By Paul Leighton
BEVERLY — Cesareo Pelaez, the charismatic Cuban who escaped his native country and created the world's longest-running stage magic show in a renovated Beverly theater, died Saturday of congestive heart failure. He was 79.
Pelaez suffered a stroke in 2005 and stopped performing his role of Marco the Magi in 2006. Since then, he would appear on stage at the end of each performance of Le Grand David and His Own Spectacular Company in his wheelchair, acknowledging the cheers with a wave of his hands. He made his last appearance Feb. 18 for the company's 35th anniversary show.
Pelaez began receiving hospice care at home in November. He was taken to the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers on Wednesday and died there Saturday at 3 a.m., according to David Bull, who plays Le Grand David in the show.
Bull said he received several messages from magicians pointing out that Saturday was Houdini's birthday. The magicians called the timing "Cesareo's final trick."
Pelaez and a group of friends started Le Grand David in 1977 after pooling their money to buy the Cabot Cinema, a 1920 vaudeville theater on Cabot Street, paying $110,000 in cash to owner E.M. Lowe.
The show featured classic magic tricks, such as a floating table and doves snatched out of the air, with the troupe performing in exotic handmade costumes amid the grand arches and ornate murals of the restored theater.
Over the years, the show drew national and international attention. The troupe performed at the White House seven times. Pelaez was named Magician of the Year by the Academy of Magic Arts in Hollywood, and the entire company performed at the awards banquet at the Beverly Hills Wilshire Hotel.
Pelaez, who also worked as a psychology professor at Salem State College for 25 years, oversaw the entire production, from the custom-made sets to ticket sales to the hot chocolate served in the balcony.
"It takes a genius to put on a show like that," said Raymond Goulet, who runs a magic museum and art studio in Watertown. "Very few people can do everything, but Cesareo could. I considered him a miracle man. There hasn't been a show in the history of magic that ran so long and had such a successful run."
With Pelaez's health declining, Le Grand David has been on hiatus since the 35th anniversary show last month. Bull said the show will resume April 15 with the first of six previously scheduled performances, but he is not sure if it will continue beyond that.
"That is really a question that needs to be answered," he said.
Pelaez was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, on Oct. 16, 1932. As a boy, he attended the traveling magic shows and music revues that came to town. In high school, he formed his own theatrical company, using a chicken coop as a stage, according to the 2007 book "There Will Be Wonderful Surprises" by Avrom Surath, one of Le Grand David's original cast members.
Pelaez won a scholarship to the University of Kansas and came to the United States for the first time in 1956. He returned to Cuba and got a government job with the Ministry of Education, organizing intelligence tests for public school students. The country was rising up against dictator Fulgencio Batista's oppressive regime, and Pelaez worked secretly with the local underground movement to defeat Batista's army, according to "Wonderful Surprises."
In 1959, Pelaez helped direct traffic as Fidel Castro and his men passed through Santa Clara on a triumphant march to Havana.
Pelaez remained in his government job but soon became fearful of persecution under Castro's Communist government. According to "Wonderful Surprises," Pelaez's best friend was shot to death while standing by his side.
After two failed attempts to escape the country by boat, Pelaez, disguised as a priest, gained admission to the Colombian embassy and was flown to Colombia.
Pelaez spent a year teaching psychology at the University of Bogota before coming to the United States to stay. He wrote to Abraham Maslow, the famed psychologist who was teaching at Brandeis University and whom Pelaez had studied in Cuba, and became his teaching assistant.
In 1968, Pelaez started a "growth center" in Dublin, N.H., a 95-acre retreat that featured daily tai chi classes and meditation seminars. When it closed after 18 months, Pelaez traveled to Europe and studied theater, the circus, puppetry and opera — "every conceivable form of entertainment," Bull said.
In 1972, Pelaez was hired as a psychology professor at Salem State. His teaching methods, which encouraged students to think for themselves, made his classes among the most popular on campus, said Patricia Markunas, chairwoman of the school's psychology department.
"He had a way of bringing out the best in people, of getting people in particular to explore their artistic and creative side," Markunas said. "He had the magician's air of mystery that made you want to know more about him."
While running and performing in his magic show and teaching at Salem State, Pelaez and his company bought another old Beverly theater four blocks away on Wallis Street and introduced a second show, "An Anthology of Stage Magic."
"He was just a whirling dervish of energy and creativity," Bull said. "Shows and designs just poured out of him."
Markunas credited the restoration of the two theaters with helping improve Beverly's economy and revive its downtown.
Bull said several prominent magicians, including Doug Henning, David Copperfield and Harry Blackstone Jr., visited Pelaez over the years and raved about his show.
"Henning said to us, 'You people are doing what I dream about, having your own theater, your own show,'" Bull said.
Bull said that Pelaez, who became an American citizen in 1967, loved his adopted country. His insisted that his corporation, White Horse Productions, remain a for-profit business because he did not want the government having a say in its operations.
"He saw what happened in Cuba where, with the stroke of a pen, Castro could nationalize businesses," Bull said.
Pelaez's sister and father eventually came to the United States from Cuba but have since passed away. Pelaez never married.
Bull said a prominent magician from England and several of Pelaez's Cuban friends from Florida will fly to Beverly to attend the services. The wake will be held Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. at Campbell Funeral Home, 9 Dane St. The funeral is scheduled for Saturday at 9 a.m. at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church on Cabot Street.