Douglas James Henning was born on May 3, 1947 in the Winnipeg suburb of Fort Gary, Manitoba to father Clarke Henning (an air line pilot for Air Canada) and mother Shirley Jean Henning (nee Rutherford.)
At six years old, he watched Richiardi Jr on the Ed Sullivan Show float a young lady in mid-air. When he asked his mother how it's done, she told him, "That's magic!" Doug was hooked. He soon finds his way to the local library where he finds the usual library books on magic. An industrious Doug then makes his props from cardboard, tin cans, and construction paper; he then talks his parents into buying a magic kit.
Doug once asked his father to scratch an identifying mark on a coin, which Doug wrapped in a handkerchief and made disappear. Then he reached around to his rear pocket to produce a tiny box, which he asked his father to open. Inside was a tinier box, and in that a little cloth bag, within which he found his own marked coin. "That was the first time I had ever given anybody wonder! It was a marvelous feeling." His mother then encouraged a shy Doug to perform for his two sisters; Nancy and Carol, hoping it would draw him out. "I was so shy," he recalled, "When company came I used to hide in the clothes hamper." In 1956 Doug’s father received a promotion and the family moved to Oakville, Ontario.
His father built him a magic table and in 1961, at age 14, Doug performed his first paid show at a friend's birthday party for the princely sum of $5. Soon after he had "The Great Hendoo" business cards printed and places an ad in the local paper: "Magician, Have Rabbit, Will Travel." From then on he was busy performing two to three shows per week for $15 a show.
At age 16 Doug began performing magic in local TV shows and started to attend meetings of Toronto's famed Hat & Rabbit Club. He also attended Abbott's Get-Together and Wisconsin's Houdini Club Conventions.
In the January, 1965 issue of The Zombie (magazine), the youth-magicians section of the Hade-E-Gram, Micky Hades wrote: "With this issue of the Hade-E-Gram Doug Henning takes over as editor of the young magicians section." He would continue to edit this for one year.
UniversityDuring this time Doug also performed at a High school-assembly show and was promoted with a publicity shot of Doug levitating his younger sister Nancy.
In 1967 Doug Enrolled at McMaster University in Hamilton with plans to get a degree in physiological psychology with intentions to continue studies at medical school. While at school he studied the psychology of perception, which helped him to understand the power of suggestion and attention manipulation in creating his illusions. "My thesis was on Hypnotism." Henning told MacLean’s Magazine in the December 1974 edition.
Doug also studied acting, mime, and dance. "The real magic is in the presentation of your illusions. Every thing you say and every movement you make count toward making your audience believe in your magic."
To support himself Doug performed in restaurants and nightclubs. Doug is able to books his show "Magic-A-Go-Go," in Barbados during spring break, then in the Yorkville coffee houses of Toronto. He also opened for such rock bands as Lighthouse and Breathless.
"During College, I was making as much as $5,000 a year," Doug would later tell a New York Times reporter. "In addition to night clubs, I did Rotary Club stuff in a tuxedo. You know, they'd have a belly dancer, a bad pianist, a terrible comedian - and me." He also performed in a strip joint. "I was real innocent and had never seen a naked woman."
“At first, when I was in college, being a magician was not the classiest thing to be. It was like being a folk singer before Bob Dylan came around and people thought you only did Old English folk songs. Everyone thought a magician worked only children’s birthday parties – I’ve done that, too – and nightclubs were afraid to book me too.”
This would be a good place to note that during this time Doug would perform with short hair and clean-shaven. He would wear a sport coat and bow tie, or a crisp Nehru jacket. He didn't switch to his tradition bell-bottoms and long hair until later
In 1968 Doug begins performing with new assistant Mars, who he met in University. As well, it was during this time that his father died in a plane crash.
During a semester break, Henning and Mars are booked for the 7th anniversary week of the Magic Castle. In 1970 Doug graduated with a B.Sc. in Honors Psychology. After graduation Doug was speaking with Dr. Roy Pritchard, a psychology professor who he frequently discussed the related mysteries of human perception and magical illusion. The professor posed a provocative question. "Why do you want to be a doctor? There are already tons of good doctors, but where are the magicians?"
With this in mind, Doug decided to "Give magic a whirl" for two years before going into medicine.
In 1971 Doug received an invitation from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to perform Christmas shows for troops stationed "400 miles from the North Pole."
"At one point on the tour, they asked if I would like to do a show for a group of Inuit's [Eskimos]. … I set up me show in a little building, and the Inuit's came in to watch. They sat on the floor in their parkas, and I did what I thought was some pretty good stuff. They just sat there, didn't smile, didn't say a word and, at the end, nobody applauded. But they were completely focused on me, like I was some sort of phenomenon. Only one of them spoke English, so I asked him, "Did you like the show?"
"Yes, we like the show," He said.
Then I asked, "Did everyone like the magic?"
He said, "The magic?"
I explained that I was trying to entertain people.
He said, "Entertainment is good, but why are you doing magic? The whole world is magical…" We sat down on the floor and he told me "It's magic that the snow falls, all those little crystals are completely different… that's magic."
Now I was gasping, trying to explain magic to him. I thought of my "Zombie," which I thought was my best thing. I said, "I made that beautiful silver ball float in the air… That's magic."
"Then the Inuit's started talking among themselves. The man came to me with a big smile on his face, and said, "Now, we know why you're doing that. It's because your people have forgotten the magic. You're doing it to remind them of magic. Well done!""
"I cried right then… I said, "Thank you for teaching me about the magic. I didn't know." That was really the first time I knew what wonder was. It was the most memorable thing that has ever happened to me. I never forgot that, inside. That's why I became a magician.""
Doug returned home and abandoned plans for medical school.
The Henning Formula
THE HENNING FORMULA: Magic + Theatre = Art.
With this thesis, Doug applied for a Canadian Council of the Arts Grant, governmental funding traditionally awarded to musicians, singers, dancers, painters, and playwrights. Upon receiving a rejection letter stating "Magic is not a fine art," He traveled to Montreal, where he performed, thus convincing a skeptical panel of the Canadian Council of the Arts to grant him $4,000 plus travel expenses to pursue the study of magic as an art.In 1971, the 24-year-old college "dropout" studied dance with Lenny Gibson in Toronto and pantomime with Adrian Pecknold, director of the Canadian Mime Theatre Company. He became more graceful, using his hands more theatrically. He then traveled to Europe then to New York to learn sleight of hand from Tony Slydini "The Master of Misdirection," who taught Doug maneuvers for diverting audience attention..
He then attended the PCAM (Pacific Coast Association of Magicians) convention in Vancouver. By now he had grown his hair and was starting to dress in the style that he would soon become famous for. As Hermetic Press owner and magical author Stephen Minch described it in Genii, March 1997, "When I got to Vancouver the only other long hair at this convention was Doug … He was traveling from Toronto through Vancouver for this convention, then down to L.A. to spend some time with Dai Vernon … The second day of the convention, one of Doug's lungs collapsed, and he had to be hospitalized."
The lung collapse was the result of a congenital ailment. In three months he underwent 13 unsuccessful attempts to permanently reinflate his lungs. He lost 35 pounds, became addicted to morphine, the painkiller he was given, and came to realize "there was a chance I was going to die." Then a 14th try succeeded. "It's the greatest miracle that I am alive."
"… I went to Hollywood, where Dai lives … and he agreed to take me on as a student. So I spent three months with him. I was the first Pupil he ever had. We watched films, really old films, of Blackstone and Kellar and people like that. And we talked about magic, and we did magic together. And with him I developed my own style of magic. You know, what we talked about. Magic."
After Henning completed his apprenticeship with The Professor, in his March 1972 column in Genii, The Conjurors' Magazine wrote: "I predict that if he keeps up with his present schedule of study and dedication, Doug Henning will be a great success in magic, and he will help magic itself consequently."
Impressed with the success of the rock musical Hair, Doug convinced college friend Ivan Reitman (Who would also go on to great success as a movie producer & director) to co-produce a "rock concert of illusion" to be called Spellbound. After eight months of rehearsal, a last-minute show cancellation allows them to open at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, owned by flamboyant merchandiser Ed Mirvish.
Even with bad reviews, audiences love Doug, and the two-week run broke all box-office records for the theatre, including Hair and Godspell.
New York producers Edgar Lansbury (Brother of Angela Lansbury and producer of Broadway hit Gypsy) and Joe Beruh (also producer of Gypsy) came to Toronto to see the show, and negotiations begin for a Broadway production.
The Magic Show
With a new book written by Bob Randall, and with new music by Stephen Schwartz (who wrote the music for the popular Broadway show Pippen) and directed and choreographed by Grover Dale (Who was married to Anita Morris, the actress who played Charmin in the show.) Henning stars in the Broadway muscial The Magic Show
There was one major problem with writing the show, Doug couldn't sing. To make up for it they wove the plot so that it was the other cast members who presented the musical side of the show, so Doug only had to worry about the magic.
After twelve days of previews, on May 28, 1974 The Magic Show opened at the Cort Theatre in New York City.
The show becomes a four-an-a-half-year Broadway fixture for theatergoers, running either 1,859 or 1920 performances. (Depending on which source you use.)
The Tonight Show
On December 25, 1974 Doug made his first appearance on The Tonight Show, with guest host John Davidson. Doug was the last of four guests (which included Robert Goulet and Barbera Eden) and he performed an illusion, talked about his upcoming special, Houdini and did some card tricks for "the panel."
Magic on T.V.
As well, after eight months of design and rehearsal, Doug Henning's World of Magic aired live on Friday, December 26, 1975, on NBC with special guest Bill Cosby. Produced by famed talk show host David Suskind and sponsored by Mobil, the show ran live without commercials and began with an introduction by Gene Kelly. Then they showed a close up on Doug's hands manipulating a nickel, then a jukebox production of Bill Cosby. He introduced a number of novel (for the time) illusions, including a version of De Kolta's Vanishing Lady (with special musical guest Lori Liberman) and concluded with an up-tempo version of Houdini's Water Torture EscapeThe special was the top rated show for the evening, with a reported 50 million viewers, making it the highest-rated magic special of all time. The show also won the Christopher Award for outstanding achievement. In this one-hour show more people saw Doug Henning's magic than saw Houdini during his entire lifetime. Overnight, people all over the U.S. and Canada knew Doug's name and face.
In 1976 Doug left The Magic Show for two months and, with the latest from his TV special and the best of the Broadway show, toured colleges with his lecture/demonstration Illusion & Reality.
Magic's new superstar finally left The Magic Show and, in October, moved to Los Angeles to begin work on a second special and on special paraphernalia for the soul group Earth, Wind & Fire. In December, Doug Henning's World of Magic II aired, again live and with only two commercial breaks, on NBC. The theme for this show was "Fire, water and air" and is hosted by actor Michael Landon. The show included Doug vanishing an elephant and also included a segment with special guest magician Ricky Jay.
In January of 1977, Doug received the coveted Georgie Award from the Academy Guild of Variety Artists for Special Attraction Entertainer of the Year. Doug then spent seven months in Switzerland, studying Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi European University.
Along with co-author Charles Reynolds, Doug wrote his first book, Houdini: His Legend and His Magic. It was published by Warner Books and included hundreds of pictures from Houdini's personal scrapbooks, and presented the legendary escape artist through the eyes of Doug Henning as a young magician.
In the February edition of the magazine Canadian Review, Doug summed up his philosophy, "My theory is this: the difficult must become habit; habit must become easy in order to make it beautiful. And only when it's beautiful is it magic. Audiences and I don't care what I use to make it happen. I'll use all the things in my power to convince people that there is an unknown."
On December 13, 1977, Doug marked his second appearance on The Tonight Show, this time with regular host Johnny Carson. While Doug performed illusions and chatted with Johnny and the panel, he also plugged his new book on Houdini and announced that he is getting married in a week.
On December 15th, Doug Henning's World of Magic III aired live with guests Glen Campbell and Sandy Duncan. The hyped illusion on this one is "Walking Through a Brick Wall," and immediately following the broadcast a contract is negotiated with NBC for three more one-hour shows.
Doug then married songwriter and fellow TM devotee Barbara DeAngelis, (who would later become a motivational speaker specializing on relationships). It was his first marriage and her second. Together they would begin the project that would become the Broadway show Merlin when Doug read a book titled The Crystal Cave and found his mind pole-vaulting across centuries to feel both reverence and affection for the ancient seer.
On December 14, Doug Henning's World of Magic IV aired with the theme "A Magical Journey Through Time." The show is fraught with problems. Doug tipped off a mirrored table, illusions misfired, and tigers escaped backstage swallowing a menagerie of baby chicks and ducks that was supposed to be the touching finale. Because these problems, this is the last special broadcast live.
In 1979 Doug hit the road again with his two-hour World of Magic show. Between the 54-major United States and Canadian cities played, the tour also included lengthy engagements at the Sahara in Reno and the Las Vegas Hilton. Doug became the first magical celebrity to headline in Las Vegas, going to star at the Caesars and MGM Grand.
Doug then appeared on The Crystal Gayle Special, a variety program starring singer Crystal Gayle and featuring, along with Doug, B.B. King and The Statler Brothers.
As well, Magic Mania, the longest and largest magical musical, opened in Tokyo, Japan. Doug created, built and staged the dozens of illusions for the show and taught them to the cast.
On February 4 through 8, 1980 Doug filmed an episode of The Muppet Show, performing such effects slicing up a huge monster then putting it back together in a different order. The producers of the show decided not to edit the magic routines, so how they aired was how they were performed. At one point some stagehands decided to try and see if they could figure out how Doug did the Metamorphosis, but couldn't. The episode aired on May 1.
On February 15, there was a broadcast of the fifth special, which was taped at the Las Vegas Hilton.
In December, Doug appeared in The Osmond Family Christmas Special. Starring the popular brother/sister act Donny and Marie Osmond and guesting with such entertainers as Peggy Flemming and Greg (B.J. and the Bear) Evigan.On February 13, 1981, Doug made his seventh appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This show marked the first time Doug is Johnny's first guest. Doug is then named spokesman for the March of Dimes 1981 reading program. Through the use of his magic he instructed children on the importance of books.
Doug Henning's World of Magic VI, taped at Osmond Studios in Provo, Utah, is broadcast February 22 on NBC. Doug then met and became friends with a young Michael Jackson. The result was two fantastic illusions for the Jackson's' 1981 tour.
A version of The Magic Show was mounted in Toronto at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The purpose of this show was to film in front of a live audience of several thousand people for broadcast on a Canadian Broadcast network. For this version many changes were made. Notably most of the cast was changed, specifically the role of Cal, which was now performed by Didi Conn (Who was known as the character "Frenchy" in the movie version of Grease.) As well certain script changes were made, for example the nite club was now known as "Chez Manny" and the older, drunk magician was now named "Van Zyskin." Some of the songs in the Broadway version were also changed (notably the risqué lyrics of Carmen's lament), or replaced, such as the song Solid Silver Platform Shoes (a type of shoe that had gone out of style by the 80's) which was replaced with “It's Gonna take a magician.”
The "Movie" of The Magic Show was only aired once on Canadian Television. (But is now available on DVD, for the interested.)
After separating from his first wife, Doug meets Deborah Ann Douillard. Debby was the daughter of Roger and Ann Douillard and had received her B.F.A. from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science in New York where she majored in painting, graphics and video art. She was successful as a painter and graphic artist and also in the clothing design business. As well, Debby starred in several summer theatre musicals (including Fiddler on the Roof and Applause) and studied mime, jazz dance and singing.
They met at a charity benefit where Doug was a guest and entertainer and Debby was a volunteer worker, at the Transcendental Meditation Centre at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. Debbie was previously married to Jose Carcamo, a Mexican artist who she split with in 1980"Dougy was supposed to speak that night and do some magic, and I was supposed to tell him when to go on stage." Debbie told Beverly Hills  magazine in 1986. "So I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around and we looked at each other. It was an overwhelming experience. Dougy almost fell off his chair. My heart was racing. After my heart finally calmed down, time literally seemed to go into slow motion."
"After the show," she continued, "he came over and tapped me on the shoulder and asked if we could talk later. So we went somewhere and talked a long, long time, and I remember having this powerful feeling of recognition. It just swept over me. I couldn't help myself. I whispered, "I know you.""
"My friends told me there was practically a flash of light," Doug told People magazine in the December 20, 1982 edition. "I had never felt anything like it in my life."
Debby agreed, "It was like I blossomed right on the spot."
They were engaged within a week. "I proposed to her four days later. I made a diamond appear in a rose petal and it rolled out into her hand." On December 6, Doug and Debby were married at the University.
"When I perform, I could love a million people, but I had trouble loving one person … Debby's helped me overcome my fear of intimacy."
Debby became Doug's assistant, appearing as a singer and dancer, as well as designing all of the costumes in Merlin and on tour.
"I was scared to death the first time I performed," Debby recalled, "but then I started to love it. In a sense, Dougy forced me to overcome my natural shyness. Doug Henning's World of Magic VII, videotaped at NBC studios in Burbank, airs on February 14, 1982.
In September, the eighth and last TV special, this one called Doug Henning's Magic on Broadway, is taped at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York, as rehearsals are underway for a second Broadway show, Merlin.
MerlinOn January 30, 1983, after six years and with a reported budget of $4 million, Merlin unofficially opens at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. With a book by Richard Levinson and William Link, (Both of whom would go on the acclaim and television producers and writers, and are probably best known for creating the TV detective Columbo.) Lyrics by Don Black (Who would later win two Tony awards for Sunset Boulevard, a collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber.) and music by Academy Award winning composer Elmer Bernstein. With constant re-writes and endless improvements, Merlin manages to officially run from February 13, 1983 to August 7, 1983, with previews it was a total of nine months.
According to Jim Steinmeyer, who worked on the show, "Everything [Changed]. Mostly we put more magic in, but the book and music also changed a lot. Characters, dances. Fortunately, they liked the magic, so it wasn't always hard for us, but it always felt like we were dodging land mines."
"It's a shame that the show wasn't more successful. It wasn't quite the flop that legend will have it."
Starring Doug, Debbie and Chita Rivera (As well as young actors Nathan Lane and Christian Slater), the lavish show received five Tony nominations, including Best Musical. The show also broke a Broadway record for setting the one-week box office record at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, earning $421,000. "Doug Henning believes in magic and makes us true believers, too." Wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times. "He is beyond compare as an illusionist."
In 1984, Doug embarked on another major tour of North America with his World of Magic. Beginning at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and finishing up December 11 in New York City. Booked into the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for a month, Doug Henning's World of Magic is held over an additional month, making it his third show on Broadway.
Winding down touring and with no future plans for television, in 1986 Doug became a consultant for the Disney organization. He sets up "Wonder Workshops" for Disney's staff of Imagineers and persuades them to put more magic into their park. In 1986 he helped design Kingdom Island theme park in Washington, DC.
When Michael Eisner took a position with Disney and put a hold on all creative projects, Doug flew to India for a TM world conference that was being staged by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
On March 26th, Doug made what would be his last appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He was the first guest and performed an illusion that ended with his wife, Debby, appearing in a box that was once empty. Then he talked with Johnny on how he became interested in magic at the age of six. He also takes a moment to plug his and Debby's new toys, the Wonder Whims, which was produced by toy manufacturer Panosh.
Quitting MagicIn 1987, Doug quit magic. After a conference in India, Doug is convinced that his life mission is to promote the TM movement. Even though his company was at work on plans for a new touring show, a book, and a long term Vegas contract He closed all magic operations in Los Angeles, sold his illusions (rumor has it magician David Copperfield purchased most, but a good many were sold to other individuals), and accepted a full-time position with Maharishi Veda Land Inc., developing concepts for an amusement park with themes of enlightenment, knowledge, and entertainment.
"Quite honestly, Doug's sudden retirement left us all stunned." Jim Steinmeyer wrote in the April 2000 issue of Genii. "We couldn't understand how he would turn his back on so much business. Even worse, he seemed to be turning his back on us, as Doug always valued a loyal group of people around him. But with a little perspective, it was the right thing to do. Doug had found a new passion and, typically, he devoted all of his attentions toward it. The moment he lost some interest in performing, he stopped. In addition to his own change of focus, I think this was some sign of respect for his audience."
In 1988 an Announcement is made for future locations of Maharishi Veda Land. Press releases tell of options on prime real estate near Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida; a site near Niagara Falls in Toronto, Canada; and a large tract of land outside Koyoto, Japan.
As senior vice-president of Maharishi's Natural Law Party (founded on a belief that world peace is possible through the power of group TM), Doug became a NLP candidate in England's 1992 general election. He finished last among four candidates.
Doug then held a news conference to announce the proposed $1.5 Billion Maharishi Veda Land theme park on 1,400 acres of land purchased at Niagara Falls, Ontario. The park was planned to have rides, illusions and a 7,000-student university and housing development. He said he plans to have the park opened in 18 months.When asked about funding, he admitted that only about half of the price tag has been raised but repeatedly claimed that there is a "huge amount of interest." He also announced that they planned to approach the Ontario Provincial Government and the Canadian Federal Government for money after the bulk of the investments are squared away. Unfortunately, the Ontario Government had already refused to get involved and Doug's claim that Niagara Falls will build and pay for highway overpasses and other infrastructure were quickly denied by Mayor Wayne Thomson, who sat at the podium with him.
In the 1993 Canadian elections, Doug ran as NLP candidate from Rosedale, Ontario where he works on the planting of Veda Land Canada. His platform included employing 7,000 flying yogis who would meditate to cure the nation's ills. Natural Law touted the "Maharishi effect," which they claimed helped to bring down the Berlin Wall, caused stock markets to rise, and cut crime. Out of 55,928 votes cast, he gets 839.
In June 1999, there were reports of Doug sightings in magic shops in Toronto, New York, Chicago, and Hollywood. He lets some of his old friends know that he's shut down the Veda Land offices in Holland and is moving to Los Angeles. In August, David Charvet suggests an interview to let the magic world know what Doug's up to. Readers of the October issue of Magic Magazine learn that Doug is indeed back to performing, but only as part of his fund-raising efforts for then University of World Peace. He also gives information concerning his career that "I never had a chance to tell anybody about."
Then Doug got sick. He was diagnosed with liver cancer and, apparently, no one but Debby knew. He refused chemotherapy after one round of treatment made him too sick. For a while he rebounded and was optimistic about his recovery.
According to Debby, "Dougy was starting to get interested in magic again and he was going to many magic shops purchasing props so that he could use them when he got better."
Shortly before his death he planned his memorial service with Debby, insisting that it be a positive celebration and that all his friends be invited. He carefully chose what food was to be served, which was mainly his favorite vegetarian treats such as grilled cheese sandwiches, Boca burgers with plenty of relish, baked potatoes with lots of butter and blueberry pie, just to name a few.
On February 7, at 6:35 a.m., Douglas James Henning died of liver cancer and Metastatic carcinoma at the age of 52 at Cedars Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles. His remains were cremated on the Wednesday following his death and his ashes were spread on the Pacific Ocean, off Redondo Beach, California, the following day. On February 20th, a memorial service was conducted and attended by an estimated 175 friends, family, and close associates of Doug and Debby Henning. A celebration of the life of Doug Henning was held at The Magic Castle on Sunday, April 2, at 4pm.
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- Toronto Star. Thursday, December 27, 1973.
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