Doug Henning

Doug Henning
Henning in 1976
Born Douglas James Henning
May 3, 1947
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Died February 7, 2000(2000-02-07) (aged 52)
Los Angeles, U.S.
Cause of death Liver cancer
Occupation Magician, illusionist, escape artist, politician
Spouse(s) Barbara De Angelis
Debby Douillard

Douglas James Henning (May 3, 1947  February 7, 2000) was a Canadian magician, illusionist, escape artist and politician.

Early life

Henning was born in the Fort Garry district of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and began practicing magic at Oakenwald School in Fort Garry, later moving to Oakville, Ontario.

He performed his first show at the age of 14 at the birthday party of a friend and was inspired by his audience's spellbound reaction. Within a few months of placing an ad in a local newspaper, Henning launched a series of performances on local television in Toronto, and as an entertainer at parties.

He was a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and studied psychology.[1] Henning met Ivan Reitman there when he appeared in the 1968 Reitman-directed production of Li'l Abner in the role of Lonesome Polecat.


Shortly after university, Henning was awarded a Canada Council for the Arts grant.[2] The terms of the grant required Henning to study magic. He did so, traveling to view first hand the talents of such magic greats as Slydini and Dai Vernon. Doug studied under Tony Slydini and considered him his primary teacher of magic.[3]

With the intention of returning magic to its "glory days", Henning worked to perfect his craft. Garnering financial support, he developed a live theatrical show, Spellbound, directed by Ivan Reitman, with music by Howard Shore and co-starring actress Jennifer Dale, a musical that combined a dramatic story and Henning's magic tricks. The show opened in Toronto, where it broke box-office records. Henning reworked the show after catching the attention of New York producers, and took it to Broadway as The Magic Show, with songs composed by Stephen Schwartz. Debuting in 1974, the show ran for four and a half years, and earned Henning a Tony Award nomination.[4]

Following his Broadway success, Henning approached NBC with the idea of producing a television special. It was not until Henning suggested that he would reproduce live Harry Houdini's famous and dangerous water-torture escapefor the first time since Houdini performed it himselfthat the NBC executives signed him.

Henning spent the next eight months reworking his stage act for TV and practicing the water-torture escape act. More than 50 million viewers tuned in for the December 1975 broadcast of Doug Henning's World of Magic, hosted by Bill Cosby.

In 1977, Henning co-wrote a biography of Houdini, Houdini: His Legend and His Magic.[5] He created illusions for an Earth, Wind and Fire tour in 1979,[6] and for two of singer Michael Jackson's concerts, including his 1984 Victory Tour.[7][8]

After a brief marriage, Henning divorced Barbara De Angelis in 1981 and married Debby Douillard in the Ladies' Dome in Fairfield, Iowa, in December of that year.[9][10]

In 1983, Henning was the producer and star of the Broadway musical Merlin.[1] In 1984, he began a solo show on Broadway called Doug Henning and His World of Magic.[1]

In 1985, a set of plush toys called "Doug & Debby Henning's: WONDER WHIMS" were made by Panosh Place and copyrighted by Marvin Glass and Associates. There were a total of six Wonder Whim characters. Each came with an animal friend, a personalized story, and a magic kaleidoscope wand of colors and patterns.[11]

In 1986 Henning sold his illusions to David Copperfield and other magicians to devote his time to Transcendental Meditation.

The World of Magic specials

Doug Henning's first World of Magic special aired on NBC on December 26, 1975. Henning successfully performed the water torture illusion, although he did not break Houdini's time record. Produced by famed talk show host David Susskind and sponsored by Mobil, the show ran live in the eastern United States without commercials. The event was the first of seven annual broadcasts,[12] which would eventually bring Henning seven[13] Emmy Award nominations, including two back-to-back in 1976 and 1977 for World of Magic.

In December 1976, 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 it was hosted by actor Michael Landon, with guest star Joey Heatherton. The show included Henning vanishing an elephant and also included a segment with special guest magician Ricky Jay.

On December 15, 1977, Doug Henning's World of Magic III aired live with guests Glen Campbell and Sandy Duncan; the hyped illusion was "Walking Through a Brick Wall".

On December 14, 1978, Doug Henning's World of Magic IV aired with the theme "A Magical Journey Through Time"; however, due to numerous problems that occurred during the telecast, this was the last special broadcast live.

On February 15, 1979, there was a broadcast of the fifth World of Magic special, which was taped at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Doug Henning's World of Magic VI, taped at Osmond Studios in Orem, Utah, is broadcast February 22, 1980 on NBC. Bill Cosby made his second appearance as special guest. Marie Osmond also appeared on the program. Several revamped versions of illusions from earlier specials appeared. The finale was an escape and reappearance featuring a huge Rube Goldberg machine.

Henning's last TV special was World of Magic VII in 1982, which featured guest Bruce Jenner[note 1] and several revamped versions of illusions from earlier specials. The theme was Henning's magical house with rooms featuring magic from the past, present and future. In the show's finale, Henning creates the illusion of turning a black horse and a white horse into a zebra.

At the end of each World of Magic performance, Henning addressed the audience with the same monologue: "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."[14]

Other television appearances

On December 13, 1977, Henning appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. While Henning performed illusions and chatted with host Johnny Carson and his other guests, he also plugged his new book on Houdini and announced that he was to marry Barbara De Angelis in a week.

In 1979 Henning appeared on The Crystal Gayle Special, a variety program starring singer Crystal Gayle and featuring, along with Henning, B.B. King and the Statler Brothers.

In 1980, Henning appeared on The Muppet Show where he performed several acts. He demonstrated chink-a-chink for Kermit the Frog's nephew Robin, segmented a Muppet monster into four pieces (and put him together wrong), and performed The Metamorphosis: a bit where he swapped places with an assistant who was locked inside a trunk.

In December, Henning 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 Evigan, at the time star of NBC's B.J. and the Bear.

On February 13, 1981, Henning made his seventh appearance on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. This show marked the first time Henning is Carson's first guest.

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 CBC Television. Henning came back to the show that had made him a star, and many changes were made for this new production. Notably, most of the cast was changed, specifically the role of Cal, now performed by Didi Conn. Some script changes were made (the night 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 Charmin's lament), or replaced totally, such as the song "Solid Silver Platform Shoes" (the once popular shoe style, by then out of fashion) which was replaced with “It's Gonna Take a Magician.” The film version of the production was only aired once on Canadian television, but released on DVD decades later.

Henning was featured in television commercials during 1984 to promote the Plymouth Voyager minivan.

In 1993 he released a video for the Canada Natural Law Party made up of excerpts from his World of Magic specials along with newly recorded linking dialogue detailing Doug's philosophy of how the world's problems could be solved by meditation and yogic flying.

Transcendental Meditation

In the mid 1980s, Henning retired from the stage and had an increasing interest in Transcendental Meditation.[1] He received a Ph.D in the Science of Creative Intelligence from the Maharishi University in Switzerland.[15]

In 1992, Henning and Transcendental Meditation founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi drafted plans for a $1.5 billion-dollar project called "Maharishi Veda Land" near Niagara Falls, Ontario[1] that would "combine astonishing, unique visual and sensory effects, state-of-the-art 3D imagery, and ultra high-tech entertainment technology with his best and most original magic illusion secrets".[16] Attractions were to include a building suspended above water and a journey into the heart of a rose but as of 2000 the project's status was uncertain.[1]

Political career

In 1992, Henning was a Natural Law Party candidate in the United Kingdom's general election, contesting the Parliamentary constituency of Blackpool South in Lancashire.[17] As a Canadian citizen, Henning qualified as a candidate under British electoral law, which allows candidates from Commonwealth nations. He finished fourth of four candidates, polling 173 votes. He was senior vice president of the Natural Law Party of Canada ("NLPC"), and ran as the party's candidate for the former Toronto riding of Rosedale in the 1993 federal election, finishing sixth out of ten candidates.[18][19][20]

General Election 1992: Blackpool South[21]
Party Candidate Votes % ±
Conservative Nick Hawkins 19,880 45.2 −2.8
Labour Gordon Marsden 18,213 41.5 +9.4
Liberal Democrat Robert E. Wynne 5,673 12.9 −7.0
Natural Law Douglas Henning 173 0.4 N/A
Majority 1,667 3.8 −12.2
Turnout 43,939 77.3 +3.9
Conservative hold Swing −6.1
Canadian federal election, 1993
Party Candidate Votes%±%
LiberalBill Graham25,72650.00+8.78
Progressive ConservativeDavid MacDonald10,93021.24-20.12
ReformDaniel Jovkovic6,41312.46
New DemocraticJack Layton5,54710.78-4.28
NationalMartin Lanigan1,0912.12
Natural LawDoug Henning8171.59
GreenLeslie Hunter4830.94+0.22
IndependentLinda Dale Gibbons3500.68
Marxist–LeninistSteve Rutchinski570.11
AbolitionistYann Patrice D'Audibert Garcien400.08
Total valid votes 51,454 100.00

Death and legacy

Henning died aged 52 in February 2000 at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles five months after being diagnosed with liver cancer.[1] His ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean off Redondo Beach, California.

James Randi, a fellow Canadian magician and prominent skeptic, was critical of Henning's involvement with Transcendental Meditation (TM).[22] In 2008, Randi asserted in his blog, SWIFT, that TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had "caused the death of my friend Doug Henning".[23] He claimed that Henning had immersed himself so thoroughly in TM that he "abandoned regular medical treatment for liver cancer, continued to pursue his diet of nuts and berries, and died of the disease."[23]

In 2005, a handwritten letter from Doug Henning to James Randi was placed for auction on eBay, unbeknownst to Randi. When Randi learned of it, he announced on his blog that the letter had been "stolen" from his files.[24] A week later, Randi wrote that he "managed to have the sale stopped" and that the letter was back in his possession but did not elaborate on further details of the controversy.[25]

On June 8, 2010, it was announced that Henning would receive a star on Canada's Walk of Fame.[26][27] His "Zig Zag Girl" illusion is housed at the American Museum of Magic.[28]

Spellbound: The Wonder-filled Life of Doug Henning by John Harrison was released in 2009 to good reviews.


  1. Caitlyn Jenner's name at the time was Bruce Jenner.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 McKinley, Jesse (February 9, 2000). "Doug Henning, a Superstar Of Illusion, Is Dead at 52". The New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2010.
  2. "Our cover: Douglas James Henning 1947 - 2000". The Linking Ring. The International Brotherhood of Magicians. 80 (4): 210. April 2000.
  3. "Doug Henning Bio". Genii
  4. "1975 Tony Award Winners". BroadwayWorld.con. Retrieved January 10, 2012.
  5. Henning, Doug (1978). "Houdini: His Legend and His Magic". Alibris ISBN lookup. Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0-446-87328-4. Retrieved November 23, 2008.
  6. "Earth, Wind and Fire: The whirlwind". The Gazette. Montreal, Que. January 7, 1988. p. E3.
  7. Lacey, Liam (September 18, 1985). "Whimsical drama makes Henning's tricks a treat". The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont. p. T.10.
  8. Arkatov, Janice (September 1, 1984). "Henning has wonder up his sleeve". Los Angeles Times. p. E2.
  9. name="GrandIllusions" Gregory, Sophfronia Scott (February 21, 2000). "Grand Illusions". People. 53 (7).
  10. NAMES & FACES, Boston Globe, December 7, 1981
  11. Long, Kim; Reim, Terry (1987). The American Forecaster, 1987. Running Press. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-89471-485-6. Retrieved February 13, 2012.
  12. "Henning TV Special A Smash". The Linking Ring. The International Brotherhood of Magicians. 57 (2): 37, 38. February 1977.
  13. "Magician Doug Henning Dies of Liver Cancer at 52" Los Angeles Times; February 9, 2000.
  14. "Doug Henning: Magician Addled by TM". Good Bye!: The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries. January 2000. Archived from the original on February 18, 2007.
  15. Stone, Jay (October 23, 1993). "Let a smile be your platform". The Ottawa Citizen. p. E.1.
  16. “Maharishi Veda Land” description of Vedaland project
  17. "Blackpool South Labour: Gordon Marsden". The Guardian. London.
  18. Gardner, Martin (May/June 1995). "Doug Henning and the Giggling Guru". Skeptical Inquirer. Vol 19.3.
  19. "'Have rabbit, will travel': Yogic flyer's Natural Law Party failed to capture the imagination". National Post (UK). February 20, 2000.
  20. "Rosedale, Ontario (1933-1996)". History of Federal Ridings Since 1867.
  21. "Politics Resources". Election 1992. Politics Resources. 9 April 1992. Retrieved 6 December 2010.
  22. James Randi (September 19, 2008). "SWIFT September 19, 2008". James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Retrieved January 10, 2012.
  23. 1 2 James Randi (February 8, 2008). "SWIFT February 8, 2008". James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Retrieved December 19, 2012.
  24. Doctorow, Cory (June 1, 2005). "James Randi's letter from Doug Henning is stolen and on eBay". Retrieved January 10, 2012.
  25. James Randi (June 10, 2005). "SWIFT June 10, 2005". James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Retrieved January 10, 2012.
  26. Kaplan, Ben (October 16, 2010). "Walk of Fame group a magnificent seven". Victoria Times Colonist. Archived from the original on February 21, 2014. Retrieved May 27, 2012.
  27. "2010 Inductees for The Canada Honours Announced". Canada's Walk of Fame. June 8, 2010. Archived from the original on June 26, 2010. Retrieved June 9, 2010.
  28. Fajurid, Gabe (February 4, 1999). "Magic Museum provides mecca for experts, fans alike". The Michigan Daily. Archived from the original on May 1, 2008. Retrieved May 7, 2011.
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