By CLIFFORD LEE JOHNSON III
"My name is Sam Eaton," says the man standing at the lip of the stage. "And today you have no secrets."
With those words, Eaton ushers his audience into his "mentalism and magic show" The Quantum Eye. During a recent performance, he detected a murderer by probing the thoughts of four suspects, served as a conduit through which a couple communicated telepathically, and most confounding, performed an illusion involving a mind-reading canvas banner.
But while his feats are impressive, Eaton's longevity is even more noteworthy: The Quantum Eye has been running for eight years, which is a lifetime in the crowded and competitive Off-Broadway world.
Part of Eaton's success can be credited to his business sense: He works with words instead of expensive props, and since he typically performs once a week, he doesn't outstrip the demand for his material. (The show currently runs on Saturday afternoons at Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place, with occasional performances in other venues across the city.)
It also matters that Eaton's show is audience-friendly. That's crucial, since he has to find 20 volunteers in every performance. "I sincerely like my audience and love performing for them," he says. "I think that feeling of positive energy comes across."
Born Sam Rosenthal, Eaton was raised in New York City. He attended college in Iowa, where he studied psychology, and in 1988 founded Computer Pathways, a successful I.T. consultancy that he ran for fifteen years. He might have remained there had a health crisis not induced him to change his life.
"Eight years ago I ran away and, as they say, joined the circus," he says. Although he had never had an urge to perform professionally, Eaton had always loved magic, so he sold his business and entered the creative but uncertain realm of entertainment, focusing on mentalism because of a lifelong fascination with human behavior.
To prepare himself, he studied the various techniques associated with the field, and he discovered that many of them are utilized by politicians, salesmen, lawyers, con artists, and others seeking to influence their targets. When he felt ready, he and Mimi (his wife and business partner) hosted a series of dinner parties where he practiced tricks for his friends. Next, he began performing at the Partners & Crime bookstore. Then, in August 2003, he moved to the Jewel Box Theatre on 29th Street.
"Those first years were difficult, mainly because getting an audience was hard," Eaton recalls. "Now about fifty percent of our audience is word of mouth."
These days, along with performing at traditional theatre venues, he also books private parties, delivers lectures at colleges, and hosts seminars for corporations where he discusses mind- and body-reading techniques.
The latter points to a larger purpose in Eaton's work. "I want people to leave the show better than they came in," he says. "I want them to be less credulous. I want them to see how common sense can be used against them. I want them to just ask questions."
Clifford Lee Johnson III is a consulting producer and writer living in New York.