Doug Henning is done with mirrors
His great illusions, however, defy figuring out
Black women with sculpted hair playing Ashanti princesses playing Hollywood starlets, white women masquerading as Arabian houris, stacked glitter queens, street studs loud with satin: sartorial and sexual confusion! What’s going on here?
Pushing through the streets toward the Broadway theatre where The Magic Show is playing nightly to capacity audiences, pushing through the foyer past big fantasies out-pretending smaller ones, you begin to realize that there is a special justice in the fact that the latest star in mid-Seventies New York City is a 27-year-old Canadian magician called Doug Henning. This Fancy Dress Party disguised to itself as Fun City has claimed Doug Henning and made him its best metaphor. His profession, after all, is magic, the manipulation of appearances. And this, above all other cities, is the city of appearance. Appearances have become so routine here that it never occurs to anyone anymore to wonder whether they’re the real thing or not. Fictions make the facts in New York City. What you see is what you get.
And that’s why the newsmagazines and Barbara Walters and Dick Cavett all within a week of each other decided that the revival of magic was the single most interesting current entertainment phenomenon. That’s why the longhaired jauntily top-hatted figure who dominates the posters outside the Cort Theatre is now one of the biggest draws on Broadway. Doug Henning, raising his eyebrows and smiling his enigmatic smile. His message is this: first of all, in the age of the pure scientist and the corporate man, reality is indeed a wearisome category; but, second of all, however many performances you give to escape from that reality, they are, if unaccompanied by a sense of wonder, merely bits of foolishness, tricks.
“Could you come up on stage, please?” Doug Henning in his blue jeans and long, curly hair looks like the D’Artagnan of a high-school production of The Three Musketeers who’s strayed
out onto the stage already wigged, but not yet in costume. “Yes, you. Can you come up on stage, please?” He leans out over the footlights, pointing, and suddenly a little girl in the front row, realizing that he’s talking to her. jumps from her seat and rushes for the stage in a flounce of pigtails and organdie. The music gathers pace behind them. The little girl walks upstage with Henning, hand in his hand, quite unafraid and quite delighted, as if she’s been waiting for this moment all evening. “Now can you kick the box. and make sure it’s quite real. No holes in it or anything.” Bang. A little patent leather shoe crashes into the side of the box, with a sound that is picked up by amplifiers all round the theatre. The audience laughs, and the music picks up another few seconds in its race for the deadline of the illusion. Bang. The little girl is laughing now, having fun. She kicks the box each time another face of it is presented to her as if she meant to kick it back to her seat. Bang. Bang. “Okay. Okay. So it’s quite real, quite solid, yes?
“Now can you stand over there, please? That’s right. Just there. And thank you. That was wonderful.” They smile and raise eyebrows at each other for an instant, two kids, and then the music lays on the whip again, and he’s back to the box again, opening it. putting a yellow felt bag in it, helping his assistant into the bag, handcuffing her. tying the bag, and then, last of all, with the help of two other assistants, chaining and padlocking the box that the little girl proved was so solid. He dances over to her again. They are all dancing now, caught up in the momentum of the music. “Could you just come over and check the locks and chains and everything?” he says into the microphone. She does, worrying at the padlock and then yanking at the chains as hard as her six years will let her. Then she rushes back to her place. The music rolls and climbs. The assistants dance. And Henning stands on the box, pulling around him what looks like a red shower curtain. The music stops. Henning’s face
disappears into the mouth of the curtain, and in its place, a split second later, comes the face of his assistant, the one who was locked so tightly inside the box. “Hello,” she says, clear as a bell into the pinpoint of silence, “it’s me!”
From that point on, the outcome is inevitable. The audience knows it, and they crane and peer at the stage, as the music comes bubbling back in above their murmur. Here it comes. First the curtain, then the locks, then the chains, and then the yellow bag. Five seconds ... 10 seconds ... 20 seconds . . . And here he comes. “Yes, but wait a minute, that’s not h . . .” The audience gasps, and here ánd there people rise from their seats, clutching at their programs and applauding. For not only is Doug Henning inside the felt bag in the same handcuffs he put on his assistant, he is also in a completely different costume, a white one. It shines in the spotlights as he holds his freed arms in the air and grins the grin of a man to whom something wonderful has just happened.
The Magic Show is full of illusions. There’s the Mis-Matched Girl, where his assistant is cut up into four different sections, and then put back in the wrong order; the Sword Levitation, where she is suspended in midair on the point (at the nape of her neck) of a single scimitar; and the Zig-Zag, where she is sliced into three, and her mid-section, a hand still flapping through a hole in the box that contains it, is slowly pulled away from the rest of her body. But the illusion with the box and chains, Doug Henning’s favorite, gives the best insight of all into what makes him a modern, rather than a traditional, magician.
“Ah.” he said when 1 first met him and asked him how it was done. “Ah.” And he raised his eyebrows, as one does to a child who, at the beginning of a treasure hunt, asks, against all the rules of the game, where the treasure is hidden. Eyebrow-raising is a habit of his, part of his performance. “But I’ll tell you something about it. It’s an illusion that Houdini used to do.” His hands, which he uses to orchestrate the flow of
A wizened drunk chased after him, shouting “You’re the greatest thing since Houdini”
his conversation, but which sometimes, because he is a magician, seem to fold and dart and turn with a life of their own, were suddenly still, as they always are when he is making what Pooh would have called A Magic Point. “But you see, and this is important. 1 perform the illusion differently from Houdini. First of all, it used to take Houdini 20 seconds to exchange heads, and 1 do it in a third of a second. Now I don’t want to knock Houdini. The point is that he could have done it much faster, and he chose not to. He wanted people to believe he was doing something very difficult, something that took superhuman powers. And I don’t want that at all. I do it as fast as possible, because I want it to look not easy — it’s not easy, it took me 10 years to perfect — but wonderful, miraculous, something so amazing that the audience stops thinking how it’s done; they’re too busy being astonished that it’s done.”
He paused, his hands cupped underneath his chin. “The most famous magician in the 19th century was a Frenchman called Robert-Houdin. Houdini named himself after him. And there was this thing that he said. ‘A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.’ And what that means to me is that magic doesn’t work if you just do it. You have to play it. You have to involve yourself in it. It has to be as wonderful to you as it is to the people watching you. If it’s not, then it’s just a collection of tricks. And I don’t do tricks ... I do magic.”
“A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” The first thing you notice about Doug Henning, apart from his mannerisms, is his energy. The day I picked him up after the evening show, he had done two performances, and before and between them he had been through a bombardment from potential agents and managers. Yet there he was darting round his dressing room like a goldfish in a jelly jar. taking off his makeup, writing something in the little notebook he always carries with him, pinning messages and calling cards to the wall, making neat stacks of the secrecy forms he’s had signed by everyone in and around the show, and talking, always talking, to the show’s press agent, who was there with her list of appointments, to me. to the equipment men. to anybody who came by the door. “I thought it went really well tonight . . . Yes. you should take a look at that . . . Who did you say? Mike Douglas? . . . Oh. thank you very much . . . Thank you very much.” Every now and again, he would stop quite still and give the per-
son he was talking to a complete and disarming attention. Then he would be off again, busy.
Outside the theatre, it was the same story. On the stage-door steps a gaggle of moon-eyed children had been marshaled, and at once he bent among them, signing autographs, pulling coins from behind their ears (“Look at that! A coin! Isn’t that wonderful!”), and managing to keep six or seven conversations going at once. At the end of the alley, there were more people waiting. 20. 30. then 40, men. women, children, and more than the usual crowd’s fair share of teen-aged girls. With a little grimace of mock fright and a quick raise of the eyebrows for me. he waded every bit as energetically into this new ambush. “You were terrific.” “Thank you.” “I really liked the show.” “Oh. thank you.” Before he signed an autograph, he asked each person hR or her name, so that he could write a personal message. This process took 15 minutes and 60 or 70 exchanges. all of them characterized by that sudden moment of stillness and concentration on the person talking to him. And yet even then he wasn’t finished. Pursued by a reeling, wizened drunk, who kept shouting down the street “the grea ... the greatest thing I’ve seen since Hou . . . Houdini,” he introduced me to the stage hands and the equipment men who were rounding the corner of Seventh Avenue, on their way home. It wasn’t, in fact, until way after midnight, after three hours of talk on the history of magic (he has more than a thousand books on the subject), the Great Tradition in magic (the line and legacy, he says, of Robert-Houdin. Reliar. Houdini. Blackstone and the Canadian-born “almost legendary” Dai Vernon). his life in magic (he started at seven, when he saw a levitation on the old Ed Sullivan show), and the future of magic (electronics, laser technology, holograms), that he finally came to a halt. And even then he didn’t seem to be stopping for any want of energy. It was more a matter of discipline, of a piece with the yoga exercises and the meditation that he does — “not as part of a religion, just as a relaxing and concentrating technique” — before every performance. He had as much bounce, when he left, as he’d had when I’d first seen him that evening.
But if energy is the first thing you notice about Doug Henning, charm is quite definitely the second. He is one of the most cheerful and charming people you have ever met. So much so. in fact, that after a long evening with him you
In Barbados, Henning put a notice on his motorbike: “Have rabbit, will travel”
are left with the strange impression that he has been performing for you. giving you a character who is too good to be true. “A magician,” you remember, “is an actor playing a magician.” And you wonder.
That he gives this impression is, looking back on it, partly the fault of The Magie Show, and the artful way it has been constructed (by Bob Randall, author of 6 rms. riv. vu., and Stephen Schwartz, composer of Godspell and Pippin) around this character Doug Henning playing this character Doug Henning. First of all, the show, which must be the first musical ever to have a lead who neither sings nor dances, enshrines all the principles Henning promotes offstage. There is no fake mystification. There are no gongs or cymbals or other Tin-Pan-Alley orientalisms. Henning wears Levis; he doesn’t wear cloaks or tuxedos or even, as in the poster, top hats. And his assistants, except for the one who, for the plot’s sake, is a transplanted genie, look as if they’ve just come in off the street, rather than from a dress rehearsal for Scheherazade, as is the norm.
To underscore the point that this is a new way to present magic, the RandallSchwartz team has even written in an old-style magician, complete with dropsical rabbit, as contrast. But the parallels go further than that. There’s the fact, for instance, that in the show the character Doug Henning comes out of the blue. So did Doug Henning, born in Fort Gary, Manitoba, raised in Oakville, Ontario, the son of an Air Canada pilot. He was 17, for all his performances for friends and birthday-party hirings, before he saw a professional magician in the flesh. Then there’s the fact that the show is set in a nightclub. This one’s in New Jersey, and it has clearly seen better days, but it’s not otherwise much different from Julie’s or The Mynah Bird or any of the other Toronto clubs Henning played while studying for a degree in physiological psychology (“My thesis was on hypnotism” — eyebrow-raise) at McMaster University. Nor would he be paid much more there than the $25 to $100 a week he got in Toronto. And then, of course, there’s the fairy-tale discovery. The one in the show involves a parody of a tough-talking New York agent, and the signing up doesn’t happen on stage; it happens, one assumes, shortly after the curtain goes down. But again, it’s not too far from reality. Henning wasn’t playing in a nightclub, it’s true; he was playing, last Christmas, at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre in
Spellbound, a musical-magical show that he and Ivan Reitman, a friend from university since become a movie producer, had put together. And Edgar Lansbury and Joseph Beruh, who saw him in Spellbound, weren’t agents; they were the producers of, among other things, Gypsy, one of the three shows, apart from The Magic Show, currently billed “Broadway S.R.O.” by Variety. But the results were, of course, the same. The Great White Way. Success. Stardom.
The Magic Show is about this engaging, impish young magician in jeans, who takes over when the old-style magician can’t hold an audience any more, and who is sent on to stardom by the first impresario ever to see him perform. (The impresario, presumably, sends him to Broadway to do The Magic Show, the show, in that sense, is what happens after its own final curtain.) And here in front of you is this engaging, impish young magician in jeans, who has taken over when the old-style magicians couldn’t hold an audience any more, and who is now enjoying the stardom promised by the impresario at the end of the show. Art and life (“Doug Henning” and Doug Henning) are in this case so close that his natural qualities, his charm and the attention he pays people, seem, in the confusion, both less than real and more than real. You’re not quite sure which Doug Henning you’re talking to, the fictional or the factual.
On the way to the Boston convention of the Society of American Magicians, 1 asked him whether it bothered him. “No,” he said, “I’m just me. I can’t help it if people get the feeling I’m someone else. But I see what you mean.” He thought for a moment. “The funny thing is that it usually happens the other way round. People thinking I’m something I’m not rather than not thinking me something I am. If you see what I mean. I remember I went to Barbados when I was 17 — I could get air passes because of my dad. And I had no money. And I rented this motorbike, and I put a notice on the back: MAGICIAN - HAVE RABBIT, WILL TRAVEL except I couldn’t find one on the whole island. Anyway, I finally got a job in a club. And there was this policeman, quite an educated guy — he had a degree in acting from the University of the West Indies or something — and he kept asking me to teach him magic. So finally I said okay, and we sat down one day, with me, you know, teaching him some of the basic things with cards. And he suddenly got very impatient, and he said: ‘No, I don’t want to learn this kind of thing. I want to
Henning hitchhiked across North America, often with no money, to meet older magicians and learn about magic
know the magic words. You just tell me the magic words, and I’ll be fine.’ ”
“Quiet, please!” The organizers’ suite of the Society of American Magicians’ convention on the twenty-sixth floor of the Boston Sheraton is crammed with people drinking from plastic cups. “Quiet, please!” Doug Henning is sitting
on a large lime-green sofa, between Slydini, a wry old Italian magician he describes as “the master of misdirection,” and Fred Kaps, a tall Dutch magician with a hangdog look reminiscent of Jose Ferrer. Slydini is trying to explain to me what misdirection means by making a cigarette disappear and reappear between his fingers. “Quiet! Can we have
some quiet, please.” A fat man. standing on a chair, is trying to make himself heard above the hubbub. When the quiet comes, it seems to take him by surprise. “Um, huhum. Ladies and gentlemen. Del-Ray has kindly agreed to give us some close-up magic. So if we could have a little space over there, and we could bring the table out. .. That’s right. Ladies and gentlemen, Del-Ray.”
“Isn’t this wonderful?” Doug is leaning across and whispering. “I mean, I used to come to these things all the time. I used to hitchhike to them, sometimes with no money at all, just to learn about magic and meet other magicians. Fred Kaps here doesn’t know we’ve met before. But I met him in Italy, at a convention just like this one, years ago, when I had nothing much but a Eurailpass to live on. I did magic on the trains.” He laughs, raises his eyebrows.
Behind us, Del-Ray, the king of electronic magic, is starting up his patter. “Are you there? Are you there? Listen, if you’re there, just put on the light. Don’t be obstinate. Just put on the light.” In front of him, cards are scattered facedown on the table, one of them chosen by a member of the audience. A light blinks on at the top of what looks like a tiny kennel. “He’s a wonderful magician.” Doug whispers. “I mean, wow, it really blows my mind to see all these people here. They’re my heroes. They’re the best anywhere. Look.” On the table a mechanical mouse is emerging from its little house. “Did you sleep well? Did you have a good rest? If you had good rest, just wag your tail. Just wag away.” The mouse obediently wags its tail, and then teeters out onto the middle of the table. “Why don’t you just turn to the right now and start looking at those cards? That’s right. Now . . .”
“Listen.” Doug is standing and beckoning. “Why don’t we go downstairs and see if we can find Dai Vernon. Del-Ray will be going for a while. We can find Dai, and then come back and see the end of his close-up.” Our progress out of the packed room is hampered now by all the people who want to wish him well. “I really loved the show.” “You were just terrific.” “Thank you.” “It’s really good for magic.” “Thank you, thank you.” By the time we get to the door, Del-Ray’s mouse has found the card. “You sure that’s it, now? You sure that’s the one you want? If that’s the one you want, you just wag your tail. That is the one you want? Okay. Shall I turn it over?” “Come on.” Doug is anxious to find Dai Vernon. “No. Wait a minute.” “The two of clubs. Is that right?” A
Dai Vernon, another Canadian, helped Henning develop the distinctive style that he calls “magic magic”
woman’s voiceyells“ Yes!”There is a lot of laughter and applause as we disappear down the hall.
The “almost legendary” Dai Vernon is the reason why Doug Henning has come to the convention. “He’s' Canadian, you see, like me,” he explains for the third time as we jam ourselves into a crowded elevator. “And how I met him
was . . . Well, about three years ago, I applied to the Canada Council for a grant to go round the world and study magic. And they gave it to me. Four thousand dollars. Isn’t that wonderful? 1 was the only magician who had ever applied to them.” He is completely oblivious of the people behind him whispering, “That’s Doug Henning. Of The
Magic Show." “And 1 went to Europe and studied with all these magicians. You know. I just went to them and said ’Hi. I’m Doug Henning. And I would really like to meet with you and talk about magic with you.’ And 1 did. They were really nice.” By now the knowledge of who he is has spread through the elevator. He is the only one talking. “And. anyway, I came back and 1 went to Hollywood, where Dai lives; he’s one of the hosts at The Magic Castle there. And he agreed to take me as a student. So I spent three months with him. I was the first pupil he ever had. We watched films, really old films, of Blackstone and Kellar and people like that. And we talked about magic, and we did magic together. And with him 1 developed my own style of magic. You know, what we talked about. Magic magic.”
They finally meet in one of the sale rooms, and it’s a good moment. Around them there are busts of Houdini, Kellar and Blackstone, stalls full of books on stage illusions and sleight of hand, and tables loaded with coins and boxes and canisters and cards. “Hi, Dai.” “Hello, Doug. You look well. How’s everything?” They don’t say much, but there is an enormous warmth and confidence that flows between them. And it is a good moment, because it contains so much of the history of magic in it. One man, 80 years old, moustached, dapper, and with the memory of a military training in his manner, performed for William Randolph Hearst and at Charlie Chaplin’s parties. The other, 27 years old and looking like nothing so much as a street urchin who has wandered into the hotel and has got himself caught up in a wonderful adventure, is just starting out. and yet he promises to be magic’s biggest star since Houdini. The past and the future are together in their meeting. And it’s appropriate, too, that it should happen here, amid the arcana of magic, the privately printed books, the secret paraphernalia; with Del-Ray, upstairs, now getting a mechanical bird to predict, with his cheep, the fall of four dice three throws from now; wfith 800 people dressing in their rooms for a banquet at which they will hear the chairman declare 1974 the best year for magic in 50 years, and at which they will see doves pulled from scarves, cards plucked down from the air, a violin that plays itself as it floats in the air; and with Doug Henning in the audience, waiting to catch the late flight back to the city of appearances where the real magic is how well you perform who you think you are. <ÿ>