Robert Albo lives a life as complex as one of the Great Okito's nests of boxes. He's the team doctor of the Golden State Warriors, on hand for all home games. He's a surgical consultant for the Los Angeles Raiders, and he flies wherever they play. He's also a respected vascular and general surgeon, a prestidigitator, the curator of the world's largest collection of antique magic and the author and illustrator of the eight-volume Classic Magic with Apparatus, considered the definitive reference work on magic equipment.
At 60, Albo knows every trick in the books. His large, nimble hands can pluck Ping-Pong balls out of the air or make sponges spring from his pocket with a dexterity that would dazzle a three-card-monte dealer. His has been a name to conjure with for more than half a century. On his seventh birthday young Bob was given a Gilbert Mysto magic kit. Four years later he was taken to see his first magician, the matchless Dante, at a San Francisco theater. Inspired by Dante's Inferno routine, he built props out of old apple crates and performed as the Great Alboni. At Berkeley High he billed himself as the Oriental mystifier, Fu Ling U.
He brought his act to Cal, where he was captain of the basketball and baseball teams. A 6'4" forward, he helped the Bears win the Pacific Coast Conference title in 1953. A year later he was offered a $25,000 contract to play pro baseball for the New York Giants. Instead he chose medical school and married Marjorie Stanley, whose father had won a Nobel Prize for proving the existence of viruses. Eventually Albo merged his medical practice with sports, establishing relationships with every pro franchise in the Bay Area by acting as a medical consultant or team physician.
Albo began amassing his trove of magic artifacts in the 1940s. The top floor of his home in Piedmont, Calif., is crammed with every imaginable—and unimaginable—magic gizmo. More than 7,000 objects fight for space in closets, on shelves, in ornate glass-fronted cabinets. One room contains the prized collection of Theo Bamberg, a fin de siècle Merlin who performed in Oriental disguise under the name Okito. The word bamboozle, coined in the early 1700s by Theo's great-great-great grandfather, Eliazer Bamberg, Albo tells you, is another great Bamberg legacy.
March 22, 1993
He expounds at length on how Houdini escaped after being lowered headfirst into a "Chinese torture cabinet." He expounds at even greater length on the almost certainly ruptured appendix that killed Houdini after he was slugged accidentally by an overzealous fan. "He died of peritonitis," Albo says. "A perforated viscus, interabdominal infection, a classic case of...."
Poking around in other rooms, Albo shows you collapsible daggers, change bags, telepathic card predictors, spirit bells, gimmick boxes with multiple lids and hidden drawers, scarves that flutter away to reveal floral bouquets, guillotines that pass through necks without severing heads, vases that erupt with silk flags after being filled with coffee.
The world's great magicians smile their slightly deceptive smiles from posters on the walls. Their dark visages are interspersed with Albo's own minutely detailed pen-and-ink drawings—a skill he honed one summer as a cartoonist at Disney Studios. "I worked on Peter Pan," he says serenely. "I can still draw Tinkerbell from memory." And he does.
The only time Albo ever seems to lose his cool is when he's sitting courtside at the Coliseum Arena. Bad calls make him tense and animated. He punctuates his jeers with slashing gestures and groans. Albo's courtside manner once prompted a referee to shout back, "At least my bad calls live!"
On this particular night the calls were good. Grinning as beatifically as a mentalist communing with the great beyond, Albo ambles into the Warriors' locker room. He pulls up a chair beside forward Chris Mullin and launches into an artful spiel. Albo extends a fanned deck to Mullin and asks him to pick a card, any card. Mullin pulls out the nine of diamonds. Concealing its identity, Mullin tears off one corner, initials the card and returns it to the deck.
Suddenly an orange appears in Albo's hands and then, just as suddenly, a knife. He slices into the orange. Sim-Sala-Bim! In its center, tightly rolled, is the marked card. Mullin whips his head in disbelief. "The man's a magician!" he says.