Willie Yee has gotten praise from his teachers for how good he’s become at stage magic, but it’s the members of his audience whose reactions matter most to him. That’s because he learned the art to bring it where no magician has gone before: into the heart of Red Cross relief operations.
Yee, a psychiatrist for decades, volunteers to provide mental health services in Red Cross relief shelters. People can be displaced from their homes for reasons ranging from approaching hurricanes to gas leaks, and Red Cross volunteers help them through that time. The stress of these situations make Yee and other mental-health workers a valuable asset, but he realized not everyone was ready to take advantage. “No one wants to talk to a psychiatrist,” he said. A magician, however, could address another important issue, that they are all “bored and miserable.”
With a deck of cards and a small tin full of office supplies, Yee is able to break the tedium with his practiced patter. His kit is small and replaceable because that suits the environments in which he uses it; the routine reinforces a theme of hope and allows him to check in with shelter occupants, and ply his vocation along with his avocation. In his pockets he can carry what he needs for a half an hour or more of entertainment.
Dr. Yee is also known for looking to the sky; he’s been interviewed about the Mid-Hudson Astronomy Club, as well as his Toyota Prius, the one that’s painted like a Star Trek shuttle craft. It was through his interest in that science fiction franchise that Yee found his first teacher, Terry Morgan, on the set of Star Trek: New Voyages, a fan-produced series filmed in Ticonderoga. Morgan was in turn taught by Walter B. Gibson, author of many books on magic including several about his own mentor, Harry Houdini. In essence, Yee was receiving wisdom handed down from Houdini himself.
While he came to magic with the best of intentions, Yee spent some months testing those assumptions. A regular attendee at the New Paltz Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, he wanted to understand how an art based on deception fit in with the Quaker teaching of being honest in all things. “In the end, I decided there are two reasons to learn magic: to entertain, or to lie, cheat and steal.” It was not a difficult choice to make for the doctor who wants to help people heal.
Yee’s teacher labeled his fellow Trekker his “fastest-learning student,” and was “extra generous with his time,” never even charging him. Recognizing a natural, Morgan encouraged Yee to attend McBride’s Magic & Mystery School, which Yee called a “premiere school” for this art. Over a week in Las Vegas, he learned to think less about the tricks than about creating a sense of wonder; he called it a “life-changing experience.” This was a master’s class in magic, with a team of instructors dissecting every performance, helping him to work on the timing, the wording and minute details down to foot placement and gaze direction.
This new knowledge isn’t just going to delight those unfortunates Yee encounters when he volunteers, though: he’s pioneering a movement in “shelter magic.” Magicians are sometimes among entertainers who often perform at shelters, he explained, but none of them are Red Cross volunteers, who are highly vetted and trained to ensure they’re able to help people during the worst time of their lives. His fellow volunteers have always been interested in his hobby, and now Yee teaches a class in the basics of magic, and the adaptations he’s made to his routine to suit the minimalist needs of doing it in a shelter. (“You can’t bring a box to saw a lady in half,” he quipped.) As he synthesizes what he learned in Las Vegas, he’ll be raising the level of his own teaching.
While “giving people an experience other than misery” was the impetus for Yee to learn magic, he’s found audiences in other parts of his life as well. Members of the astronomy club usually get a show during their holiday party, and he was due to perform a Star Trek-specific show at a convention this past weekend. “Creativity happens when two things in life cross,” he said; how Willie Yee lives that credo is perhaps the greatest magic of all.