“There are ghosts at El Farol, there’s no question about it,” says Freda Keller with a playful smile. “There’s been a lot that’s happened over the years. In 1835 there were gunfights in the bar. People hear and see ghosts late at night.”
Keller is the general manager at Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant and cantina, and we’re on a hunt for a particular ghost. Alfred Morang (1901-1958) often haunted the establishment in his years among the living. This Thursday, El Farol and Matthews Gallery are throwing a special toast to his lingering spirit in the cantina, where Morang painted a series of stunning murals. The event will christen our December 12-26 exhibition MORANG AND FRIENDS, which features rare artwork and artifacts from the man who was known as Santa Fe’s Toulouse-Lautrec.
“The biggest thing with El Farol, the reason why it’s been around so long, is that it’s family driven,” Keller says. “I think the customers feel like they’re family, and obviously [Morang] did too. Being an artist and offering to do these murals, you would have to be part of the family of El Farol.”
Like any proud clan, the El Farol staff is always happy to take guests on an art tour through their cozy rooms. In addition to Morang’s works, there are murals and paintings by Santa Fe legends William Vincent (a student of Morang), Stan Natchez, Sergio Moyano and Roland van Loon. Keller produces a little fact sheet that helps everyone keep the stories straight. Here’s the write-up on Morang:
When you enter our rustic cantina, one of the first things to catch your eye will be the beautiful murals displayed throughout. The first artist to grace our walls was Alfred Morang. On the long west wall of the bar and one behind the bar, are our oldest murals were painted between 1948 and 1952. Mr. Morang was already an established artist when he frequented El Farol during that period. He painted the murals to settle his tab at El Farol. The scenes are of local landscapes and adobe homes in Santa Fe. We’ve chosen to reproduce our most famous mural of the flamenco dancer in the red dress accompanied by a guitarist as our poster for the 2004 Muralist dinner. From 1968 to 1980 the owner at the time covered the murals with paneling. When Bob Ward purchased El Farol in 1980 he removed the paneling to discover the beautiful murals beneath. When David Salazar purchased El Farol in 1985 he was always mindful of the treasures on the walls. Painting, re-stucco and remodeling were completed while protecting the murals.
Then comes the part of the tour that sends chills up our spines. Do you believe in ghosts? Maybe this will convince you:
On Easter morning in 1997 David and the staff were awakened by phone calls that El Farol had been burned. The murals, though singed, had made it through the fire.
Morang died in a 1958 studio fire, so the news that some of his most notable works survived a blaze decades later is eerie to say the least. We walk over to the cantina to view the murals. When the hostess hears us mention Morang’s name, she lights up.
“That’s right, the murals still have burn marks on them from the fire,” she says, pointing out subtle passages of missing pigment that were lost to the flames. “They still don’t know how that fire started. They think someone may have set it.”
El Farol has long since been restored to its elegant Old West aesthetic, much as it was when Morang would stop by for a shot of cognac and draw inspiration for his impressionistic paintings of Santa Fe’s wild 1940’s nightlife. On Thursday at 6:30 PM, Keller will join the gallery staff to tell stories and toast the artist with a new “Alfred’s Special” cocktail.
“I read up on Morang and learned that he was born in Maine, and how beautiful the landscapes are there,” says Keller. “He did a lot of painting there. His first inspiration was that landscape.” Keller selected a cocktail called Remember the Maine (with rye whiskey, Cherry Heering liqueur and a splash of absinthe) in honor of Morang’s home state. Come have a drink and time travel with us to a true Santa Fe golden age!