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Groovy Magician Doug Henning

Entertainment | December 11, 2018

Doug Henning -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank (Getty Images)

In the 1970's, the world of magic was dominated by two people, the dashing and debonair David Copperfield, and the groovy, hippie Doug Henning. Although Copperfield would pull off some of the largest magic tricks ever attempted, it was Henning, with his Jesus hair, bright spandex jumpsuits, and groovy persona that propelled him to the top of his field. Although Henning died tragically young, he paved the way for other magicians and illusionists, like Criss Angel, by showing that successful magicians don’t have to be confined to tuxedos. 

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Dr. Doug Henning?

Although Henning dabbled in magic as a boy and teen, he enrolled in college in his native Canada with the intention of earning a medical degree. He did his magic act at local bars and clubs just as a way to earn money for school. After he completed his bachelor degree in psychology, he decided to take a few years away from school to save money for med school. During this time, he took his magic act on the road, touring across Canada and building a name for himself as a magician. 

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Good-bye, Med School. Hello, Magic School

Performing his magic in front of live audiences was addicting for Henning. He decided to shelf his plans for medical school to focus more on his act. Henning was awarded a grant from the Canadian government after persuading them that magic performance is an art form. He invested the grant money into crafting a stage show, which he titled Spellbound and had a successful run in Toronto.  

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Henning Brought the Groovy to Magic

Henning’s show, Spellbound, and his next stage show, The Magic Show, which ran on Broadway in May of 1974, were wildly popular with audiences because they brought a contemporary twist to traditional magic shows. Henning incorporated rock music, brightly colored costumes, and modern dance into his stage show. It was a complete package of music and magic that totally captured the groovy vibe on the seventies and brought a theatrical modernization to the magic industry. The Magic Show enjoyed a four and a half year stay on Broadway and earned Henning a Tony Award nomination. 

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NBC Came Calling

The success of Henning’s The Magic Show on Broadway caught the attention of the producers at NBC. They invited Henning to perform in his own television special which was called Doug Henning’s World of Magic. The 1975 TV special was an enormous hit and attracted more than 50 million viewers. Henning even gave a nod to Harry Houdini, the most famous magician in history, by recreating Houdini’s famous water torture escape trick. The live television audience was mesmerized by the young, hippie-looking Henning and his impressive bag of tricks. 

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More TV Specials Followed

So successful was Doug Henning’s World of Magic that the groovy magician went on to present seven more TV specials. From 1975 to 1982, Doug Henning’s World of Magic was an annual television event. Henning earned an Emmy Award for his television work. He also guest starred on a number of other shows, including The Muppet Show

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Henning Returned to Broadway

In the early 1980's, Henning created another Broadway stage show, Merlin, which created a sensation with its high-energy music, flashy costumes, and mind-blowing illusions. Merlin earned Henning five additional Tony Award nominations.  

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Henning Single-Handedly Modernized Magic

Magic historians point to Doug Henning as the one person solely responsible for changing the face of magic in the entertainment business. Before Henning, magicians were serious and sophisticated…and almost always wore tuxedoes. Henning, on the other hand, opted to wear groovy, sparkly, spandex jumpsuits. He wore his hair long and sported an impressive mustache, both of which gave him a new-age, hippie appearance. Henning made magic relatable to the new generation of fans by adding current music and dance to his stage show. His performances were a flashy, upbeat, groovy experience. 

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Henning Retired from Magic

In the mid-1980s, Doug Henning gave up his magic. He tried his hand, unsuccessfully, in politics, but really immersed himself in transcendental meditation. In fact, he was planning to oversee construction of a $1.5 billion transcendental meditation theme park in Ontario at the time of his death. Plans were halted in 1999 when Henning was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died in early 2000 at the age of 52. 

Tags: Magic, Magician, groovy era, Doug Henning, 1970s

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.