Here’s to the Tower – and Twenty Magical Years

Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a John Denver song called “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Denver follows this with a hit of his own, “Rocky Mountain High,” and a major star was born – fame, fortune, the works! Some of his Aspen buddies convince Denver to buy a small restaurant and go into business with them. So, in 1975, they end up owning what was formerly the Tower Fondue in Snowmass Village. It becomes John Denver’s Tower Restaurant.

The bar manager, a man known as Gib, was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, so his idea of running a bar was to not push drinks and lock up as soon as the dining room closes. This went on until a maniacal you man named Bob Sheets arrived from Chicago and pitched the idea of Magic Bar at the Tower. No one could even imagine the mayhem Bob was describing, so he said, “Give me the bar next Tuesday, and I’ll show you.” Bob spent the days before his “audition” stopping everyone on the street and inviting them to a big party. When Tuesday rolled around, the bar was packed. Sheets did his outrageous bar magic show and blew the roof off the place. The potential was obvious and he was hired on the spot. He was joined by Kevin Dawson, and they became the first magic bartenders at the Tower.

(Since this is for the record, there had been a magician in town before Bob Sheets. A man named Peter Elliot, complete with handlebar mustache and Bowie knife in his belt, did perform at the Tower in those early days. He was, however, too much of a… well… “free spirit” to be counted on regularly.)

Sheets had just spent a year and a half working side by side with Heba Haba Al at the Pickle Barrel in Chicago. I never got to see Heba, but I know Bob well. When he works the bar, he’s a master magician in spite of being a complete madman. Lots of people are called wild or crazy, but Sheets really deserves the title. A staple of these early bar shows was to pie people in the face. Bob would talk someone into trying an “upside down margarita.” The unsuspecting customer would lay backwards over the bar with his mouth open, and Bob would mix a margarita right in his mouth. As the victim sat up to swallow, the other bartender would smash a whipped-cream pie in his face. (Bob once pied Ted Kennedy with this technique.) Pandemonium reigned and Sheets was perfectly at home. Dawson was a little more reserved, but both were making a reputation with strong close-up magic behind the bar. From all accounts, it was a great time.

Just ask Doc Eason. Eason, as you probably know, is still performing at the Tower, but he knew nothing about magic when he strolled into the Tower for the first time. He and a chum had ridden from California to Snowmass on their motorcycles. It was going to be a week vacation to visit some friends. They knew some of the boys at the Tower, so they stopped in to say hello and quaff a beer. Sheets was working the bar that evening, and Doc describes it as “…a night that changed my life forever.”

(I must digress for a moment to report a strange coincidence. Doc told me that he left California that fateful trip to the Rocky Mountains on July 7. He remembers because it was 1977. In other words, the date was 7/7/77 – all sevens. He knew it would be a lucky trip. Meanwhile, I was already in the Rockies; I grew up in Colorado. I can tell you what I did on that very same day. I had cake and ice cream with my parents, since that’s my birthday. Strange, huh?) Enchanted by what he experienced that night, Doc decided not to return to California.

He had found out what he wanted to do when he grew up, so he took a job as a waiter at the Tower and Sheets taught him some magic tricks. He borrowed The Magic Book by Harry Lorayne and practiced. Thus, when Sheets and Dawson left in 1977 to open the Jolly Jester in downtown Aspen (another whole batch of stories!), Doc was perfectly positioned to be the Tower’s next magic bartender. He worked shoulder to shoulder his first winter with one John Lonergan. Lonergan (known as “The Great Juandini”) had been performing at the Tower occasionally with Sheets and Dawson, so when they left, he and Eason took over the bar. No one says much about him. From what I can gather, he was brash, aggressive and kind of haughty. He had good hands and did some fine sleight-of-hand routines, but he was known for his “Linking Rings” and the Goshman “Ding Dong Trick.” Definitely not a children’s entertainer. He left the Tower that spring, headed west.

This left Doc to work the Tower by himself from 1978 until 1985. A lot of things happened in that time. Michael Shore, who actually runs the place today, became John Denver’s partner in the restaurant. The food was upgraded to a finer dining and theatrical lighting went into the bar. Stars like Neil Diamond, Sydney Portier and Charles Bronson were sometimes seen hanging out and catching a show. During this time, Doc earned a faithful following that’s still going strong today. This is the period where he developed his trademark routines – the multiple selection of cards with the memorization of every name, and $100 presentation for the card on the ceiling.

Doc also married Alison in 1979 and started a family. As the demand for out of town work grew, along with the desire to spend more time with his family, it became clear that another magician would be helpful to fill out the schedule at the Tower. So Doc began to teach a few simple tricks to a charismatic and outgoing bartender at the Tower. This brings us to 1985 and the tragic tale of Don Hooker. Hooker had blue eyes “to die for” and was as charming as they come. Having mastered just three or four self-working tricks, he put on a pretty good show from what I hear. When he began working the bar by himself, a strange change came over him. He started wearing suspenders and a bow tie. He grew a beard and neatly trimmed it short and low on his chin. He donned a derby. Now, anyone who knows would tell you that I’m describing Doc Eason perfectly. But I’m also describing what Don Hooker became. He actually morphed into a clone of Doc. Then he started doing some of Doc’s pet effects without permission.

Behind his back, the staff at the Tower began to call Hooker “Baby Doc.” As if that weren’t bad enough, reports had it that “Uncle Hooky” had a personal habit that is one of the real dangers of resort living in Aspen, Colorado. All of this and more came to a head in 1987, and Hooker left the Tower. He went straight into Aspen and started performing at another bar, this time using all of Doc’s act. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), he ran up big debts, burned lots of bridges, and left town. He hasn’t been seen since. We still hear rumors from time to time. At last report, he had cleaned himself up, but is still doing Doc’s act, word for word, somewhere in the Hawaiian Islands. When Hooker left the Tower, Jeff Edmonds took his place. Jeff grew up in Aspen and had been doing table magic at a fancy restaurant. Jeff is a superb technical magician whose flourishes with cards must be seen to be believed. He worked the bar for one winter and then went back to table side. As he explained it, “The bar wasn’t for me.”

That was 1989. That’s when I got the call. Doc wanted to know if I’d be interested in working for the ski season. In November, I moved to Snowmass with my then girlfriend, now wife, Shawn. We had decided to stay for one winter, and then go somewhere else. How symbolic that my first night as a magic bartender was on Thanksgiving. And I have been ever since… giving thanks, I mean. I owe a lot to all those guys who laid the foundation for where I am today. The Tower really is the best. Most magicians will never know the sublime thrill of performing in a venue where you are treated like a star. People come from all over the world and fight for front row seats at the bar – sometimes an hour or more before show time. The show itself can be anything I want it to be. There are no rules. One night it’s a very straight forward magic show, and the next, a long venture into improvisational comedy.

On occasion it’s fun not to watch your manners and be politically incorrect. You can’t do that when you’re working a corporate function, only at a place like the Tower. For me, it’s everything I ever hoped for. It’s 1996. On any given night you’ll find Doc or me (or both if you’re lucky) working the crowd and pulling off miracles. The bar is generally crowded in the winter and quieter in the summer. But hey, it’s still Aspen. You never know who’ll show up. Recent visitors to the Magic Bar include Chevy Chase, Laurie Metcalf, Mandy Patinkin and, of course, John Denver. After 20 years, it’s still a palpably magical place where anything can happen, and it generally does. Point in fact, the last time Chevy Chase was in, he jumped behind the bar and did a trick that thrilled the crowd. And the legend grows…

Last Friday night, the 16th of February, 1996, we threw a big bash to celebrate the Tower’s birthday. Bob Sheets flew in from D.C. and John Denver brought a bunch of his friends in for the show. It was a great party. The Sheets, Eason and Mead show ran full tilt until two in the morning. There are two moments that stand out clearly in my mind: The first is when I was doing the sugar cube trick for Denver and his friends. Right in the middle of the routine, I flashed back to the night five years ago when I learned the routine from Bob Sheets himself. Bob said that he would like me to do the trick at the Tower, but he asked that every time I did, I use the magic words “Heba Haba.” I never met or even knew much about Bob’s mentor, Heba Haba Al, but I remembered feeling that some mantle had been passed. I knew I was officially a magic bartender. Say “Heba Haba?” It’s my privilege.

The other great moment for me was when Doc Eason was surveying the crowd between shows and seeing all the faces of the people who’d been part of the scene 20 years ago. (For a while, the front row was filled with children – children of his old drinking buddies from his first magic-bartending days.) A broad smile crossed his face and I would almost swear there was a tear in his eye. He called over to John Denver and quietly said, “Thank you for a great 20 years.” J.D. laughed and said, “Let’s do 20 more.”