Lee Gelber, a Bronx-born urban sherpa known for his drollery and definitude and celebrated by his peers as the dean of New York City tour guides, died on Sunday in Schenectady, N.Y. He was 81.
His daughter, Janet Gelber, said the cause was complications of several strokes.
Distinguished by a woolly ear-to-ear mustache that a walrus would envy, Mr. Gelber mentored a generation of future colleagues and conducted sightseeing tours both for tourists unacquainted with New York and for others savoring unfamiliar venues, like gospel choirs in Harlem or enduring remnants of Dutch New Amsterdam.
From 1993 until he retired in 2018, he narrated a cityscape that evolved from the mean streets of a record murder rate through the 2001 terrorist attack and the 2008 recession into what has been categorized, for better or worse, as another Gilded Age.
He also survived the advent of audio tours, which replaced human guides on some sightseeing buses and walking tours, and the profusion of digital apps on personal phones and other devices.
“His eyes would twinkle when he shared some particularly obscure or salacious tidbit of New York City trivia,” said Michael Miscione, a Manhattan borough historian and a former tour guide himself.
Guides like Mr. Gerber “are great storytellers, not just knowers of facts,” Mr. Miscione said. “They make connections between places, objects, events and historical figures to tell those stories. And they do it with passion and humor.”
Unlike some curbstone tour guides, Mr. Gelber was a stickler for the dates, names and places he invoked in describing the city’s 400-year recorded history — from the stand on West 55th Street that inspired the “Soup Nazi” episode of “Seinfeld,” to the sites of the Civil War draft riots in 1863, and to the Hearst Building on Eighth Avenue, where Good Housekeeping tests its recipes.
Teaching for Gray Line and for the Guides Association of New York City (a certification course), he kept prospective guides up-to-date, adding answers to potential sightseer questions like “What does DK in DKNY stand for?” (The designer Donna Karan, as most stylish New Yorkers would know.)
And he took tourists to boroughs outside Manhattan as well — to the Bronx, for instance, where he was from.
Lee Peter Gelber was born on Feb. 8, 1938, to Max and Rebecca (Spiegel) Gelber. His father managed a sporting goods store, and his mother was a secretary.
He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and from Queens College, where he majored in history. He then joined the Army Reserves in 1961 and served as a truck dispatcher.
His marriage to Roberta Lazarus in 1965 ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, Joshua, of Schenectady, where Mr. Gelber had moved last year; a sister, Lenore Cahn; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Gelber worked as a toy buyer for Macy’s and Gimbels, then as a sales representative for several toy and game manufacturers, promoting big winners like Mastermind, Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit. (He was a winner himself, collecting about $5,000 as a semifinalist in a senior tournament on “Jeopardy!” in 1993.)
He could instinctively predict which games would be passing fads and which would become recreational fixtures. Among the proposed games he rejected was one about a presidential campaign.
“People want to have fun,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1992. “It’s like an accountant developing an income tax game, or a dentist creating something called ‘Root Canal.’”
When the toy business slumped, he volunteered for the free visitor service Big Apple Greeter. At a friend’s suggestion, he then shifted from marketing toys to touting the city. Mr. Gelber said his second career had finally allowed him to put both his history degree and his training as a truck dispatcher to use.
He was certified by the Guides Association in 1993 and worked for Apple Tours and City Sights. He also began the double-decker sightseeing routes for Gray Line New York Tours, where he was manager for tour sales and services. Eventually he ran his own company, which he named Here Is New York Tours, in homage to E.B. White’s classic 1949 ode to the city.
In 1997, The New York Times described him as “dean” of the guides at Gray Line, the city’s biggest licensed bus tour company.
From 2007 to 2009, Mr. Gelber was a co-president of the Guides Association, which in 2016 honored him as the inaugural recipient of its Guiding Spirit Award. It has since been renamed the Lee Gelber Guiding Spirit Award.
“He was unfailingly generous with his knowledge, his experience, his stories and his jokes,” said Emma T.K. Guest-Consales, president of the Guides Association. “He knew our city better than anyone else, and made it his goal for everyone else to know it, too.”
When he received the Guiding Spirit Award, he confided to well-wishers that, thinking ahead, he had already chosen a musical eulogy for himself — the last stanza of Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York”:
And when I have to give the world a last farewell
And the undertaker starts to ring my funeral bell
I don’t want to go to heaven, don’t want to go to hell
I happen to like New York.
His daughter said that song would be played at his funeral on Friday.
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