The Magical World of Doug Henning

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 Henning was a shaggy-headed magician who sparked a renewed interest in the craft ad breathed new life into some of history's most famous illusions. With a curly mane of hair and a near-constant grin, Henning was one of the most famous illusionists in the world during the 1970's and early 80's, appearing in three Broadway shows and a dozen television specials. In each case, he stunned audiences with a seemingly impossible array of disappearing assistants and levitating ladies. One of his most impressive acts was ''Metamorphosis,'' an illusion borrowed from Harry Houdini, his idol. In the trick, which Henning performed in Broadway theaters, on television and even on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, his assistant was handcuffed and tied in a sack. The sack was put in a chest and padlocked. Henning stood atop the chest and counted to three. Suddenly the assistant was standing in his place, and Mr. Henning was in the trunk, handcuffed.

It was a trick Houdini needed 20 seconds to perform; Mr. Henning did it in less than 10. A native of Winnipeg, Canada, Mr. Henning made his American debut in ''The Magic Show,'' a rock musical that opened on Broadway in May 1974 and subsequently ran for more than four years. In 1975, Mr. Henning broke through to an even larger audience when he performed Houdini's ''Water Torture Escape'' on a live television special. Shackled hand and foot and encased underwater in a steel canister, he broke free in under a minute, emerging wet and beaming. Over the next decade, he was a regular presence on television, adding splashy new tricks to his repertoire, like a 1980 show where he appeared to have been eaten by a shark. His shows led to a general resurgence of interest in magic, said Phil Willmarth, editor of The Linking Ring, a magic magazine. ''He was a kind of Peter Pan,'' Mr. Willmarth told The Associated Press, ''who led magic away from the tuxedo approach.''

Indeed, part of Mr. Henning's popularity could be laid to his style of performing, one that immediately set him apart from the vaudevillian conjurers of the past. Gone were the black capes and magic wands; Mr. Henning wore jeans, flashy jumpsuits, and tie-dye T-shirts onstage. Steeped in the pop philosophies of the 1960's, Mr. Henning meditated daily and did yoga between shows.

In the mid-1980's, Mr. Henning retired from the stage and became increasingly interested in transcendental meditation.In 1992, he announced that he and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a spiritual adviser, would build a $1.5 billion theme park near Niagara Falls, Ontario. Dubbed Veda Land, it would be the first theme park concerned with spiritual enlightenment and would include a levitating building and a journey into the heart of a rose. The project's status is uncertain. Despite his absence from the scene, the monthly Magic Magazine reported last July that Mr. Henning had been sighted at several magic stores around the country. He posed for photographs, signed autographs and then disappeared once again and died of liver cancer at 56...

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