Berri Lee: the boy wonder from Down Under.
As Ricky Jay walked down the staircase at the Magic Castle a small group of us took aim and scaled cards at him. Ricky’s book ‘Cards as Weapons’ had just been published and we thought it was a friendly thing to do. Due to a total lack of ability in the card-scaling department we didn’t throw single cards but entire decks of Magic Castle playing cards. Ricky spotted what was happening and very sensibly turned on his heels and went back up the staircase. This was a fairly typical Berri Lee style prank. Our little group of card throwers piled into Berri’s Rolls Royce and drove to the Pink’s hot dog stand at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and La Brea for a late night snack.
When I arrived on the scene at the Castle in 1974, Berri Lee was already a legend. He had one of those movie ‘rise to fame’ stories that don’t seem to happen much outside of the movies.
Born in Australia, Berri moved to Los Angeles and got a job at the Castle, not as a magician but as one of the parking valets. Needless to say the constant exposure to magicians rubbed off on him and it became inevitable that he would want to try his hand at performing. In those early days there was no ‘Palace of Mysteries” in fact there wasn’t even a downstairs to put the Palace into. That was never the kind of minor detail that would stop those early Castle pioneers so they just went right ahead and created the ‘Hat & Hare’ pub and the original ‘Palace of Mysteries.” Once the Palace was constructed Berri had a place to perform and his Cinderella story began.
One evening Cary Grant caught Lee’s show and really enjoyed it, he told Berri that he would see if he could help him out a little by talking to some of his friends. Being Cary Grant he had some heavy-duty friends and Howard Hughes was one of them; Las Vegas was suddenly an open book for the lucky Mr. Lee. Within a very short time Berri was one of the busiest men in Vegas and performing several times a night at a string of casinos. Before you could make a balloon animal (even a non-suggestive one!) Berri was a not only a busy comedy magician but a very wealthy one. When I first met him he had two Rolls Royce’s, private plane and a boat docked in Marina Del Rey. It never seemed to change him much though and he remained the shy extrovert that he always was. He performed on the ‘Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and a host of other television shows and created a special place for himself in the magic world. Berri remains one of the sweetest people in showbiz, always generous and ready to offer his help to anyone who needs it.
Las Vegas has changed and since that change there wasn’t the same kind of work anymore and this year Berri left Las Vegas and moved to Florida. To many of us it seems impossible to imagine Vegas without him there. (However, as I reprint this column—once again I realize how times are changing. Berri is now living in Florida!) However who knows, with a bit of luck we will meet up with him again in the Sunshine state and I know we will pick up our friendship exactly where we left off. Sadly there is only one Pink’s hot dog stand and that’s in Los Angeles but I’m sure we will find a way to get into trouble even if we don’t have Ricky Jay for target practice.