SNOWMASS VILLAGE - On the first night Doc Eason came to Snowmass Village - in 1977, from the Southern San Francisco Bay town of Cupertino - he had a life-altering experience. Eason had come to Colorado to see old California buddies who had just convinced John Denver - flush with the success of "Rocky Mountain High" - to invest in a bar and restaurant, the Tower, that featured performances of magic. He headed straight to the Tower, saw Bob Sheets, the Tower's first magician-in-residence, do his act, and decided to try his hand at sleight of hand.
Was it guessing the card that captivated Eason? The disappearing coins? The cut ropes that came back together?
None of the above. It was a trick that had to do with bottles, dollars and customers' pockets. Sheets' magic tricks created an atmosphere of congeniality that translated into a sound that was magic to Eason's ears.
"Behind all the laughter and amazement, I heard the cash register ringing off the hook," said Eason. "I said, I see what's going on. Anyone who's seen me work knows, magic is a great way to get money out of people's pockets."
Eason isn't necessarily money-obsessed. He says of that first night at the Tower, "That's not the thing that touched my soul - that was the enchantment of magic. But later on, I was thinking: 'That bar is making money.'"
But it is no accident that magic tricks and selling drinks exist side-by-side in Eason's mind. He arrived in Snowmass with no knowledge of coins and cards, rabbits and hats - but he did know how to sell. The name Doc, in fact, comes from his previous job, as a salesman of nutritional products at a Cupertino health food store. And Eason says the job of a magician is not so much baffling the watcher's eye as it is selling them on the overall performance, and the performer.
"My style of magic doesn't emphasize the tricks so much," said Eason, a 62-year-old Basalt resident who appears Tuesday nights through August at the Stonebridge Inn in Snowmass Village. "My magic doesn't happen at the end of my arms. It happens in the space between us as humans. Magic is how you connect with people. And once you connect with them, you can sell them anything.
"A salesman can't necessarily shuffle cards. But the psychology is very similar - the clever use of words, using words to enhance the effect."
Over 27 years and some 14,000 shows at the Tower Bar, Eason became especially adept at selling booze, a skill he seems as proud of as any magic trick in his repertoire. In 2004 - ironically, the same year the Tower shut down - he was named the first winner of the Bar Magician of the Year by the Magic Castle, a private magic club in Hollywood. (Two years later, the award was shut down too, when it was noted that there were only about 10 magicians regularly practicing the distinct niche known as bar magic.) In selling drinks, there is timing, verbal technique and a connection to the customer, just as there are in performing.
"Magic is a very powerful sales tool," said Eason from Hotchkiss, where he was appearing as a wandering, table-to-table magician at the Delta County Fair. "If you capture someone's imagination and attention, you can do anything with this person. They will listen to you."
Since the Tower closed, Eason has focused on selling things other than intoxicating liquids, and he seems to find satisfaction in this, too. Appearing at corporate trade shows, his job is to attract attention to a client's products, and to create a positive, lasting association with the corporate name.
"I'm selling ideas. I'm a communicator," said Eason, who says he doesn't miss the five nights a week at the bar, where one of his least favorite tricks was making the occasional drunk disappear. "I'm selling the message the company wants a customer to have ringing in their ears. While they're being mystified and entertained, they're getting a message. It's not only making people look where I want them to look; it's communication on multiple levels."
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When Eason laid eyes on the Tower Bar, he saw a lot going on that made sense to him. Besides the selling aspect, there was the bar configuration: He had worked behind a bar at the health food store (just down the street from a newfangled company, Apple, that was building its campus) selling smoothies and nature burgers and trying to get customers interested in the latest products, like ginseng.
"When I saw the bar at the Tower, I saw the obvious similarities. The pace is the same, even if the product line is totally different," he said. "When I saw Sheets perform, I saw how I could take all these tools I knew and put them in one tool box."
The tool he lacked, though, was a big one. At that point, at 30, Eason knew no more about magic than the guy on the next barstool. But on a group backpacking trip, Eason got to know Sheets well enough to convince the magician to give him a hand. Sheets handed Eason a stack of magic books and told him to read through them.
"Most people look at a magic book like a recipe book - they can't make much of it," said Eason, who spent an offseason in Mexico with the texts. "But I read it all, came back with a stack of questions. Bob saw that I was motivated. And he saw that I was glib, full of jokes, and I wasn't afraid to talk to people."
Eason landed a job as bar-back at the Tower, where he got to try out his three tricks. The best bit of advice Eason got from Sheets was to get caught.
"You get caught - 'I saw that card go there' - you know where the weak point is," he said. "Failing can be a great teacher. And in bar magic, there's a new person on the stool every 20 minutes, so you do the trick again. And again. And again. I learned by brute force."
When Sheets left the Tower to open the Jolly Jester in Aspen, Eason stepped in. By then, he had begun assembling not just a magic repertoire, but an act: "A mini-play. Not just one trick that leads into another," he said.
While Eason - and Eric Mead, who worked alongside him at the Tower for 16 years - helped put Snowmass on the magic map, his influence has been felt outside the valley. A decade ago, on a visit to the Magic Castle, Eason noted that, in addition to the three main rooms, there was a downstairs bar that got little use. He urged the operators to create a magic bar.
"Next thing, I was helping design a bar," he said. "I went back six months later and they had done everything I told them to do." Eason does a week or two a year in the Castle's main rooms. Last year, he was named by the Castle as the Closeup Magician of the Year.
In June, Eason brought his magic touch even further afield. He traveled across Japan, giving 13 lectures in 16 days, an experience he says was as rewarding as it was exhausting. Since returning, he has gotten a number of calls from Japanese magicians, asking him to clarify points - and to tell them what they had gotten out of his appearance.
"Basically their message is, Thanks for coming; you changed the way I perform magic," he said. "That's humbling. Japan magic is established, but I have my stamp on it."
Eason said that magic is big in Japan. There are 20 magic bars in Tokyo alone, and people would crowd around when he would do informal tricks. Whether Japanese magic differed in any specific ways from Western magic, he said, "Sometimes they use a chopstick instead of a magic wand."