“The story of Colfax deserves to be told,” says Jonny Barber, a musician, former Elvis impersonator and curator of the new Colfax Avenue Museum.
“Here all things Colfax go on the wall: the good, the bad and the ugly, from the Denver Mint and the Capitol, to strip joints and dives,” says Barber. “Everyone who has lived in Denver has a story about Colfax. We welcome all artifacts, photos and stories.”
The Colfax Avenue Museum is stuffed with an eclectic collection of memorabilia, from matchbooks, posters and photos, to a 150-million-year-old stegosaurus footprint, “quarried when they put the original Highway 40 through,” Barber says.
Barber was collecting the items in his basement for 14 years, until he was offered a space in the back room of Ed Moore Florist at 6109 E. Colfax. He’s getting new donations all the time, including photos of the historic York Theatre and the Famous Pizza sign, and a set of salt-and-pepper pigs from Eddie Bohn’s Pig ‘n’ Whistle restaurant on West Colfax.
The collection includes mementos of former Colfax landmarks like Sid King’s Crazy Horse Bar, a notorious strip joint featured in the 1978 Clint Eastwood film Every Which Way But Loose, and a metal pin with two dangling skates from Mammoth Gardens’ days as a skating rink.
Colfax Ave. 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 arrived in Denver in 1995. “There were some incredible characters on Colfax, like pimps out of a 1970s Starsky and Hutch episode. I was intrigued by the seediness, and because I had read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, some of which takes place in Denver.”
His favorite artifacts include a first edition of On the Road, in which he discovered a photo of Kerouac sitting on a bench on Colfax, near the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. “It’s really special, since there are so few photos of him.”
Kerouac’s Beat generation crony Neal Cassady, also on the wall, grew up in Denver. Cassady met Hal Chase, a Columbia University student, at the Denver Public Library and Chase introduced him to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. If they hadn’t met, “there would have been no Beat Generation,” said Barber.
He 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.”
Other East High grads on the walls are actor Don Cheadle, silent film star Harold Lloyd, and 1970s TV star Pam Grier.
Barber hopes to expand the museum’s 17-by-12-foot space to include outdoor space for a “neon garden.” “Some of the signs, like Pete’s Kitchen, are still up. The ones that aren’t are still around, being sold on eBay. I’m like Indiana Jones: these signs should be in a museum where everyone can enjoy them.”
For Barber, the weird history of Colfax is worth protecting. “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.’ The city’s got to grow and change, but I hope our future vision embraces the important history of places like Colfax.”
The museum is open during the florist shop hours, 8am–5:30pm Mon.–Fri. and 8am–5pm Sat.