Thinking man's magician flirted with political career

'Have rabbit, will travel': Yogic flyer's Natural Law Party failed to capture the imagination

National Post (UK), Wednesday, February 9, 2000

Doug Henning, who has died aged 52, was the most successful magician of his generation. He performed his magic on Broadway, in his own television specials and in countless nightclubs. At the height of his fame he was parodied on Saturday Night Live by Martin Short, another Canadian, who went to university with Mr. Henning.

Doug Henning's magic was several notches above the pull-the-rabbit-from-the-hat variety. He had studied psychology and worked with master magicians to become what he hoped was the thinking man's magician. He was an entertainer first, his shtick the moustachioed hippie in psychedelic clothes.

Houdini was one of his heroes. In his first television special, in 1975, Doug Henning recreated Houdini's Water Torture Escape trick before a live audience, so that the home audience would know he wasn't using trick photography. That show was seen by 50 million people, many more than ever saw Harry Houdini in his lifetime. Mr. Henning later wrote a book about the legend, Houdini: His Legend and His Magic.

But it was levitation that first attracted Doug Henning to magic, when he watched a magician's assistant on The Ed Sullivan Show seem to rise and float in the air. Levitation became one of the grown-up Doug Henning's favourite tricks; once he even created the illusion of levitating a suburban house.

But levitation was also his downfall.

Doug Henning later abandoned magic for yoga and ran for political office as a candidate of the Natural Law Party, first in Britain in 1992, then in the Toronto riding of Rosedale in the federal election of 1993. The Natural Law Party promoted something called "yogic flying," which took the form of the faithful hurling themselves a few inches into the air from the seated yoga position. Doug Henning promised that yogic flying and meditation would cure such earthbound problems as taxes, debt and disease.

At party headquarters at the corner of Roxborough and Yonge Street in Toronto the curious came to see the famous magician turned politician. The committee room was packed when he rose to speak. But candidate Henning managed only 817 votes and he retired from politics and the party. Like many sensitive entertainers before him, Mr. Henning first became involved with meditation in the 1970s. He had been introduced to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian holy man who had popularized transcendental meditation. The Beatles were among his early disciples. Mr. Henning became an enthusiastic follower, and in the early 1990s got involved in trying to build a theme park dedicated to TM.

"A lot of theme parks are just superficial," he said. "We hope to reach people on a deeper level, to stimulate their intellect, arouse their emotions and touch their inner human consciousness."

The park was to be called Vedaland, with Veda meaning knowledge. There were plans for levitating buildings, and the Maharishi had ambitions for nearby housing developments with a stress-free environment. The first park was planned for Florida. It was never built. The second was to be built in Niagara Falls. Doug Henning promised it would create jobs and put an end to the stress of the recession in Canada in the early 1990s. But the Niagara Falls Vedaland was never built.

Douglas James Henning was born in Winnipeg on May 3, 1947. His family moved to Oakville, Ont., when he was a young boy. After seeing the levitation trick on The Ed Sullivan Show, young Doug read books on magic at the library and practised at home with a magic kit. He performed for the first time at a friend's birthday party when he was 14. He then placed an advertisement in a local paper -- "Magician, Have Rabbit, Will Travel" -- and was soon performing at parties and on television in Toronto.

After high school he went to McMaster University, where he studied psychology. He planned to be a doctor but took two years off to work as a magician. He then applied for and received a Canada Council grant to study magic. Later he borrowed $5,000 and built some sets on which to perform magic tricks.

In the early 1970s, he and a university friend, Ivan Reitman (the director of Ghostbusters), raised $40,000 and staged a rock musical with a magic theme called Spellbound. It set a box-office record at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto and launched Doug Henning on Broadway, where Spellbound, now renamed The Magic Show, premiered in May, 1974. The Magic Show ran on Broadway for more than four years, and Mr. Henning was nominated for a Tony Award. Two more Broadway shows followed, Merlin and Doug Henning's World of Magic, though neither matched the success of The Magic Show. Doug Henning married Debby Douillard in 1981. The couple lived in Los Angeles, where Doug Henning died after being diagnosed with liver cancer five months ago.

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