One year ago today I began “The Doug Henning Project” with a post called “Why Doug Henning Matters!,” I obviously believe that’s still the case, and the last year has proven that even more to me! – Neil McNally
For a year now, culture writer and magic enthusiast, Neil McNally, has been working tirelessly to ensure Canadian illusionist, magician and escape artist, Doug Henning, gets the recognition he deserves. Last year, we asked McNally why Henning’s work is considered relatively obscure given his seeming enormous popularity at his peak:
“When I first thought of the idea I was floored that someone else hadn’t done it before. It really, really surprised me,” he told us via email. “But, I think part of it has to do with a couple factors. One being that Doug retired in 1987 to pursue more spiritual matters with Transcendental Meditation. Once he was done with magic he was done with it. There was no legacy building or archiving of his career on his part and this was all pre-internet. So, unfortunately over time what happens with that is you get sort of lost in the shuffle.”
Over the last 365 days, McNally has conducted interviews, profiled tricks, hunted down memorabilia and trawled through hundreds of photographs and hours of footage in search of Henning’s work. Here’s a few of his greatest hits:
These excellent pieces and more can all be found on The Doug Henning Project. Everyone here at GeniiOnline would like to congratulate McNally on this one-year milestone.
The Magic Show, which details the life and loves of an alcoholic magician working a seedy nightclub, opened on May 28th, 1974 and quickly became a broadway hit, earning Henning a Tony award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, and director Grover Dale a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical. The show closed in 1978 after some 1,920 performances.
This version of The Magic Show was filmed for a possible cinema release back in 1980. It’s missing quite a few of the songs featured in the original stage show, but Henning’s magic performance is mostly intact. It was released on DVD back in 2001, but it’s notoriously hard to get your hands on a copy. It’s also the only recording of the show that’s available to the public, so you’ll have to take what you can get.
I can’t help but smile every time I watch a Doug Henning performance. His boundless enthusiasm and infectious positivity can soften the heart of even the most cynical of us all. This lazy Sunday, spend an hour and a half watching his first-ever World of Magic special, in which he attempts to replicate Houdini’s infamous water-tank escape – and maybe even try to beat his record while he’s at it.
A quick glance on the internet will provide you with a wealth of websites devoted to Harry Houdini, Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, and many of magic’s most famous performers. Up until about five months ago, there was no such page for Doug Henning, arguably one of the most influential magicians of the 20th century. Neil McNally decided it was time to fix that by creating the Doug Henning Project.
McNally is a pop culture writer from Los Angeles who has long held a fascination both for the history of magic and Doug Henning’s work. He noticed that while Henning’s legacy is revered among the magic community, other than a 2009 book called Spellbound, a Wikipedia page, and a handful of articles in newspapers or on websites, there was no single source devoted to chronicling and archiving his career.
“When I first thought of the idea I was floored that someone else hadn’t done it before. It really, really surprised me,” McNally told GeniiOnline via email. “But, I think part of it has to do with a couple factors. One being that Doug retired in 1987 to pursue more spiritual matters with Transcendental Meditation. Once he was done with magic he was done with it. There was no legacy building or archiving of his career on his part and this was all pre-internet. So, unfortunately over time what happens with that is you get sort of lost in the shuffle.”
It also doesn’t help that Henning fully embraced the psychedelic colors, flashy style, and mysticism of the 1970s and early 1980s. While star-spangled spandex jumpsuits were all the rage then, they unfortunately make Henning appear dated compared to the formalwear of the magicians who came before and after, even though his actual craft remains just as impressive today. It means that, according to McNally, “[Henning’s] not taken as seriously as he 100% deserves to be,” and it’s one of the barriers that McNally is attempting to break down with his work on the site.
Even though the drop in awareness of Henning’s legacy among the general public in recent years makes the archival process difficult, luckily there’s no shortage of information out there to find. “Google definitely has been a great resource for finding old interviews with Doug,” McNally tells us, “but it’s not the only place. Services like eBay are also a treasure trove if you want to find rare items like programs and photos. I’ve also been really fortunate to have Doug’s fans send me items from their collections to post on the site. Whether it’s newspaper articles or photos of Doug’s old outfits, fans want to help and have really, really been appreciative of what I’m trying to do.”
The Doug Henning Project features YouTube videos, reprints of articles from vintage magazines, and other important ephemera, but it also features something you can’t find anywhere else: interviews with other magicians providing an oral history of Henning’s legacy. “As I live in Los Angeles,” McNally says, “I’ve been very fortunate that legendary names in magic such as Milt Larsen, Jim Steinmeyer, and John Gaughan have all made time to share their memories of Doug with me. It’s really a measure to how much he was respected.”
McNally hopes that the site can be a place to learn more about Henning’s life and career, of course, but he also wants it to be a place where fans and other magicians can go to share their own memories and reflect on his boundless enthusiasm and positivity. “I can’t tell you how many times people have sent pictures to me of meeting him after a show and how much that still positively affects them,” McNally says. “Also, on a deeper level the world is currently facing some troubling times. While I can’t solve its problems, what I can do is try to bring back a little bit of Doug’s magic, wonder, and positive view of the world that we all share.”
The Doug Henning Project updates regularly with original features and interviews, reprints of old articles, and various discoveries from YouTube and other corners of the internet. You can visit the Project directly via the official site, or follow it on Facebook or Twitter. And if you have any stories, photos, or anything else related to Henning you’d like to share, you can contact McNally directly via email.
Attention, collectors! Steve Sprague has put the word out that he has an original prop used by Doug Henning that is up for sale. It’s from the World of Magic 4 television special in 1978. The prop is a red curtain painted with a gold dragon, and two wooden dragons that hold it. It was constructed by Johnny Gaughan specifically for the trick, which saw Doug Henning trading places with celebrity guest Brooke Shields.
You can see Sprague’s full description on the Doug Henning Project’s website, as well as instructions on how to purchase it for yourself if you’re so inclined. Or you can just see the trick in action in the video above.
Evening talk shows have long been a great way for magicians to get their tricks in front of a wide audience. Despite the challenges of performing on screen instead of for a live audience, viewers have been treated to some pretty stellar performers over the years. It’s also fortunate that we’ve been able to have recordings of some of those acts for posterity.
For instance, here’s the one and only Doug Henning walking through a mirror on The Tonight Show in 1981. The fabulous vest and mustache alone are worth a viewing, but the trick’s pretty nifty too.