Aspen’s Hotel Jerome going back in time with 120th birthday gala | AspenTimes.com

Aspen’s Hotel Jerome going back in time with 120th birthday gala

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Never mind what Jack Nicholson used to do in the Hotel Jerome’s kitchen, Hunter S. Thompson’s rituals on the tables of the J-Bar, or the pick-up scene that carries on to this day.

The really chilling stories from Aspen’s landmark Main Street hotel go further back in time, and involve a drowned child, a fatal game of chicken in the elevator shaft, and a pastry chef whose ashes remain stashed behind a clock in the lobby.

When the Hotel Jerome celebrates its 120th birthday with a gala ball Wednesday evening, the spirit of 19th century Aspen will be present with staff and guests in Victorian attire, decorations appropriate to the period, and the same dinner menu of French cuisine – oyster bisque, filet of sole, salsify fricassee – that was served on opening night in 1889.

But also expected to be in attendance to mark the occasion are the spirits that haunt the hotel. Snowmass Village magician and mentalist Eric Mead will conduct a seance in the Jerome’s Wheeler Room, where the 20 patrons who purchased the top-tier ticket will summon the ghost of one of the people who has died in the hotel.

Mead cautions that this is a “theatrical seance,” that he is not attempting to actually channel spirits, and far less have a religious experience. But Mead – who travels nationally to perform magic and mind-reading events, and who performs his sleight-of-hand bar magic Monday nights at the Jerome’s Library Bar – nevertheless expects to send chills down the spines of Wednesday’s seance participants.

Mead will use elements of theater – lighting, timing, even seating – to enhance the atmosphere of the 45-minute seance. The ceremony will feature a Ouija board, tarot cards, a chalk slate for the spirit to write on, and background into the history of the Hotel Jerome, and the history of seances.

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“A great deal relies on setting the right atmosphere, positioning people psychologically,” Mead said. “So even seating people is managed with a ritual aspect. You’re questioning, ‘Why are we doing it this way? Why does it matter?’ All of this mostly happens in your mind. It’s much better if things don’t happen overtly, but in your imagination.”

1889, the year the Jerome opened, happened to coincide with the height of the Spiritualism movement in America. The movement had begun four decades earlier, in Hydesville, N.Y., when a young woman named Katie Fox demonstrated the ability to summon a spirit she called Mr. Splitfoot by snapping her fingers. Within five years, there were spirit mediums all over the United States and Europe. Spiritualism became a religion whose central practice was contacting the dead in ceremonies known as a seance.

The rise of Spiritualism also set off a counter-movement that accused spirit mediums of being frauds, or in league with the devil. In the middle were those who saw the seance not as a religious practice, but entertainment.

“For believers this was their religion, and they thought of it as a religion,” said Mead, who once conducted a seance in the dining car of an Amtrak train. (The spirit he was contacting then was of Harry Houdini, who vehemently tried to expose Spiritualism as a sham.) “For non-believers it was big entertainment. There was no TV, no radio, so to sit in a dark room like this was fun.”

Mead expects his moment of fun when he sees a non-believer begin to question what is going on in front of his eyes.

“My favorite thing is when the skeptical know-it-all adult suddenly doesn’t want to be there anymore,” Mead said. “That’s my goal – to take well-traveled, cultured adults and genuinely frighten them.”

The Jerome anniversary bash, a benefit for the Aspen Historical Society, has a variety of ways to participate. A $550 ticket includes the seance, dinner, wines from wineries that have been operating for at least 120 years, and an invitation to spend a night at the hotel for the 1889 rate of $4 (or a suite for $18.89). A $350 ticket includes dinner in the Century Room; the $150 ticket buys a family-style dinner in Jacob’s Corner. For $50, attendees get entrance to the ballroom, dancing to a 12-piece band, and the first drink on the house.

The J-Bar and Library will be open to the public, with no ticket purchase required. All attendees are asked to wear period attire, or black tie.

Main Street will be closed off in front of the hotel, with horse-drawn carriages bringing guests to the door.

stewart@aspentimes.com