Opera Underground: Cult Favorite “The Face on the Barroom Floor”


Join Tulsa Opera on Saturday, March 16, 2013, at the Boulder Grill at 7 pm as we present The Face on the Barroom Floor, a thirty minute, one act cabaret opera inspired by the poem (below) written by Hugh Antoine d’Arcy in 1887 and a painting (right) by Herndon Davis in 1936. The Face on the Barroom Floor is a tale combining modern-day Central City and a 19th Century gold camp. Just thirty minutes long, the opera is regarded as a showcase for rising talent and has enjoyed a cult-like success, being produced every year by the Central City Opera since its premiere as well as numerous American and international opera companies.

Commissioned in 1978 by the Central City Opera and written by Henry Mollicone, 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 who dreams of singing Violetta in La Traviata. 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 of – a timeless tale of love and jealousy.

photo courtesy of centralcitycolorado.com

photo courtesy of centralcitycolorado.com

Reportedly, the poem was inspired by an actual happening in the 1800s at Joe Smith’s saloon at Fourth Avenue and 14th Street in Manhattan. Subsequently, Herndon Davis was inspired by the poem to paint an actual face on the floor of the Teller House bar in 1936. While staying at the Teller House after being commissioned by the Central City Opera Association to do a series of paintings, Davis remembered D’Arcy’s poem and felt the scuffed Teller House barroom floor to be just the sort of place that the artist in the poem would have used for his sketch. Though the Teller House manager and the bartender did not agree, Herndon could not resist and painted the face secretly by candlelight with the help of the bar’s busboy.

In addition to Davis’s painting and Mollicone’s opera, the poem has inspired many works including a 1914 film of the same name starring Charlie Chaplin, a Mad comics illustration in April 1954 and two songs (in 1959 by Tex Ritter and in 1968 by Hank Snow).

We hope you will join us for Tulsa’s premiere of this gripping and entertaining tale performed by our very own Studio Artists Elizabeth Fischborn as Isabel/Madeline, Stefan Barner as Larry/Matt and Alexander Elliott as Tom/John.

The Face Upon The Floor
by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy

Twas a balmy summer evening, and a goodly crowd was there,
Which well-nigh filled Joe’s barroom, on the corner of the square;
And as songs and witty stories came through the open door,
A vagabond crept slowly in and posed upon the floor.

“Where did it come from?” someone said. “The wind has blown it in.”
“What does it want?” another cried. “Some whiskey, rum or gin?”
“Here, Toby, sic ‘em, if your stomach’s equal to the work —
I wouldn’t touch him with a fork, he’s filthy as a Turk.”

This badinage the poor wretch took with stoical good grace;
In face, he smiled as tho’ he thought he’d struck the proper place.
“Come, boys, I know there’s kindly hearts among so good a crowd —
To be in such good company would make a deacon proud.

“Give me a drink — that’s what I want — I’m out of funds, you know,
When I had cash to treat the gang this hand was never slow.
What? You laugh as if you thought this pocket never held a sou;
I once was fixed as well, my boys, as any one of you.

“There, thanks, that’s braced me nicely; God bless you one and all;
Next time I pass this good saloon I’ll make another call.
Give you a song? No, I can’t do that; my singing days are past;
My voice is cracked, my throat’s worn out, and my lungs are going fast.

“I’ll tell you a funny story, and a fact, I promise, too.
Say! Give me another whiskey, and I’ll tell what I’ll do —
That I was ever a decent man not one of you would think;
But I was, some four or five years back. Say, give me another drink.

“Fill her up, Joe, I want to put some life into my frame —
Such little drinks to a bum like me are miserably tame;
Five fingers — there, that’s the scheme — and corking whiskey, too.
Well, here’s luck, boys, and landlord, my best regards to you.

“You’ve treated me pretty kindly and I’d like to tell you how
I came to be the dirty sot you see before you now.
As I told you, once I was a man, with muscle, frame, and health,
And but for a blunder ought to have made considerable wealth.

“I was a painter — not one that daubed on bricks and wood,
But an artist, and for my age, was rated pretty good.
I worked hard at my canvas, and was bidding fair to rise,
For gradually I saw the star of fame before my eyes.

“I made a picture perhaps you’ve seen, ’tis called the ‘Chase of Fame.’
It brought me fifteen hundred pounds and added to my name,
And then I met a woman — now comes the funny part —
With eyes that petrified my brain, and sunk into my heart.

“Why don’t you laugh? ‘Tis funny that the vagabond you see
Could ever love a woman, and expect her love for me;
But ’twas so, and for a month or two, her smiles were freely given,
And when her loving lips touched mine, it carried me to Heaven.

“Boys, did you ever see a girl for whom your soul you’d give,
With a form like the Milo Venus, too beautiful to live;
With eyes that would beat the Koh-i-noor, and a wealth of chestnut hair?
If so, ’twas she, for there never was another half so fair.

“I was working on a portrait, one afternoon in May,
Of a fair-haired boy, a friend of mine, who lived across the way
And Madeline admired it, and much to my surprise,
Said she’d like to know the man that had such dreamy eyes.

“It didn’t take long to know him, and before the month had flown
My friend had stole my darling, and I was left alone;
And ere a year of misery had passed above my head,
The jewel I had treasured so had tarnished and was dead.

“That’s why I took to drink, boys. Why, I never see you smile,
I thought you’d be amused, and laughing all the while.
Why, what’s the matter, friend? There’s a tear-drop in your eye,
Come, laugh like me. ‘Tis only babes and women that should cry.

“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.”

Another drink, and with chalk in hand, the vagabond began
To 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.