I never really knew Lee Delano, but he turned out to be a huge inspiration to me. He had a long and successful career as a character actor. He was one of those guys who was just working all the time. He appeared in tons of television shows and movies in the 60s and 70s. That is his picture above, from the Planet of the Apes television series. (You might not have recognized him.) Below he appears as Krako in the Star Trek episode A Piece of the Action, and it’s just the sort of character he often played. Lots of crooks (and lots of cops too, which I always found funny.)
I got a call from a friend late on a Friday night who told me that Lee had recently passed away and that his family had no idea what to do with his magic props. While television was his bread and butter, he had long been an enthusiastic magician. They needed a hand figuring out what things were and how much to charge for them at the estate sale the next day. So, I was up early and on my way to give a hand Saturday morning.
There are a surprising number of yard sales in the Los Angeles area featuring the memorabilia of famous people. After all, everyone has stuff. Ray Bradbury’s was the last cool one I remember. If you don’t immediately place the name, he was a Golden Age science fiction writer, known for his novels like Fahrenheit 451 about a dystopic future. (The name comes from the number of degrees that books burn at.) I loved his short stories, liked The Veldt. His typewriter was up for sale, and a friend bought his screw driver that had RB scratched into the handle.
One of the reasons you want to have your phone on early on a Saturday morning is to get calls like one of my buddies did last year. There was some great stuff at a yard sale with many items from the estate of Charlton Heston. This was several years after his death, and my buddy made an immediate detour. Okay, not everyone would want the previously viewed Soylent Green video, but having Heston’s copy is just cool.
When I worked at Screen Actors Guild (now SAG-AFTRA), I had occasion to reach out to Heston to ask for help on a project. I had been pulled out of my regular job to work as a sort of Party Planner for a short time. I had an idea about him that was totally wrong. While I thought he would be a mean, old, gun toting hater, he actually drove a great sportscar, was very nice and stepped right up to the plate for his fellow actors. What a great guy! I’d like to think that as I have gotten older, I have gotten a little less judgy, but it’s still something I need to work on.
By the way, I didn’t realize that Omega Man (the great film with Charleton Heston) and I am Legend (with Will Smith) were based on the same book, until I saw an episode of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. (I’m such a dork). Just to say, this is a great series if you love science fiction and horror and I do.
But I digress, back to Lee. Lee Delano had a long association with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. He was hired to replace Carl Reiner (the straight man), and Lee worked with Imogene and Sid for many years. I was lucky enough to see one of the last live performances of Caesar and Coca. It was hilarious. I don’t think I have ever laughed so hard. It was pouring rain that day, and I didn’t let that slow us down a bit (even though I am a California Weather Whimp, like most of my fellow Angelinos.) Imogene Coca must have been in her 90s then, but she was certainly energetic on stage. It was wonderful to see two comedic masters live on stage.
So anyway, I showed up early on Saturday morning and started going through Lee’s magic the family had set aside for the estate sale. It was a bit of a mess, but with a hand from my buddy (who originally called but hadn’t done magic for years and in any case had an important meeting at Sony that day he needed to get off to pretty quickly) we got it organized and out. I hung out all morning, talking to people about magic and manning the magic table. Like most things you do for others, it was totally fun. I loved being the resident magic expert and getting the props and DVDs into magician’s hands so that they would continue to be used and appreciated. And, it was just great to help Lee’s very sweet family.
Of course, I bought some magic too and put it right to work. I thought to myself, Lee’s legacy isn’t just television re-runs. I wanted to put one of his props to work right away to honor the magician he was. One of the items I bought was a gag bag. For you non-magicians that’s a bag, inside a bag, inside a bag, and every time you turn it inside out, it’s a different color. It’s a utility item that you might use in a kids show, and I did.
It became the opener to my new Mrs. Claus and the Magic of Christmas show a few weeks later. And once I had an opener, the rest fell into place. I find someone has left me a present and what could it be? (Turns out it was a magic snappy bag – the kids snap to make it reveal its magic – which produced 3 handkerchiefs for my next trick plus a note from Santa in the zippered compartment.)
Developing a children’s show (or any magic show for that matter) is a lot of work. I love original magic, developing new routines, and building magic props. I ended up doing a new mentalism effect in the Christmas Show. I found a stand-up wooden christmas tree shaped advent calendar at a Salvation Army and with a little work and several trips to Joanne’s Fabric and Lakeshore Learning (a teacher’s store) it became a device that shows how Santa Knows exactly what you would like for Christmas. Okay, I do have to research all of the new popular toys every year, but it killed when I did it in the show. (And it’s so fun hearing the kids talk about the toys they really like.)
So, thank you, Lee. I will long remember you for much more than all the great classic television you did. More than a cop, or a thug, or even a gorilla, you were a magician who supported your fellow performers with your kindness and enthusiasm.