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Master Magician Lee Grabel Dies At 96

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Lee GrabelLee Grabel was born in Portland Oregon March 12, 1919. The spark of magic was kindled in his heart when he was a boy he witnessed a performance of a remarkable old conjuror, Professor Turtle. The early years in the life of a budding magician were the Great Depression years, and the need for money was keen in the mind of everyone. Young Grabel was no exception and he claimed that making money motivated him towards making magic. During those years, Lee worked five shows a week for $5.00 a show. It was good money for those times as his father worked ten hours a day, six days a week for only $18.00. For a fifteen year old to make $25.00 a week in the 30’s was tremendous. The money he earned made a deep impression on a young man that magic was the road to riches.

Lee Grabel and his Floating PianoIn 1931 Lee presented his first one-hour program which was sponsored by The Boy Scouts of America. In 1936 Lee advanced to win the coveted award for sleight-of-hand presented by the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians (PCAM) at the convention in Seattle. His reputation quickly grew as an accomplished magician.

Success followed success and in 1940 Grabel was engaged as a performer-lecturer by the University of California. He demonstrated to the students aspects of the psychology of deception. His appearances on the Berkeley campus lead to an initial touring with his show to other Western Colleges. During this period he also engaged as a featured attraction at the San Francisco World’s Fair on Treasure Island. World War II came and Grabel was inducted into the army in 1942. His talents as a magician proved a boon to Military Special Services and he was sent to military bases to entertain. It was while playing at an army base in Southern California that he met a beautiful librarian. A swift courtship followed and in 1944 Lee married the lovely lady. She became an indispensable part of Lee’s show, and became known as Helene.

The Magic and Illusions of Lee GrabelIn 1944 Lee was sent to General Headquarters in the South Pacific to organize soldier shows in that area. While in New Guinea he ran into Arnold Furst, who likewise was in the war theater in those battling years of the 40’s. Arnold was touring for U.S.O. The two magicians began a long friendship that has culminated in the publishing of the book, The Magic and Illusions of Lee Grabel.

Arnold Furst tells of the time he was riding in a jeep with the famous motion picture producer, Elia Kazan who was in the south Pacific working on a program to enhance soldier shows. Kazan told Arnold of how fortunate he had been in discovering one of the greatest magicians he had ever seen and had enlisted his aid to join in military show production. The magician Kazan mentioned turned out to be Lee Grabel. Following the war years, in 1946, Grabel started in earnest building his show into the theatrical institution it eventually became.

In the 1950’s, after Blackstone Sr.’s retirement, he became recognized as America’s No. 1 Magician. With his great show he toured coast to coast across America with both artistic and financial success. Variety Magazine described him as one of the theaters outstanding personalities and a master illusionist.

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Thurston recieves Mantle from KellarThe Royal Dynasty of Magic succession goes as follows: Alexander Herrmann aka “Herrmann the Great” died in 1896 leaving the mantle to Harry Kellar. Kellar was the first Dean of the S,A.M. and he passed the mantle on to Howard Thurston in 1908. Thurston went on to become the President of The Society of American Magicians and he designated the mantle to go to Harry August Jansen aka “Dante the Magician.” In 1955, Dante passed the mantle on to Lee Grabel who retired in 1959, but waited until 1994 when he finally found a worthy magician, he could honor. He passed the mantle to Lance Burton on May 12, 1994. Lance, an Ambassador of The S.A.M.. proudly carries on the tradition of the Royal Dynasty and will someday pass the mantle on to the next premier magician. The mantle represents the premier classicist magician in the world.

Lee GrabelIn 1959, at the height of his popularity, Grabel suddenly announced his retirement from professional magic and left the stage for a quiet life on his ranch in California. As he puts it, he wanted to unwind from the grinding life on the road to give Helene, along with their young daughter, Cindy, an opportunity to live a normal life. A second daughter, Kate, was born to Lee and Helene in 1963. Kate was one of the troupe during the ’77 tour. There were also investments derived from the success of the big show that required attention. Lee’s “quiet life” soon expanded to include a variety of business endeavors centered on the east side of San Francisco Bay. The “second career” was the management of the investments he had made from the success of his shows.

In 1977 the illusions that had made the name of Lee Grabel synonymous with the best in show business were dusted off, and what Lee call “Selections from the Big Show” took a twenty-week tour of the cities of the Far West in 1977.

Lee referred to it as his “Farewell Tour” as personal business commitments demanded that he return to the Bay Area.

For details about the memorial luncheon and/or to RSVP, please contact:

  1. Phil Temple says:

    Gentlemen: When you post a statement like “in 1955 Dante passed the Mantle of Magic to Lee Grabel”, etc., you are purpetuating a mythe. Dante died BEFORE competing his business deal with Lee Grabel and publically naming Lee as his “successor”. There was nothing to “succeed”. Television had all but killed live stage performances, and sadly, Dante’s name was of little or no box office value at the time. This is not to say that had times been different and Dante was still touring with a name that had box office value to the general public at the time, and television had not all but killed live theatre, Lee Grabel could have been Dante’s “successor”. However, in the end, this was a dream left unfullfilled. The historical facts do not support such a claim.

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