People often recognize funeral directors for their soothing voice during difficult times. Some are complemented for how much they know about what to do when a loved one dies.
In May, a longtime New York mortician – known for both of these traits – will be honored for something completely unrelated to funeral directing.
People who know Teddy Lee rave about his friendly demeanor and his ability to cheer people up.
But his skill as a man of magic will bring him to center stage when the Parent Assembly #1 of the Society of American Magicians names him 2016 Magician of the Year.
Lee is the type of person who carries anniversary, birthday and sympathy cards in his pocket just in case he meets somebody who could use one.
“He handles death all the time and he brightens other people’s lives,” said George Schindler, of Brooklyn, who serves as Dean of the Society of American Magicians. “He’s really one of our great treasures.”
Lee is among few magicians who can say they followed in the footsteps of famed magician Harry Houdini.
Houdini served as president of the Parent Assembly #1, the first of what would become many chapters of the Society of American Magicians, a nationwide organization.
Others who have joined him in the society’s membership include David Copperfield and Siegfried and Roy.
Lee, who has served in most leadership positions in the 114 year-old group, became the first African American president of Parent Assembly #1 in 2000.
Lee, 78, took over Lee’s Funeral Home in White Plains, NY, in 1969 after his father Theodore Jay Lee Sr. passed away.
That was just a couple years before he started exploring various educational opportunities.
He studied Art in a correspondence course and took organ music and sign language classes in the local school district’s adult education program.
But none of these captured his attention like “Magic 101.”
“That’s what stuck with me,” said Lee, whose daughter, Jennifer now manages the family funeral home, enabling him to be “semi-retired.”
Lee said he started out with simple magic tricks one would learn as a beginner, performing for his daughter when she was really young, at birthday parties and generally at home.
“One thing led to another and people learned that I was doing magic. I started getting invitations, requests to do magic here and there for individuals, small groups and children’s parties as well as adults,” Lee said.
Demand for his talent spread to block parties and events for service groups – including funeral director conventions and local seminars.
Tuned into the emotion that flows through somber funeral services, Lee fondly recalls gathering restless children in a side room at the funeral home and refocusing their attention on less dismal thoughts.
“I just like doing this for people,” Lee said.
Jennifer Lee, who manages the funeral home that celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2015, wasn’t only her father’s first audience.
“I used to be his assistant as well,” she said.
In more recent years, Jennifer Lee said her father’s magic has focused on sleight of hand, but in earlier days, he performed all the big tricks.
“When I was his assistant, he had the big box tricks. We had one where he cut me into threes, standing up. He levitated me on the table, and took the table from under me,” she recalled.
Jennifer Lee said word got out, and her father frequently gets asked to do a trick when people see him.
“They are fascinated by it. Little kids or grown people. They’re always looking for him to perform something,” Jennifer Lee said.
She said her father has been recognized a few times, and the 2016 Magician of the Year was a pleasant surprise.
“I’m very happy for him. He’s definitely paid his dues.”
Teddy Lee, who is considered extremely knowledgeable about the history of African American magicians, is known for his skills at sleight of hand.
Though he knows hundreds of tricks, a few stand out in his memory.
These include one of his favorites he performed as a tribute to his dear friend, a fellow funeral director from New York City, who passed away.
Before he died, Lee said his friend asked him to perform at his funeral.
The trick starts out with a full piece of newspaper he gradually tore into pieces while describing how his good friend’s physical systems began breaking down as he aged.
At the end, he gets the crowd to repeat “He restoreth my soul” – a phrase from the Bible’s 23rd Psalm that’s followed by the oft-quoted “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …”
A representation of his friend’s soul – Lee ends the trick displaying that once-torn up newspaper back in one piece again.
“That’s one of my favorites. The newspaper,” Lee said.
He’s also fond of a card trick – the one where you ask somebody to “pick a card, any card.”
Not just because he can do it – but because he’s been able to walk others through the trick when unable to be there to do it himself.
Lee recalls having to go to a magic convention in Texas and being unable to accommodate a request to perform at the church’s block party around the corner from his home.
He made plans with one of the church-goers and said “just give me a call when you’re ready.”
From what he was told, he drew a crowd around the telephone that was put on speaker.
“It worked out and at the end, when the card was turned over, I could hear the people in the audience saying `wow.’ That was a trick,” Lee said.
He did the same thing another time – while driving a car to a function in Queens.
Lee helped out at the family funeral home as a child, took it over and then passed it onto his children as his second pursuit as a magician blossomed.
And he shared three years of his life with the U.S. Military – serving in the Signal Corps between the Vietnam and Korean Wars.
“As I look back over the years, I realize, did I do all that?” Lee said.
At the Society of American Magicians, Schindler recalls another “favorite” trick of Lee’s.
It’s a description of funeral services that starts out as a large poster representing a thorough, heartfelt remembrance. It folds down into smaller parts, into just a casket and, in the end, into just a garbage pail – to which he suggests people “don’t let this happen,” Schindler said.
The trick, he said, is called “The Grave Mistake.”
The Society of American Magicians’ Parent Assembly 1 will honor Teddy Lee during the 107th Annual “Salute to Magic” Show – the oldest continuing magic show in the U.S. The event will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 7 at Queens Theatre, 14 United Nations Ave., South, Flushing Meadows.