‘Snuffys’ return to the Onion
Characters from Aspen’s early days as a ski resort, captured in caricature to settle a bar tab, will be back on the walls of The Red Onion on Friday – more than a half century after they were first displayed at the venerable watering hole.And at least one of those characters will be there in person for the après-ski gathering. John Litchfield, who purchased Tim Kelleher’s saloon on Cooper Avenue in 1946 and renamed it The Red Onion, will be on hand for the April Fool’s Day event, part of Celebrate History Week sponsored by the Aspen Historical Society.Litchfield, 87, is now a Denver resident, but he’ll be back in Aspen to reminisce about the old days at the Onion, where he served drinks and dinners to the collection of 10th Mountain Division veterans and assorted other adventurers who flocked to the fledgling ski resort.Among them was Thomas “Snuffy” O’Neil, an ex-10th Mountain soldier who found himself a little short on cash.”There wasn’t much money to be made in Aspen in those days, you know,” said Litchfield from his home last week. “Snuffy ran up quite a bill with me. I was willing to run charge slips for a while … but I had to pay bills myself so I called him on it one day.”
O’Neil didn’t have the scratch to cover his debt, but asked Litchfield to take a look at some caricatures he’d done and offered to cover his bills with his artistic talents.”I took a look at a couple of those and said, ‘Jesus, you can eat here as long as you want if you do some of those for me,'” Litchfield recalled.O’Neil apparently had no shortage of material. “Everybody pretty much was a character back then,” Litchfield confirmed.Ski racers and 10th Mountain vets were frequently O’Neil’s subjects. He did 25 of the pastel caricatures in all, but some of them have disappeared over the years.
“My own caricature and my then-wife’s caricature, they’re missing,” Litchfield lamented. “I don’t know where they went.”The former Onion owner sold the artwork with the establishment in the early 1950s; he later repurchased what remained of the collection and donated his 16 Snuffy O’Neils to the historical society last fall, along with photo albums, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia, according to Anna Lookabill, the society’s archivist.Each caricature measures 23-by-29 inches and has retained the sharp, eye-catching colors O’Neil favored.”Because they were in a dark saloon for so many years, they actually didn’t get much fading,” Lookabill said. “They’re still very vibrant, which is really amazing.”The collection includes caricatures of such notables as ski racing legend Dick Durrance, ski instructor Fred Iselin and 10th Mountain veteran Pete Seibert, who would later help found a ski resort at Vail. Nine of O’Neil’s subjects have died in the past year, noted Georgia Hanson, executive director of the historical society.
The works will eventually be displayed in the society’s Wheeler-Stallard House museum after Friday’s one-day showing at The Red Onion, Lookabill said.Friday’s event, from 4 to 6 p.m., will also feature selections from a 1947 Red Onion menu, like 25-cent burgers and 5-cent coffee. Aspenites today would likely find it inconceivable that O’Neil managed to run up a significant tab with prices like those, Litchfield conceded.”In those days it was a lot of money. You’d laugh at it today,” he said. But Litchfield figures he was more than repaid with the now-historical treasures O’Neil produced after their handshake agreement.”Food is food … but things like that will last forever if they’re done well,” he reasoned.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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