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The Face on the Barroom Floor

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Gilpin History presents film premiere and annual dinner

By Patty Unruh

Gilpin History, formerly the Gilpin Historical Society, presented its annual Little Kingdom Dinner June 27 in the Lava Room at the Reserve Casino, along with the world premiere of the new documentary, The Face on the Barroom Floor: The Poem…The Place…The Opera. About 90 guests joined the film’s producer/director Larry Kraman and composer Henry Mollicone for the event.

Preceding the film’s premiere, Gilpin History Museum director David Forsyth was presented with a special award from the Clear Creek-Gilpin County Metal Mining Association. Barbara Thielemann of Gilpin History and Ed Lewandowski of the Broken Handle Mining Company and Hidee Mine bestowed the Golden Burro Award for Forsyth’s clean-up efforts at the Coeur d’Alene Mine and at the museum. Following the presentation, the guests viewed the eagerly-anticipated documentary.

“Face on the Barroom Floor,” a famous poem by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy, was one inspiration for the film. Originally titled “The Face Upon the Floor,” the poem tells of a vagabond who creeps into a bar on a summer night, only to be mocked by the gathered crowd for his disheveled appearance. He tells the assembled drinkers that he used to be strong and healthy, an artist who had risen to fame. Then he fell in love with a woman named Madeline, who ran off with his friend. Within a year Madeline was dead, and the artist took to drink. He offered to entertain the barflies by painting her picture on the barroom floor, and after doing so, he fell across the picture, dead.

The poem motivated the painting of numerous faces on barroom floors across the country, including the most famous one at the Teller House in Central City, and a variety of film and theater productions.

Tourists and patrons of the Central City Opera stop in the Face Bar at the Teller House to see the face of the unknown beauty. Though unsigned, the famous painting is credited to Denver artist Herndon Davis. The actual subject of the painting is not known, but is believed to be Davis’ wife Edna Juanita.

The Opera commissioned Henry Mallicone to write The Face on the Barroom Floor in 1978 for its one hundredth birthday. The opera is a tale of the Old West that combines modern-day Central City and a 19th Century gold camp. The opera, with libretto by John Bowman, is based on both the poem and the painting.

Producer Larry Kraman discussed the premiere of his documentary and his collaboration with Mollicone. Kraman, who owns Newport Classic, Ltd., a film and music production company, started producing films six years ago. The Face on the Barroom Floor is his second documentary. He and Mollicone had previously worked together putting Mollicone’s lyric opera of Kansas City, Coyote Tales, on the Newport Classic label.

They had considered doing a documentary about Mollicone, who is believed by many to be one of today’s most important lyrical composers for the singing theater. Instead, inspired by D’Arcy’s poem, Kraman decided to build the film around the Opera’s performance of its most famous opera, The Face on the Barroom Floor, by Mollicone.

  Kraman said David Patrick Stearns wrote the script and attended the filming. Much of the documentary was filmed in Central City, while parts were filmed in New York City, Santa Fe, and Massachusetts. Filming began in 2011, and the final edit was completed on June 16, 2013, just one week before the premiere.

Kraman and his wife Shelley live in Newport, Rhode Island. Mollicone and his wife Kathy live in California, although Rhode Island is his home state. The producer and composer got to know one another on the phone while discussing the Coyote Tales project.

Mollicone expressed gratitude to the Central City Opera for providing singers from the Opera’s apprentice program and said how wonderful they were to work with. “The apprentice program singers have done the opera here for 30 years,” he noted. “I am grateful to Larry [Kraman] to
have the opportunity to have my work put into the documentary.”

The Opera’s website summarizes the plot: “The opera tells two tales, separated in time, but parallel in character and theme. Present-day Isabel is a singer in the Central City Opera chorus. The beautiful Madeline is a saloon girl in a 19th-century gold camp. Both are loved by two men, and as the opera moves between centuries, the parallel plots come to the same tragic end – a timeless tale of love and jealousy.”

Mollicone admitted that it was a shock to be asked to write an opera that was set in a bar. “How do you do that?” he chuckled. Mollicone based his thirty-minute plot loosely on the poem. There are only three singers and three instruments: honkytonk piano, cello, and flute, which he said makes for an inexpensive production.

Mollicone related in the documentary, “We would do a dress rehearsal in a bar. There were no tickets sold; it was just whoever happened to be there. Singers entered from the street talking loudly. The lights lowered, and it started. The bar patrons would watch and hear and be drawn in. There was magic taking place. And it can be performed in any bar in the universe.” The opera was performed in its entirety in Kraman’s film.

Kraman commented, “Producing a documentary is like putting various items in a jar, shaking them up, and seeing what comes out.” Besides the opera performance, the film contained many images of the Opera House and other historic buildings of Central City, D’Arcy’s poem, and of course, the famous Face. Stories of Central City’s bygone days and origins of the Opera were featured prominently.

When John Gregory discovered gold in about 1859 in what became Gregory Gulch, Central City was the place to be. Legends circulated that there were gold veins sticking out of the ground, and finding nuggets was as easy as bending over and picking them up.

In 1878, the Opera House was built by Welsh and Cornish miners who wanted a little culture. It was paid for entirely by donations from the people of Central City, who raised twenty thousand dollars for the project.

The town’s glory was short-lived, and by about 1910, Central City was considered a ghost town. No one was interested in buying property, and people wanting to leave would just board up their homes and walk away. By 1930, the Opera House was a combination cow stable and repository for county records.

In 1932, Anne Evans renovated the facility and revived the Opera performances by selling chairs in the Opera House. Although the Great Depression was ravaging the nation, the chairs sold for the amazing sum of $500 apiece.

The Face was painted during renovations. Herndon Davis and restoration expert Paschal Quackenbush were restoring wall murals. One night after finishing work, as a lark Davis painted a woman’s face on the floor, with the D’Arcy poem his apparent inspiration. He didn’t sign it, and no one knew whose face it was until 1962, when Davis allegedly confessed that it was the face of his wife. The ironic reason for the lengthy secrecy was that he had been drinking when he painted the portrait, and she had worked for Prohibition.

The Face is preserved with a plexiglass cover and a frame of brass bars. The woman, with her come-hither expression, is gazing behind her, as though she wants to get away from her past and her circumstances.

The Face on the Barroom Floor also contained a number of comments from Mallicone’s colleagues. “It’s America’s foremost underground opera,” said one. An opera performer noted that it was a real benefit to be able to work personally with a composer, since many operas were composed hundreds of years ago. One singer stated, “We tell a story, joining melody and words. Henry Mallicone’s writing covers many emotions, stretching your voice to the limits. He writes well for the voice.”

Mallicone himself, who said his wife Kathy is his inspiration, said, “I write what I feel and what is moving to me.”

The documentary concluded with the recitation of D’Arcy’s poem as Mollicone’s beautiful lyrical gospel song, “Hear Me, Redeemer” played in the background. “Hear me, hear me, hear me, Redeemer. Send down your love to cleanse my soul.” This is the plea that brings a note of hope and healing to the characters in this tragic story of love and loss.

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