Doug Henning


Born: 3 May 1947, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Died: 7 February 2000, Los Angeles, California

Doug Henning was born in Winnipeg and moved to Oakville, Ontario as a young boy. He made his first appearance as a magician at the age of fourteen when he performed at a friend's birthday party. It wasn't his intention to make magic his career though; he planned to be a doctor.

Henning attended McMaster University and graduated with a degree in psychology. Before attending medical school, he decided to take two years off to perform magic and make some money. Things went so well that, at age 22, he began to pursue a magic career fulltime. He applied for and received a $4,000. grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, after convincing them that magic was a form of art, and studied with Dai Vernon and other master magicians.

In the early 1970s, Henning recruited his friend Ivan Reitman (then at City-TV, eventually director of Ghostbusters and other movies) to help him raise the money to stage a rock and magic musical. Spellbound opened at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto at Christmas in 1973. The critics and the audiences loved the long-haired hippie/disco magician with his brightly coloured clothes and the show set box-office records for the theatre.

On 28 May 1974, Spellbound was renamed The Magic Show and opened on Broadway, again to rave reviews. It was nominated for two Tonys and ran for four years, closing on New Year's Eve 1978.

NBC, the television network, took notice and offered Henning a TV special. During 1975's The World of Magic, Henning recreated Houdini's famous water torture cell escape, live on the air. The success of the show prompted the network to give Henning annual specials which would, in total, receive seven Emmy nominations and one win.

Henning took The Magic Show on the road, performing in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and other venues. On 13 February 1983, he opened a new Broadway show. Merlin ran for six months and earned five Tony nominations. Henning returned to Broadway one more time, staging Doug Henning and His World of Magic from 11 December 1984 to 27 January 1985.

In 1987, Henning gave up his magic career and began studying with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. A proponent of transcendental meditation, yogic flying, and levitation, the Maharishi formed the Natural Law Party of Canada and invited Henning to join. In 1993, Henning ran in a federal election in the Rosedale riding of Toronto. His promises to make crime, unemployment, and the deficit disappear didn't sit well with voters, however, and he received less than 900 of nearly 56,000 votes.

After the election, Henning announced that he was going to build a transcendental meditation theme park in Niagara Falls, Ontario. It was to be called Veda Land and would feature nature-inspired rides and exhibits, a housing project, university, and a Tower of Peace. The project was never completed.

Doug Henning is credited with reviving stage-show magic and bringing it to the average person via television and cross-country tours. His large-scale illusions, such as making a horse disappear in mid-air and levitating a suburban house, along with his irrepressible enthusiasm and the sense of wonder he shared with his audiences, were largely responsible for his success. Every stage magician working today owes him a debt of gratitude.

Henning died of liver cancer at age 52 at his home in Los Angeles.

Additional trivia:

Henning wrote a book called Houdini: His Legend and His Magic in 1977.

Martin Short, another McMaster graduate, parodied Henning on Saturday Night Live.

More information:

Tribute to Henning with photos and other documents.

Doug Henning's credits at the Internet Broadway Database.


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Added 17 January 2004.