Spellbound: The Wonder-Filled Life of Doug Henning by John Harrison
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2009)
Long before David Blaine, before Penn & Teller, even before David Copperfield, there was Doug Henning. The present day success, visibility, and profitability of magic on television, in Las Vegas, even at suburban restaurants and corporate cocktail parties and more can be precisely dated to have begun on the night of May 28th, 1974. That was the opening night of a new Broadway show: The Magic Show, starring Doug Henning. And magic would never be the same.
Doug Henning was not an innovator in terms of the actual magic he performed; far from it. But as chronicler John Harrison explains, "The fact that the illusions in The Magic Show were not original creations would have little impact on audience response. By the early seventies magic was at its nadir and stage illusions were rarely presented in legitimate theatrical productions. As a result, audiences were largely unfamiliar with the classic illusions planned for The Magic Show." What Henning brought was a new look long hair and hippy garb and an infectious personality that truly delighted in the magic, which in turn delighted his audiences. That personality was, apparently, no illusion, and this new biography does an effective job of explaining who Henning really was—no easy task, and one at which countless magic biographies routinely fail. Henning was a man who believed in real magic; a magician who believed he could learn to levitate without wires or goose necks. Although he could be a tough and single-minded professional, he was possessed of a pervasive naivete throughout his life, a genuine innocence that was engaging and believable to his audiences because it was real. And in order to fully understand Henning, Mr. Harrison helps readers to thoroughly grasp the two main forces in Henning's life: Magic, and the cult of Transcendental Meditation.
Harrison does a thorough and fair job of describing the magic of Doug's life and career, and magicians will be pleased with the level of detail he provides, describing all the magic of the live shows (including Henning's second Broadway show, Merlin), as well as the magic of the eight television specials. He discusses methods, sources, influences, the work of magic builders like Bill Schmeelk, and the consultants and designers notably Charles Reynolds, and later Jim Steinmeyer who helped create Henning's illusions. Although the book is a generally fine read for laymen, it seems geared toward magicians only to the extent that certain references that magicians are assumed to understand the Tarbell Course in Magic, the Aga levitation and the like are inadequately explained for the lay reader; and in a very few instances, certain methods are perhaps explained a bit beyond what we might prefer to see put before the public eye, for example the method to the Million Dollar Mystery, put to use by Henning for his signature revival of "Things That Go Bump in the Night." Mr. Harrison's crediting and history is also careful, although occasionally marred by the misspelling of names, and the occasional mis attribution; for one, Billy McComb goes unmentioned regarding the "double sawing" that Henning first saw performed by Channing Pollack, in which the two halves of the two female assistants are apparently exchanged in the final restorations a plot that McComb was proud of throughout his life.
Harrison is equally thorough and clear-eyed when the focus turns to Transcendental Meditation. Henning discovered TM while working on the Spellbound show in Toronto. His first wife, Barbara DeAngelis, was a TM instructor, and when Doug married his second wife, Debby Douillard, in 1981, she was also involved in the cult—in which, by that time, Doug was thoroughly immersed. When Debby came along, writes Harrison, "There was more to Doug and Douillard's compatibility than love at first sight. By that point Doug practically existed in the ether. What was happening around him mattered less to him than what was happening in his mind. As difficult as it may be to fathom, the plane of consciousness or, more accurately, the plane of higher consciousness had become more important to Doug than the earthly, physical realm. Doug Henning had become an eminently spiritual creature, and the vast majority of people around Doug couldn't relate to him on that level. Few had the metaphysical makeup or patience to understand Doug's view of reality before deciding that it was just all too weird. In this regard, Douillard was Doug's perfect match. Douillard shared Doug's view of reality and was entirely comfortable with it. This was both good and bad for Doug. Although Doug had connected with his future wife on the deepest of levels, Douillard the person who would be closest to him for the rest of his life didn't require him to be grounded in any way... In many ways, his connection to the world began to fade."
That passage is almost shocking to read, and many aspects of Harrison's narrative are equally arresting; at times the book becomes a genuine page turner. Henning was a star, a celebrity, when there were no celebrity magicians. The day after The Magic Show opened, Henning's career left the ground and broke through to the upper atmosphere, and it's time that a book like this came along to recount that story and set him in his rightful place. Henning created the template of the one-hour television magic special, and the first four of the eventual eight specials he did were broadcast live until a mishap with some escaped tigers resulted in the unplanned consumption of several furry animals that were supposed to be produced magically at the end of the show. By 1980, after five television specials, Henning had the largest touring magic show that America had seen in a generation or more, filling two tractor trailers. He was the first to add video to live shows so that he could perform close-up magic for audiences of thousands. David Copperfield who as a ten-year-old boy had attended the opening night performance of The Magic Show would adapt these precedents and remake them as his own. Eventually Mr. Copperfield would go on to make more than twice the number of TV specials that Henning did—and right in the dust jacket copy he declares that "It's about time that someone paid Doug Henning his due."
John Harrison balances the elements of his story well the magic career, the TM involvement, and the unique personality behind both and brings Doug Henning thoroughly to life as a real, tangible person. No one will read this book and not discover a newfound respect for Henning's success, nor will fail to be pained by the tragedy of how TM and the Maharishi essentially robbed him, for the final 13 years of his too-short life, of the career and art that he loved. Harrison explains that "It would be wrong to think that Doug's final decision to leave magic and devote his life entirely to TM and Veda Land was an easy one it wasn't. ... It was a tortured decision that caused him to part with his life-long passion for magic and the faithful associates who supported him throughout his career."
I confess I was never much of a fan of Doug Henning's back in his heyday; his goofy yammering about "wonder" felt to me like he was speaking to kindergarteners, and when I personally witnessed victims of the cult of TM attempting "yogic flying" at a public demonstration many years ago, I found it tragically grotesque. Yet I have always given Henning credit for the renaissance in magic that occurred in the 1970s, and for following Robert-Houdin's dictum of dressing in contemporary costume. I mention my own feelings about Henning at the time because as a result, I would not have anticipated being anywhere nearly as fascinated as I was by this welcome biography. Illusionists stand to learn interesting technical specifics from this book; Henning fans will learn for the first time the real story behind the myth. But anyone who fancies him or herself a magician should read this potent story, if for no other reason than to contemplate the life of a magician who believed in real magic.