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West Colfax Sketches

By Kris Autobee

In 2017, our sketches of West Colfax introduced our readers to visual artists from the past who lived, worked and exhibited their art in the neighborhood. My New Year’s resolution is to write about performing artists, such as dancers, actors and pianists. So let’s start with magicians.

West Colfax has two kinds of magic. First, the wonder of it, and secondly, the prestidigitation. Over the last few years, we have watched with amazement as many individuals have worked hard to create a new West Colfax. Many people have asked themselves the question: what do we want West Colfax to have or to be? How do we create a vibrant, livable, economically diverse and boutique-rich West Colfax?

The answers varied, and you have been watching (and hopefully supporting) new businesses up and down the Avenue. Aurora Hendrix, at Mint & Serif Coffee House, was a stay-at-home mom who felt isolated from the community. So she created a family-friendly coffee house that has a storytime as well as participating in the artistic spirit of First Fridays. Anthony Martuscello wanted to brew better beer and created Westfax Brewery. Gene Kalesti's passion for food lead to Pure Colorado Pro’s Kitchen. Judy Cybuch, at the Gallery of Everything, wanted artists to experience hanging and selling their work in a gallery without membership fees. And Bob and I believe that every artist should have easy access to quality materials.

We can once again associate words like momentum, change, discovery, enthusiasm and experience with West Colfax again. Is it sleight of hand? No, its hard work and the understanding that our investments will make our neighborhood a better place.

In many ways, we are no different from the businesses that first occupied this neighborhood. In 1956, the ground under Lamar Station Plaza was still mostly pasture. Open space. Then, as if by magic, in February 1957 the JCRS Shopping Center opened. At the same time, other changes were happening in the surrounding neighborhood. New apartment buildings were constructed on Lamar Street. Pierce Street was completed between West Colfax Avenue and West 20th Avenue to accommodate a new entrance to the JCRS Campus, the original cut off by the shopping center. Soon apartments sprang up on Pierce Street both north and south of Colfax.

Seventeen years after it opened, the JCRS Shopping Center had few original tenants. In fact it seems that few stores lasted 10 or more years at JCRS. That doesn’t mean they went out of business. Eugene Rose Jewelers moved to greener pastures at Villa Italia in 1965, and Thompson’s Hobby & Crafts moved further west. Casa Bonita’s owners spent a year excavating to create three stories where there had only been two, building an 85-foot-tall bell tower and a 30-foot waterfall. The restaurant which seats 1,000 and opened in 1974. The fountain, imported from Mexico, was added later.

Casa Bonita is the oldest tenant at JCRS/Lamar Station Plaza. Like West Colfax, Casa Bonita’s magic lies in discovery, wonderment and adventure. Anticipation builds as customers wait in switchback lines. Then the hike to your table, mariachis, sopapillas, Black Bart’s cave, puppet shows, magicians, sopapillas, arcade games, piñatas, sopapillas, the gorilla and divers.

There have been several “house” magicians at Casa Bonita over the years. Arch Jefferies was the first, and Dave Elstun spent 10 of his 40-plus-year career there. Brandon K. Parker, Jeff Jenson, Gregg Tabo and Bob Brown have all worked the Casa Bonita stage. But there was magic outside of Casa Bonita, too.

For 18 years, Ned’s Mile High Magic and More was next door to Casa Bonita. Robert “Ned” Nedbalski is a well-known prestidigitator, stage hypnotist and magician. Originally from Denver, he graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in Business Administration. He worked for many years for J. C. Penny’s in Denver and Salina, Kan. Even then he stayed active as a magician and entertainer.

Nedbalski wrote the forward to “The Flourishman” by Jerry Cestkowski. Flourishes are the attention-getting moves like fancy cutting and shuffling, card fans, and flashy motions that magicians add to a card trick. These moves distinguish the professional from the amateur, and help distract the audience from the actual trick. It is said that the only reason you put this book down is that it weighs five pounds.

Ned’s Mile High Magic & More sold books, DVDs, makeup, wigs, costumes and props for tricks. Back in 1999, a French tourist recorded his impression that “The owner is always in character… As it is located next to one of those crazy restaurants as the Americans like them, there is a steady stream of curious visitors looking for cheap magic. The atmosphere is very different from the French stores where professional magicians gather in a conspiratorial air…” A local magician noted, “Ned and his store has supported us for a very long time and we are always in his debt.”

A Denver Yelp reviewer wrote “be aware, they sell tricks there. So you have to buy the trick before they will show you how to do it. But they won’t sell you a trick they know you don’t have the skill to do. They were very cool like that.” Ring 250 Presto-Digitators, the Fort Collins chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, presented Nedbalski with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

After Ned’s Mile High Magic & More closed in 2009, the unit sat empty until the Gallery of Everything and Red Herring Art Supply co-located there in February 2016. Come celebrate the magic at First Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. You never know – you might learn a new trick.