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Doug Henning: The Man Who Brought Magic to Broadway and Television

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In this article, Doug Henning was a Canadian magician, illusionist, escape artist and politician who revolutionized the art of magic in the 1970s and 1980s. He combined his natural talent for performing illusions with his theatrical training and charisma, creating spectacular shows that amazed and entertained millions of people around the world. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential magicians of all time, who inspired a generation of performers and brought magic back to the mainstream.

doug henning
doug henning

Early Life and Education

Doug Henning was born on May 3, 1947 in the Fort Garry district of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. His father was a pilot for Air Canada, who died in a plane crash when Doug was 20 years old. His mother was a homemaker who encouraged his interest in magic. Doug saw his first magic show on television when he was six years old, and was instantly hooked. He 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 supported him to hone his 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 a show. He became very popular and was invited to perform magic on 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, where he met Ivan Reitman, who later became a famous film director. Reitman cast him in a production of Li’l Abner, where he played the role of Lonesome Polecat. Henning graduated with honors with a degree in science and psychology in 1970, but decided to take a couple of years off before entering medical school to pursue his passion for magic.

Career Breakthrough

Henning applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to study the art of magic under prominent illusionist Tony Slydini in New York City. He was awarded ,000, which he used to travel to New York and learn from Slydini, as well as other magicians such as Dai Vernon, known as “The Professor”. He also studied mime under Adrian Pecknold and dance with a Canadian choreographer. He wanted to create a new style of magic that combined theater, comedy and music with illusions.

He returned to Canada and teamed up with Reitman to produce a musical comedy called Spellbound, which featured Henning as the lead magician. The show was a hit in Toronto and attracted the attention of Broadway producer Edgar Lansbury, who offered Henning a chance to bring his magic to New York. Henning agreed and worked with Lansbury and songwriter Stephen Schwartz to create The Magic Show, which opened on Broadway in 1974.

The Magic Show was a huge success, running for more than four years and earning Henning a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. The show showcased Henning’s innovative illusions, such as levitating his assistant over the audience, making an elephant disappear and escaping from a water torture cell. Henning also charmed the audience with his personality, humor and enthusiasm. He became an overnight sensation and a household name.

Television Stardom

Henning’s popularity on Broadway led him to sign a deal with NBC to produce a series of television specials called Doug Henning’s World of Magic. The first special aired in 1975 and featured Henning performing some of his most famous illusions, such as vanishing a live tiger, walking through a brick wall and cutting himself in half with a buzz saw. The special also featured guest stars such as Bill Cosby, Sandy Duncan and Gene Kelly.

The special was watched by more than 50 million people and received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. It won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Special Visual Effects and spawned seven more specials over the next decade. Henning’s television specials introduced millions of people to the wonders of magic and made him one of the most popular entertainers in America.

Later Years

Henning continued to perform on Broadway and television throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. He also created new shows such as Merlin (1983), which starred Henning as the legendary wizard and featured Chita Rivera as Queen Guinevere; Doug Henning & His World of Magic (1984), which was a live stage show that toured across North America; and V (1986), which was a science fiction-themed show that featured Henning as an alien magician.

Henning also became interested in transcendental meditation, a form of meditation that he learned from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the TM movement. Henning believed that meditation could enhance his creativity and spirituality, and he became a devoted follower of Maharishi. He also became involved in politics, running for the Natural Law Party of Canada in the 1993 federal election. He advocated for the use of meditation and other natural methods to solve the world’s problems.

Henning retired from performing in 1987 and sold some of his most famous illusions to fellow magician David Copperfield. He moved to Los Angeles, where he planned to build a theme park based on transcendental meditation and magic. However, he was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1999 and died on February 7, 2000, at the age of 52. He was survived by his second wife, Debby Douillard, whom he married in 1981.

Legacy

Doug Henning is widely regarded as one of the greatest magicians of all time, who changed the face of magic in the 20th century. He brought magic back to the mainstream and inspired a generation of performers, such as David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, Lance Burton and Criss Angel. He also influenced popular culture, appearing in movies, cartoons, books and video games. He was honored with a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2000 and a postage stamp by Canada Post in 2010.

Henning’s magic was not only about tricks and illusions, but also about joy and wonder. He once said, “Anything the mind can conceive is possible. Nothing is impossible. All you have to do is look within and you can realize your fondest dreams. I would like to wish each one of you all of life’s wonders and a joyful age of enlightenment.”

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