Stars of the AVT # 28: Master Lee
This post is one of a series profiling the hundreds of performers I’ve presented through my American Vaudeville Theatre in celebration of its 15th anniversary. Don’t miss the American Vaudeville Theatre’s 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza in the New York International Fringe Festival this August!
I first became aware of “Master” William Lee when I was an NYU student in the early 90s. He was a legendary busker — he would stand in the middle of the fountain in Washington Square Park and hold hundreds of people in the palm of his hand doing a PERFECT vaudeville turn: hilarious jokes (mostly of a politically incorrect nature, revolving around his Chinese-American identity), combined with hair-raising side show and martial arts stunts. He was known as the “Kung Fu Comic“. He would break a thick wooden board with his head; karate chop a cinder block, and have some guy chop something (I forget what) in half with a sword while it rested on his stomach. Around that time, he was featured in the New York Times and I clipped out the story, hoping to book him one day. He also worked all the major comedy clubs and had spots on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Showtime at the Apollo. He started mixing with the alt comedy/ arts star scene at Surf Reality which is how I got to know him (and book him for my own show) in the late nineties/ early oughts.
As a booker, I especially prized him for his stunts — he was the only game in town for the sort of thing he did. Mixed with his skills as a comic, it was an extremely powerful combination. Over time though he did less and less of the martial arts stuff, concentrating more on the comedy. Occasionally, he would do a Native American character, making politically incorrect Indian jokes. This was the jag he was on when he played our Sept 11 vaudeville benefit at the Red Room in ’01.
Not long after this, he shifted gears again in a major way, launching Talkingstick a sort of open mic for storytellers using the ancient Native American device of the talking stick, which enables and empowers whoever hold it to tell the truth. After moving from venue to venue, Talkingstick got a foothold at the Rubin Museum of Art in 2006 and it has been there since. But lest you get the idea he’s lost his old irreverent spirit, you want to check out this recent Master Lee project:
To learn more about vaudeville past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.