker purchased the residence in 1906, who in turn hired Harry B. Denny to paint the house in 1910. Denny left his signature and identified himself as the house painter on a basement door. Did he paint the portrait? Certain old-timers of Cripple Creek say no, that Denny painted houses and nothing more. The true artist will likely never be known.
As the face on the floor at Cripple Creek was subsequently forgotten, D’Arcy was experiencing a second success from his poem. It came in the form of a movie by renowned director John Ford, who in 1923 made his own version of D’Arcy‘s poem, The Face on the Bar-Room Floor.
D’Arcy passed away in 1925, but his poem lived on. In 1936, the poem’s fame was sealed by Herndon Davis, formerly an artist for the Denver Post. One of the stories goes that Davis was a carpenter at the Teller House in Central City. His employer was Anne Evans, daughter of former Colorado Governor John Evans. A falling out between the two resulted in Davis‘ termination. Before leaving, however, Davis painted a ladies’ portrait on the floor. The act allegedly infuriated Anne Evans, but not enough to inspire her to remove it. In fact, the identity behind the mysterious face became legend until Davis died in the 1960’s. Just before his death, Davis revealed that the face was none other than his wife, Edna.
The success of the Teller House face was not lost on the rest of Colorado. In about 1953, another face appeared at the Western Hotel in Ouray. Built in 1890, the Western offered hotel rooms until it closed in 1945. The bar and dining room were kept open, however. When the Western was purchased by a Mr. Shady, according to Ouray native Ed Gregory, the new owner decided that another face might boost tourism. Shady commissioned Ed‘s mother, Ruth Gregory, to paint the portrait.
Like the faces in Cripple Creek and Central City, Mrs. Gregory‘s portrait reveals an intriguing face with mischievous eyes and a bobbed hairstyle. The painting also appears “two-faced,” with the left side resembling a profile. The fuss over the faces in Ouray and Central City continued to grow. Antoine D’Arcy’s poem received more coverage from Franklyn MacCormack, beloved radio announcer at Chicago’s WGN. A recording exists today of MacCormack reading the poem to his listeners.
One last rendering of a face on the floor appeared in the early 1960’s, again in Cripple Creek. This last face was at what was once the Cottage Inn at 261 East Bennett. When owner Jack Schwab passed away in 1961, his ex-wife Evelyn took possession of The Cottage and commissioned none other than Dick Johnson, founder of the Cripple Creek District Museum, to paint a female face on the floor. Like Herndon Davis, Johnson preferred not to be identified as the artist until after his death in February 2004, and this is the first time he has officially been named as the man who painted the face. Today, Cripple Creek’s “Madeline” is preserved at the Cripple Creek District Museum.
In 1978, writer Henry Mollicone penned an opera version of D’Arcy’s poem. The Central City Opera Company swooped upon the play, presenting it with great success. The company performs near the Teller House, where Edna Davis’s portrait can still be seen on the floor in the barroom. Most recently, the story of Madeline gained fame once more in 1997, when the late Teller County musician, T.O. Locker, produced his own music video, The Face on the Barroom Floor. Several Colorado locations were used in filming the video, including Cripple Creek and the Western Hotel. The video won several first place prizes through the Colorado Springs Film Commission and the Professional Film and Video Guild of Colorado.
Perhaps what is most intriguing about the mysterious faces on the floors of Colorado is their failure to become commercialized. In each case, D’Arcy’s story has been treated with utmost respect. In the end, the poignancy behind the story rings truer than any other tale one could tell. Indeed, it is the last stanza of D’Arcy’s poem that carries on the romance behind the obscure faces painted in his memory:
“Another drink, and with chalk in hand the vagabond begTo sketch a face that well might buy the soul of any man.
Then, as he placed another lock upon the shapely head,
With a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture—dead.”
Image: Today, the face on the floor at Central City’s Teller House remains as the best known painting by Herndon Davis.