Leonard Greenfader (February 24, 1919-May 24, 2009) who died at the age of 90 was affectionately known as Lenny and was one of the most influential magicians in New York City during the second half of the twentieth century.
His influence was in helping create a community of magicians who supported the local magic clubs, were made to feel welcome and eventually became an integral part of the societies.
Over the past ten years when he became less active due to age, health and personal problems the local magic clubs have become mere shadows of what they once were, with memberships dropping to fractions of what they were at their peak.
This Lenny Greenfader tribute is less about his life and career but how he helped in my own evolution as a magician and how he was instrumental in sculpting my magic and performing style. Lenny was the first major influence I had in magic and was directly responsible for me developing my performing style and having the courage to perform for strangers.
I first met Lenny in the 1970s when I started to hang out with the magicians in New York City. I was only a teenager at the time and had begun to experiment with sleight of hand with cards and coins. We hit it off pretty quickly because I was a listener and was respectful to the elderly magicians who knew much more than I did. Lenny would later remember that he liked me right away because I was polite. But in retrospect I think it was because I thought he was hysterical. He had a very sharp wit and was very sarcastic. He was also always prepared with some new jokes and I was a great audience to that type of humor and timing. I just realized that when I met him he was actually younger than I am today — does that make me an old fart?
Being part of the Lenny entourage was an amazing experience which lasted more than ten years. Although there were many magicians that came and went from the group, I was one of the regulars for more than a decade. Others who often joined us were Bill Morales, Oscar and Barbara Weigel, Vinnie Sabatino, Peter Marshall, and a few others who would sporadically join us like Russell Barnhardt, Bill Nord, Ed Levy, Rene Clement, and others. Along for the ride would often include visiting magicians who happened to be in town.
So what would go on at these weekly magic pilgrimages? They would start on Friday evening at an S.A.M. or an I.B.M. meeting. The NYC meetings were arranged so that each Friday of the month had an event scheduled: SAM meeting, IBM Lab, SAM Workshop and IBM Meeting. The exception was when a month would have five Fridays and even then Lenny would arrange a dinner or an informal get together.
Lenny was a very active participant at all club events, at that time he ran the IBM Labs and SAM workshops and was chairman of the admission committees of both clubs. The meetings, which were more of a social gathering with a closing show thrown in would mostly be a place to catch up on the week’s events, discuss the latest news and gossip about magic and the latest routines that are being advertised in the magazines. The meetings would be held in Hotels and many of us would take the opportunity to hang out in the bar and do magic for each other and the laypeople until the political wing of the club would complete their board and business meetings.
After the meeting a core group of us would follow Lenny to the Stage Deli where we had a late dinner, kid around and do magic for the patrons. The restaurant would usually appreciate this and would give us breaks on the food, sell us half sandwiches and give us some free stuff on occasion. The group that attended these gatherings would vary depending on whether it was an IBM or an SAM event and would rarely, except for Bill Morales, include the magicians mentioned earlier.
The dinner would break up a little after midnight and we would go on our separate ways in anticipation of the following day’s events. Saturdays were magical days in NYC where magicians have met for close to a century. For many the day would start at Tannen’s Magic shop around noon where tons of magicians used to go and spend money, show stuff around and just be magicians. You would often see Harry Lorayne, Frank Garcia, David Roth, Ken Krenzel, and many other local stars demonstrating their latest creations or arguing about obscure techniques, credits and effects.
Lenny however was not part of the Tannen group during the time I met him, he often slept till noon and would join us later. Tannen’s closed at 3pm and that is when a subset of the group would walk to the “Cafeteria” where all the action occurred. The Cafeteria was very informal and often broke up into groups who had similar interests. On average there would be between 30-50 magicians. The small groups would usually be headed by a single magician who would be holding court with his friends and fans. You would typically see David Roth, Harry Lorayne, Darwin Ortiz, Gene Maze, Sol Stone, Murray Celwit, and occasionally Frank Garcia and Slydini all with their own table. But when Lenny would show up the atmosphere would liven up. He would come in, say hello to everyone and heckle them along the way, basically a walk-around heckler instead of a magician. He would then sit down with one of the groups usually the Celwit group and slowly people from the other tables would peel away and see what he is up to and pretty soon his group would begin to expand to multiple tables as magicians would start pulling their chairs over.
Lenny loved to do magic for people and magicians really enjoyed watching him perform. They would actually bring their friends and family to the cafeteria so Lenny would do magic for them. Even back then there were many magicians who preferred to talk about magic than actually perform it — Lenny was the performer type and would often push me into doing the same. After he would do some stuff he would often come up with some sick introduction and force me to do magic — he would even tell me what to do for them. Lenny was not a creative magician but was a highly skilled sleight of hand artist who did everything exceptionally well and was very natural and entertaining. His repertoire would often change depending on what he was working on but there was one sleight that he did better than anyone I have ever seen. It was a tabled false cut which he could do countless times for you and you would swear that he cut the cards but in actuality all he did was cut off the top part of the deck and replace it.
As a close-up performer, especially of the intimate variety which is now called “Street Magic” Lenny was outstanding. His combination of contagious humor, timing, sarcasm and a natural talent to engage people in conversation made the already great magic even more fun, entertaining and memorable.
At around 6-7pm when it started to get dark and many magicians have already gone back to their families, Lenny and his friends would then go for dinner, usually at Reggie’s Chinese restaurant (although their was a Hungarian restaurant we went to on occasion and at times went to one of Peter Wong’s restaurants).
After dinner we often went to an Italian pastry shop for some deserts, coffee and more magic. Although most of the magic would be us just doing stuff for the patrons. We would say our good buys around midnight or one in the morning and depending on who joined us that day Lenny would either drive me to a convenient subway station or I would be given a ride home by the Weigles or Bill Morales.
Magicians like Lenny rarely exist anymore. He dedicated his life to the organizations and was a main recruiter. I am often asked why magic clubs are dying out and it is because the Lennys of the world are leaving us and nobody is able to step up and take their place. Lenny would befriend the people who had a sincere interest in magic, he would invite them to the SAM or IBM meetings as his guests, he would introduce them to his friends and continuously show them magic and get other magicians to show them stuff. When they were ready he would force them to repeatedly show their magic to laypeople and other magicians, he would invite them to the after meeting dinners and eventually tell them they should join the club. By then they already felt like part of the group and since the chairman of the admission’s committee invited them they had no fear of being rejected or embarrassed.
Although Lenny was a practical joker and liked to push people to the edge, he could tell if someone was going to pass the admissions exam the moment they introduced themselves and if he thought they were good and could take it he would make the interview a living hell for them. He would ask them questions they could not possibly know the answers to, when they would put objects in his hands he would lap them to see their reaction when they disappeared, he would take the props out of their hands and show them the right way to do the trick and basically crush them. Of course he would privately apologize at the end and tell them they passed — or keep them in suspense until the swearing in ceremony. Although to his credit, I am not aware of too many people who he actually failed. On occasion the magician would be terrible and he would take them to the side and explain that he is going to ignore what he saw, give them a few tips and ask them to come back in a few months and try again, maybe even invite them to the cafeteria.
What did I learn from Lenny? Lenny was an old school magician. He hated to tip the real work. Even when you asked him how something works he would only give you half truths, incomplete information or change the subject by performing other routines. Although I do a few of the routines he often performed he would teach them indirectly. He would make sure you watched him perform it many times for different people and always wink at you when he was doing it as if to say I know you are trying to figure this out. Once you showed him what you put together though he would give you tips on improving it.
But magic is not what I learned from Lenny. I believe that my performing style and preferred presentations are a direct result of hanging out with him all those years and watching him perform for laypeople thousands of times. He was sarcastic, irreverent, funny, and had immaculate comedic timing. Mixed in with a devilish smile and self-deprecating humor the audiences would always like him and remember him for years to come. As a matter of fact the restaurants we hung out at would often get repeat customers who came with their friends on Saturday nights just to have fun with Lenny. That flippant performing style is present in everyone of my shows and it is all thanks to Lenny.
After life got in the way I stopped hanging with the gang but Lenny continued with the same routine for many years to come, befriending and influencing another generation of magicians. We would often speak on the phone, although it was impossible to get him off the phone once he started to talk and we saw less and less of each other as his health deteriorated. The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago when he visited me at my warehouse and was shocked, and at the same time proud, of how the business has grown since he first met me as a kid. His timing and humor was still there but the magic was gone. I spent a lot of time trying to teach him to do a diminishing count which he originally taught me and now he could not remember ever doing it and was not going to be able to relearn it.A one of a kind character that is gone forever!