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Fixing vintage magic tricks

Four white doves share a cage in the Amazing Lembo's workshop, constantly cooing and making a noise that sounds like laughter. "Mating call,'' says Lembo, who most often goes by Paul. He once had 20 doves that flew from top hats and handkerchiefs, but even a magician can't make things live forever. "The last four are retired," he says, "like me."

He's a 76-year-old cancer survivor, but hardly what you would consider retired. Mail trucks regularly deliver broken magic tricks to his house in the Golden Acres community near New Port Richey and Lembo fixes them. He's rarely stumped and maintains the same patience and ingenuity that years ago earned him a place on the team to land astronauts on the moon.

Last week he accepted a much different mission. He opened a package from a collector in Sarasota and pulled out a small black plastic box with wires hanging every which way. Its inventor gave it a name: "Compu-psycho Galvanometer.''

Lembo, who built a wing onto his workshop for an extensive research library, determined it originated about 1950 as a "magic'' polygraph machine with needles pointing to "truth'' or "lie."

Until Lembo can send it back, the Compu-psycho Galvanometer will rest among hundreds of other artifacts in a workshop that is larger than his house. A levitation table sits near a trunk that belonged to the legendary magician Jack Gwynne. An antique basket holds a mechanical snake that rises with a card in its mouth when you play a flute.

Lembo included some items in his own act over the years, mainly to raise money for charities. His "box in a box,'' for instance, seems empty but somehow can hide Uncle Sam in red, white and blue until the trick's finale when he pops out among a sea of flags holding Old Glory.

Lembo, as is the code of all magicians, doesn't reveal how the tricks work. "If I told you,'' he said, "I'd have to kill you.''

His late wife, Rose, wouldn't let him include a bathroom when he built the addition years ago. "She said she'd never see me if I did," he mused, "and she was probably right. I get into these projects and disappear.''

Lembo belongs to a select group of magic historians who collect, restore and reproduce vintage tricks. "There's only five, and I'm the youngest,'' he boasts. They gather each year for a convention that attracts more than 200 collectors from around the world. The next one is scheduled for June in Cincinnati, and Lembo has been invited to lecture.

"He's a unique man,'' offered Mike Richman, CEO at Amplimmune, a bio-medical research company in Gaithersburg, Md. "He's a problem solver who believes if a man built it, a man can repair it. If the parts no longer exist, he has the tools and the ability to make more."

Richman, a collector with a similar appreciation for illusion and magic history, is working on Lembo's biography. It's a rich story, one with roots in a New York City magic shop, Martinka & Co., which dates to 1877 and briefly had as its owner the most famous of all magicians, Harry Houdini.

During his sophomore year in high school, Lembo saw a movie about Houdini starring Tony Curtis. "I was hooked,'' he said.

Lembo earned $1 a day working for his father, a house painter, and saved up to buy tricks at Martinka. He met famous magicians and earned the favor of store owner Al Flosso, who taught him magic and encouraged him to spend his money on books. "They hold the secrets,'' his mentor would say.

Lembo joined the Navy after high school and learned skills that later helped him land a job as a riveter at Grumman Aircraft in Bethpage, N.Y. He impressed supervisors and advanced to a job coordinating engineers and machinists on the Apollo project in 1964. He stood in the lunar modules. He met the astronauts. And in the summers, he drove after work to the Catskills to perform his magic act as the Amazing Lembo.

Lembo spent 16 years at Grumman, advancing to deputy plant manager. But he didn't have a college degree, so his chances of further promotion were slim. "I'm not an engineer,'' he said. "I stink at algebra and physics. I'm a practical person. I figure things out. It just comes to me.''

In 1972, he and Rose sold everything, packed up their 10-year-old daughter, Corinne, and moved to New Port Richey, where Lembo took a job as a carpenter for a small construction company in Clearwater. U.S. Home later bought it and sent Lembo to Houston where he eventually started his own construction company. In 1987, he moved his business back to Florida.

Lembo joined the Rotary Club of New Port Richey and began using his magic act to raise money for charities such as the Sertoma Speech and Hearing Foundation, Boy Scouts, the American Cancer Society and the Boys and Girls Club, where Rose worked and he served on the board of directors. The club created a "Miss Rose Room'' after she died in 2010 from pulmonary fibrosis. She and Paul had been married 51 years.

Shortly after Rose's death, he was diagnosed with sarcoma, and though the cancer has been arrested, he suffers from some effects of surgery. His movement is restricted but he manages to get into his workshop daily.

"It always makes me feel better when I'm around the magic and the books,'' he said.

He hasn't performed in seven years, though his trailer is full of props and costumes if the opportunity should arise. "I'd love to,'' he said. "I plan to.''

Meantime, there's this little black box with a funny name to fix.

Fixing vintage magic tricks 01/17/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 17, 2014 6:34pm]
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