Doug Henning was a Canadian magician and illusionist; he was one of the most famous magicians in the world during the 1970s and early 1980s. A much loved illusionist on the international scenario, he was credited to have single-handedly revived the public’s interest in magic in the 1970s, an era when people were no longer drawn to the world of illusions and tricks. Henning was interested in magic from a young age and began practicing magical tricks while still in school. He gave his first performance at the age of 14 and was amazed at the enthusiastic response he received. Motivated by his initial success, he placed an advertisement in a local newspaper offering his services and this marked the beginning of his highly successful career as a performer. Blessed with a natural talent for performing illusions, he also possessed the charms to enthrall his audiences and spellbind them with his exciting performances. Determined to pursue magic as a career, he studied the art form under prominent illusionist Tony Slydini and set upon perfecting his skills. It did not take him long to become a popular figure and soon he was appearing on the Broadway and television. After enjoying a highly successful career, he sold some of his most famous illusions and retired in the mid 1980s.
Childhood & Early Life
Doug Henning was born in the Fort Garry district of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, on May 3, 1947, to Clarke Henning and Shirley Jean Henning. His father was a pilot for Air Canada.
Doug Henning saw a magic show on television when he was six and was instantly hooked. He then started practicing magic tricks himself after reading books on the subject in libraries, and also asked his parents to buy him a magic kit.
He proved to be quite skilled at performing tricks and his impressed parents encouraged him to hone this art. With his parents’ support he performed his first paid show at a friend’s birthday party in 1961, at the age of 14.
The show was received very enthusiastically by the audience, motivating him to further develop his skills. He placed an advertisement in the local newspaper and was soon performing two to three shows per week for $15 a show.
He became very popular and was invited to perform magic in local television shows when he was 16. By this time he had also started attending meetings of Toronto's famed Hat & Rabbit Club, Abbott's Get-Together and Wisconsin's Houdini Club Conventions.
After completing high school he studied psychology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He then won a grant from the Canadian government to study magic. This gave him the chance to closely observe the techniques of, and study under prominent magicians such as Slydini and Dai Vernon.
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In the 1970s magic shows had somewhat fallen out of favor with the audiences. Doug Henning was determined to revive magic and make the shows attractive to the audiences again. As a first step in this direction, he developed a live theatrical show, ‘Spellbound’, directed by Ivan Reitman, with music by Howard Shore.
The show, which combined magic with music and a dramatic storyline, was a huge success and broke box-office records at Toronto. He then reworked the show and premiered in on Broadway as ‘The Magic Show’ in 1974, with songs composed by Stephen Schwartz. The show ran for four and a half years.
His success on Broadway prompted him to venture into television and he convinced NBC to produce a television special where Henning would be performing Harry Houdini's famous and dangerous water-torture escape.
Henning spent the next several months practicing the water-torture escape act. The success or failure of the act could make or break his budding television career. In December 1975, he successfully performed the water-torture illusion in front of the camera as more than 50 million viewers watched him on television. Shackled and encased underwater in a steel canister, he broke free in under a minute, and emerged smiling to thunderous applause.
The success of his shows helped revive the public’s interest in magic. A charismatic personality, he dressed in stylish clothes and was always beaming with enthusiasm—traits that endeared him to the public and attracted them to his shows. A huge fan of Houdini, he co-wrote a biography of Houdini, ‘Houdini: His Legend and His Magic’ in 1977.
His career thrived in the early 1980s as well. He appeared on ‘The Muppet Show’ in 1980 where he performed several acts and demonstrated the chink-a-chink for Kermit the Frog's nephew Robin. He also performed his famous act "metamorphosis", a routine where he swapped places with an assistant who was locked inside a trunk.
He produced and starred in the Broadway musical ‘Merlin’ in 1983, and began a solo show on Broadway called ‘Doug Henning and His World of Magic’ the next year. In 1984, he embarked on a major tour with his show and was also featured in television commercials.
In 1986, he became a consultant for the Disney organization and set up "Wonder Workshops" for Disney's staff of ”Imagineers” and convinced them to add more magic into their park. He also helped design Kingdom Island theme park in Washington, DC.
All of a sudden he quit magic in 1987 and announced his plans to promote the Transcendental Meditation movement which he had learned about on a tour to India. He fully devoted his later years to the Transcendental Meditation movement, and announced in 1992 that that he and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a spiritual adviser, would build a $1.5 billion theme park near Niagara Falls, Ontario. The project’s status was uncertain at the time of his death in 2000.
He also had a brief and unsuccessful stint as a politician in the early 1990s.
Doug Henning was probably the most famous magician in the world in the 1970s and early 1980s, credited to have revived the art form. One of his best known works was the ‘Doug Henning's World of Magic’ television show where in December 1975 he performed a version of Houdini's Water Torture Escape which was seen by over 50 million viewers, making it the highest-rated magic special of all time. The show made him an international celebrity overnight.
Awards & Achievements
His December 1975 television special ‘Doug Henning's World of Magic’ won the Christopher Award for outstanding achievement.
He received the coveted Georgie Award from the Academy Guild of Variety Artists for Special Attraction Entertainer of the Year in 1977.
Personal Life & Legacy
Doug Henning's first marriage was to American relationship consultant and author Barbara De Angelis which ended in divorce. He then married Deborah Ann Douillard in December 1981.
He was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1999 and died of the disease on February 7, 2000. He was only 52 years old. His ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean off Redondo Beach, California.