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The Illusionist


Meeting Alamo’s Lee Grabel, you might not realize that this warm, soft-spoken 87-year-old is show business royalty. That is, until you visit his home.

His den is covered with playbills and pictures of Grabel and his wife, Helen, onstage. Files overflow with newspaper reports of their performances in the 1950s, when Lee was America’s preeminent magician.

His story begins in Oregon, during the Great Depression. As a schoolboy, Grabel caught a magic show—and spied the sack of coins the magician took home. Inspired, he studied and practiced magic, and soon garnered up to $25 a week performing after school.

Soon Grabel went full-time. Drafted into the army in WWII, he entertained troops in the South Pacific. He met and married Helen Foster, a librarian at an army hospital, and planned a show with his crowning illusion: a floating piano.

After the war, he and Helene—she added an e for the stage—mounted the show. They traveled and performed six nights a week, plus matinees, from Labor Day through May; some 20 million people saw their show. In 1952, the Grabels bought a home in Alamo but lived there only in summer, when they rested, repaired their equipment, and rehearsed. “When you’re on the road [for] nine months, the show gets shopworn,” Grabel says. “You do also.”

During their 1954 break, a magician named Dante (aka Harry August Jansen) visited. A Broadway star before the war, Dante was the reigning Grand Master of the Royal Dynasty of Magic, an unbroken succession of magicians beginning in the 1800s. Admiring Grabel’s craft, Dante proposed a combined show and asked Grabel to succeed him in the dynasty. Dante died soon thereafter.

Grabel kept performing, but the road proved exhausting. “Every bone in my body aches, ” Helene would say each night. So Grabel retired in 1959 and went into real estate. The transition was initially rocky; he recalls an exasperated loan officer asking for a reference “who isn’t a magician, musician, or dancer.” Undaunted, Grabel eventually developed a knack for real estate brokerage.

In 1994, Grabel chose Las Vegas illusionist Lance Burton as his dynastic successor. “I saw his show and was amazed,” Grabel recalls. He admired Burton’s respect for tradition and gave him his collection of illusions—a gift Burton calls “rare and valuable.”

The Grabels still live in Alamo’s Roundhill neighborhood, where Lee enjoys retelling show business tales. “The secret of being an entertainer is not whether you can palm a card,” he confides. “It’s how you communicate with people.”

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