The mystical magic tour
December 29, 2005
Like any good magician, Eric Mead has one of those big boxes that he can make a big object – like a person, say – disappear in. It’s a good trick for a big audience in a big venue. But Mead hardly ever breaks out the big box, and it mostly sits in storage.”That makes me feel like a furniture-mover,” Mead, a Snowmass Village resident, said of the big-box trick. “Because you know that it’s not me, it’s the prop that does it. When you have that big box, it’s hard to make it look like you’re doing anything at all. It’s hard to put any kind of self-expression into that.”At Mead’s latest magic gig, every Monday night in the lobby of the St. Regis hotel, there’s no doubt who’s making the magic happen. Practicing what is known as “close-up” magic, Mead puts virtually no distance between the audience and himself. Mead sits at a table and, on a recent Monday night, the four-deep crowd pushed forward so that those seated in front weren’t even an arm’s length from the magician. The act is heavy on audience participation, with ladies and gentlemen picking cards, examining coins and safety pins for gimmicks. Mead even allows people to stand behind him – which he says is not ideal, but adds a further layer of challenge. He is comfortable and familiar with the viewers; several of them he has known for years, from his days at Snowmass’ defunct Tower Magic Bar, and calls them by name. A warm sense of humor seems essential to his act. The effect of this intimacy is to close the gap between magician and audience, and simultaneously to heighten the experience of mystery that Mead says is essential to good magic.”I work really hard at the idea that it’s not me doing a show and you watching. We’re both doing both parts,” said Mead, a 39-year-old native of Ft. Collins who has lived in the valley since 1989. “Magic in a vacuum is meaningless. “I’m always aware of what I’m communicating, that idea that magic is less about ideas and more about emotions. When you can express that sense of mystery, that’s it. You have to communicate that feeling wonder and mystery is a positive emotion, a valuable experience. Because a lot of people feel frustration when they encounter magic.”There was a time when Mead toyed with a different kind of act, something less personal and bigger on the separation between the magician’s mastery of the unknown and the audience’s ignorance. In his teens, Mead studied videos of Channing Pollock, a well-known magician with a well-defined personality.”He’s perfectly stoic, a handsome guy, doing this intense magic with no sense of irony or humor to it,” said Mead, who was a big fan. “He’s just doing … magic. And I went through my teenage phase of trying to be Channing Pollock. But it just didn’t fit me.”Some magicians are very serious, doing the dark, mysterious thing. And that can be very effective. But it doesn’t feel natural to me. I’m a natural-born smart aleck.” As a kid, Mead says he was likable and well-adjusted. Which separates him from most aspiring magicians. He says the stereotype of the dorky kid who takes up magic as a way to get attention and impress people has a good measure of truth to it.
“I didn’t need magic in that way,” he said. “But when you’re a kid and a magician, there’s something about it that’s not cool. It’s not like being a jock. There’s a little bit of nerdiness that goes along with it in elementary school.”Any nerd tag was overwhelmed by Mead’s obsession. As the family legend has it, Mead was a given, at age 6, a box of plastic magic tricks and a book on Houdini, and that he became attached to both. He started watching Doug Henning, who was a celebrity magician at the time, on TV. Mead doesn’t recall specifically any of these episodes, but they are probably pretty accurate. Mead does remember doing sleight-of-hand tricks by 8, and giving his first paid performance – a birthday party, for which he was paid $25 – at 9.”I loved the reaction I got from it,” he said. “As a kid, there’s a definite feeling of power, knowing the secret that nobody else knows. And that lasted till I was 16, when I started learning how to use it to communicate, rather than … . There’s a psychological difference. As a kid, I did magic for what it did for me. Now, I do it for what it can do to other people.”Sometimes, the effect magic can have on others is enormous. Especially so when Mead springs a trick on someone away from a performance venue, in the ordinary course of a day. At dinner parties, a guest sitting near Mead who drops a spoon might have Mead split his own spoon in half, and offer a piece to the diner. Some years ago, in California, Mead was speaking to a physicist who needed the phone number of a friend. Mead produced a deck of cards, had the physicist pick seven cards – which corresponded exactly to the phone number.”He freaked. He’ll never forget it,” said Mead. He added that he could freak people out a lot more if he cared to. “I tend not to. I used to more. When you get past using magic as a social tool, you tend to use it less outside the stage.”Although I’m always looking for the perfect moment to do something that someone will never forget. Something amazing. And I do think about that all the time.”
Mead has performed in all kinds of settings. After attending Colorado State and the University of Colorado-Boulder, studying business, then art and art history, then physics, Mead dropped out, having found nothing he liked nearly as much as magic. Early in his career, Mead did a lot of street magic, a brand of performing which he found less than perfect. “I never felt real strong at it,” he said. “I never felt that was an environment suited for me. I needed a more formal situation.”Fortunately, it was the ’80s, the height of the comedy club craze, and Mead found plenty of work alongside stand-up comedians. The clubs were a good place to learn the art of performing, but the overall experience of touring the comedy circuit was less than satisfactory. For one thing, people went to comedy clubs to laugh, not to be mystified. Mead found it hard to get in synch with stand-up audiences; the pace of a magic show is far different than a comedy performance. And perhaps worst of all, a magician surrounded by comedians is bound to start feeling like Rodney Dangerfield; Mead’s act got little respect.”People would say, ‘You’re a good writer, you’re funny. You should drop the magic stuff,'” said Mead. “They didn’t understand that it was the magic that interested me. It’s tough to work when everyone thinks less of you.”In Europe, the variety arts – jugglers, magicians, mimes – are on a pedestal above stand-ups and musicians. Here, a magician is put off in a corner. A lot of my press clippings are things like, ‘Wow, a magic act that I really enjoyed.'”Mead found himself in the company of comedians again recently, and had the opportunity to exact a bit of revenge. Last year he was having dinner at the Las Vegas home of fellow comedian Penn Jillette. (The gray house is known as “the Slammer,” for its resemblance to a prison.) Jillette told Mead about a film project he was producing, “The Aristocrats,” a performance documentary that had a slew of top comedians riffing on the same, old joke.Mead was outraged that Jillette hadn’t offered him a spot in the film. When one performer dropped out a few days later, Mead was summoned back to the Slammer to quickly tape his segment. “The Aristocrats” did good business, and got enormous press attention, thanks to the starry cast, the laughs and, especially, the spectacular filthiness of the language. And while excellent performances were turned in by George Carlin, Gilbert Gottfried, the “South Park” kids and Richard Lewis, nobody topped Mead, who did the joke as a card trick, spiked with sexual innuendo. At a preview screening in Aspen at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, Mead’s segment drew the biggest laughs.
“It was a great thrill,” said Mead. “And part of the great thrill is, all these stand-ups who told me to give up magic, whenever that movie screened and my little magic performance was a highlight over these comedians, that was a little bit of harmless, friendly revenge.””I thought it would be a good little moment in the movie,” added Mead, who stopped counting how many times his bit was mentioned by reviewers after it hit 40. “I had no idea it would be singled out by critics everywhere.””The Aristocrats” DVD, featuring several extra hours of material, is due for release Jan. 24. In 1989, Mead was hired to work at the Tower Magic Bar on the Snowmass Village mall, and thus found the ideal spot for his magic. In 1975, the Tower was an ordinary restaurant, if you discount the fact that it was owned by folk singer John Denver. In 1980, however, a Chicago magician named Bob Sheets convinced Denver to turn the restaurant’s bar into a magic bar. The Tower built a reputation as one of the few spots in the country to come to for a drink and a card trick. For 15 years, Mead alternated nights at the Tower with fellow local magician Doc Eason. Those who knew best showed up on Sundays, when Mead and Eason did their tag-team show. Mead worked the Tower till it closed, in April 2004″It was the first venue where I really felt at home, like what I was doing fit,” said Mead, whose first shift at the Tower was on Thanksgiving. “And the time I had in front of an audience – six hours a night, four nights a week – is unheard of. You can’t spend that kind of time without learning the skills to hold an audience. It was like grad school. And it was a party every night.
“It would be unlikely to come across that again – a place where dancing in politically incorrect areas is encouraged. That’s a rare thing.”The bulk of Mead’s work now is at out-of-town corporate events where he does not perform magic, but gives his mind-reading show, known in the trade as “mentalism.” “It’s the illusion of mental power,” he said. “You think of something, and I have to guess what it is – with a pretty high degree of accuracy.” Looking to decrease his time on the road, and maintain a local profile, he did a four-night test run in the St. Regis lobby last summer. It’s not exactly the Tower, in that people don’t generally go to the St. Regis to see magic. And even though his show runs fairly late, from 9 p.m. to midnight, he still sees a good number of children. (Which he doesn’t mind, but he stresses that his is not a kids show.)But there is also a positive challenge in the new venue. From an outsider’s perspective, the lobby is not much different from a bar: The viewers are close-up; Mead is behind a table instead of a bar. But Mead now sits – it is the first time he has done seated magic – and the audience is looking slightly upward, rather than down from barstools. And in a practice where tricking the eye is everything, where that eye is located is a prime concern.”They’re so low to the table, they’re almost looking up at me,” said Mead of the new setting. “I’m used to years at the Tower, doing magic for people on barstools, looking down on me. So at the St. Regis, I’m finding myself doing tricks that just don’t work. There’s no illusion.”Mead says that the oft-repeated phrase of “the hand being quicker than the eye” is not, in fact, the essence of magic.”Speed is not it,” he said. “What it is, is consciously manipulating the way people see and experience events. It’s like a puzzle where pieces are withheld. You’re being prevented from seeing something, or you’re forced to interpret it incorrectly. That makes the magic seem to be in violation of natural law.”The term “misdirection” – distracting the viewer’s attention from the actual trick – is likewise inapt. “What you’re really doing is directing their attention, keeping it exactly where you want it at all times,” said Mead. “If people were made to feel like they looked in the wrong place, the illusion works. But the experience of mystery is gone.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org