By Laurie Dunklee
The story of Colfax deserves to be told,” says Jonny Barber, a musician, former Elvis impersonator and curator of the Colfax Museum. “Colfax was the richest street in Denver — the grand dame — but she fell on hard times. People gave up on her, but it’s important to reclaim that history.”
The Colfax Museum, opening soon at Colfax and Pierce in Pasternack’s Art Hub, is stuffed with an eclectic collection of memorabilia, including neon signs from iconic former businesses on Colfax. Sid King’s Crazy Horse Bar, an infamous strip joint on East Colfax for 35 years, lives on in its neon sign, now repaired.
“I also have both mannequins that were on display above the sign,” Barber says.
The neon from Freedom Harley-Davidson on West Colfax also shines proudly, as does neon touting refrigerators and color TVs from former Colfax stores. The Stonewall Motel sign sits in the courtyard, which Barber plans to turn into a performance space.
“It’s great to activate this key bridge between Casa Bonita and the 40 West Arts District, especially since 2019 is Lakewood’s 50th anniversary as a city,” says Barber.
Barber was collecting Colfax items in his basement for 14 years, until he was offered a space in the back room of Ed Moore Florist on East Colfax in 2017. The building was sold this year and he moved into Pasternack’s, formerly a pawn shop, only to face several shut-downs and a flood.
“Eighteen inches of water ran right through our building after a crazy summer storm. I had a feeling about it before it happened, so I moved everything to the elevated room [formerly the police holding room for confiscated items].”
Barber loves all things Colfax.
“No matter what the storyline, there’s always a weird turn. Colfax is where the odd, eccentric and outrageous characters fit in. Whatever it says about me, Colfax is the street where I feel most at home, where I can be myself. I say, ‘Keep it weird.’”
Inside the Colfax Museum hangs a giant beer-can airplane that hung over the bar at The Hangar Bar on East Colfax.
“The Hangar Bar shut its doors last summer, just short of its 80th birthday,” said Barber.
The collection also includes organs from Music City, as well as ephemera like matchbooks, posters and photos from various venues. Among the mementos are a set of salt-and-pepper pigs from Eddie Bohn’s Pig ‘n’ Whistle restaurant on West Colfax; and a metal pin with two dangling skates from Mammoth Gardens’ days as a skating rink. In the “way back” department is a 150-million-year-old stegosaurus footprint, “quarried when they put the original Highway 40 through,” Barber says.
Born in San Francisco, Barber got a taste for unusual characters early on.
“My mom took banjo lessons from Jerry Garcia, before he was Jerry Garcia.”
At age 8 he started playing guitar; it was 1977, the year Elvis Presley died. Barber attended school in Salt Lake City and Seattle, where he found himself in the middle of the grunge music scene.
“We opened for Nirvana. But I didn’t fit in with grunge — too depressing.”
Barber brought his music and song-writing talents to Denver in 1995. Because making a living was “brutal,” he started impersonating Elvis in 2004.
“It started as a joke. I’d do random Elvis sightings on the 16th St. Mall and at Burger King.”
“The Velvet Elvis” became a success as he sang all over the country, from Red Rocks to Graceland. In 2011, The Velvet Elvis was pronounced dead of a heart attack en route to Rose Medical Center; but he was sighted in 2013 and 2014 (at a Burger King on Colfax). “I finally had to turn off my Elvis-ness,” Barber said.
Since opening the Colfax Museum, Barber is gaining recognition for preserving the history of Colfax. In 2017 he received the Heart and Soul Character of Colfax Award from the Colfax Avenue Business Improvement District; and the Colfax Museum was named Westword’s Best New Museum. Recently he was made an honorary member of the Schuyler Colfax Society.
Colfax Avenue is part of Highway 40, once a transcontinental route that stretched from Atlantic City, N.J., all the way to San Francisco.
“All the tourists passed through Colorado on Highway 40,” Barber said. “It was like a little Las Vegas, with its elaborate neon signs enticing travelers to restaurants, entertainment and motels.”
He said Colfax runs 53 miles, from Table Mountain in Golden to the eastern plains.
“I don’t know whether it’s the longest street in America, but it’s the longest main, commercial street.”
Colfax’s heyday as a tourist attraction ended when traffic was diverted onto the new Interstate 70 in the late 1960s and 1970s.
“The Colfax strip went to hookers, drug dealers and hippies. In the 1980s it was like a ghost town.”
Barber hopes to illustrate the extremes to be found on Colfax.
“We had the Klan here, but also Charlie Burrell, the first African-American to perform in a symphony orchestra, who played the Playboy Bar on Colfax. Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Academy Award, attended East High School.”
Legendary guitarist Chet Atkins cut his first demo at Rockley Music on West Colfax.
To raise money for the museum, Barber plans to start the Root 40 Music Festival in the courtyard this summer. “The Velvet Elvis might return, finances being what they are,” he said.
The Colfax Museum is at 6851 W. Colfax Ave. Donations of money and memorabilia are welcome. For more information see thecolfaxmuseum.org or call 303-525-5840. For more about Jonny Barber see jonnybarber.com.