Prior to the 70s, the image one conjured up of a magician was a man in a black suit, perhaps a cape, wearing a top hat. With his gentle demeanor and big, toothy grin, Doug Henning altered that perception. Looking more like a hippie than an illusionist, Doug charmed the decade with both his formidable magic skills and his engaging personality.
Hailing from Canada, Doug Henning caught the magic bug early in life, and performed his first show at 14. Finding some local success, he pursued the art seriously, studying under some of the greats of the time and developing his unique style in an attempt to return magic to the popularity it once enjoyed.
To that end, he created a musical play that incorporated illusions throughout. The show was called Spellbound and it broke box-office records in Toronto. This caught the attention of the folks on Broadway.
In 1974, the show moved to the Cort Theater in New York City, renamed simply The Magic Show. The musical was met with critical acclaim and enjoyed 1,920 performances before ending its run in 1978. A number of 70s kids might even remember taking a field trip into the city to see this enchanting Broadway show back in the day.
With all that stage success under his belt, Henning decided to turn his attention to the medium of television.
Meeting with NBC executives, he convinced them to give him the green light by offering to perform an illusion that had not only made Harry Houdini famous, but also had not been performed by anyone since. The Water Torture Escape consisted of Henning being shackled, placed in a straitjacket for good measure, and lowered head-first into a tank of water. Completely submerged upside-down, he would attempt to escape.
More than 50 million viewers tuned in to Doug Henning’s World of Magic to watch the attempt, and the success of the show prompted six more television specials under the same name. In the 80s, Henning returned to the Broadway stage as the producer and star of Merlin.
Unfortunately, it lasted for less than a year, but undaunted, Doug created a new show, a solo performance called Doug Henning and His World of Magic. During this time, he also created a number of illusions for musical performers such as Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind and Fire to use in their concerts.
Also in the mid-80s, Doug turned his attention to a new interest, Transcendental Meditation. He decided to retire from show business and devote himself to his spiritual pursuit, as well as an ambitiously planned amusement park of sorts based on these beliefs. Sadly, those plans went unrealized when Henning succumbed to cancer in 2000.
More magicians would follow, such as David Copperfield, David Blaine and Sigfried and Roy, but all owe a debt of gratitude to Doug Henning, the kindhearted and colorful hippie whose enthusiasm made magic fun again for an entire generation.
If you have fond memories of watching Doug Henning on television, or perhaps seeing The Magic Show on Broadway as part of a school field trip, I hope you’ll share all your recollection in our comments section below.
The Magic Show was the first Broadway play I ever saw! Don’t recall when, because I was just a kid. But probably circ. 1974 or 1975. The only thing I remember was a song about a “lion tamer”?? Apparently a female member of the cast sang the song.
The Magic Show was the first Broadway show I ever saw, too. It was in the spring of 1976 as part of a class trip to the city. I remember we ate at the Nathan’s on 42nd Street and Broadway which had a fun pinball arcade. Fun day.