V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Magic's modern-day Merlin

Published in the Toronto Star, September, 2010.
Part 4 of 5 in special inaugural Canada's Walk of Fame Festival.

As a young, budding magician, Doug Henning would practice his magic tricks on his younger sister Nancy, who was both his test audience and his assistant.

Being the “monkey” she was, Nancy remembers calling her older brother out whenever she could see through a clumsy sleight of hand or an unpolished act.

“I would say, ‘Oh, I saw that,' and he'd go away in frustration and practice some more,” she chuckled.

Every week, the teenager would throw his magic kits away in defeat and frustration. And every week, his mother would pull the same tricks out from the garbage can and put them back on his desk.

“Between the two of us, we kept him at it,” Nancy, 60, said from Calgary.

It was the gentle nudge and encouragement Henning needed to continue, and ultimately guide him to become the man credited for single-handedly resurrecting magic to a hypnotizing art form.

His wizardry, which involved tricks such as producing tigers out of thin air, beguiled adults and children alike, many of whom are now grown up and this year voted for Henning to be inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame as the recipient of the Canadian Legends Award.

The star is given posthumously to Canadian pioneers in film, television, music, sports and innovation. It's the only award based on a popular vote. Henning died at the age of 52 of liver cancer in 2000.

His 1973 production of Spellbound, a rock and magic show at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, was directed by friend Ivan Reitman (who would later direct classic films such as Ghostbusters and Animal House) and would spawn a franchise that included The Magic Show, which ran for five years on Broadway.

He also starred in eight NBC specials and three more Broadway productions, including the Tony Awards-nominated show Merlin. Henning was also the first magician to headline his own show in Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace and the MGM Grand.

As far as long-time fan John Harrison is concerned, this kind of recognition was a long time coming. A Wall Street attorney in New York, Harrison remembers the first time he became irreversibly drawn into Doug Henning's world of magic.

It was a Sunday morning, and Henning was performing on a children's TV show. Only, instead of pulling rabbits out of top hats in a monkey suit and tails, Henning emerged onscreen a mustachioed, long-haired, hippie in rainbow-coloured jumpers who brought a breeziness and warmth to the craft.

“Rather than present it in a mysterious mood, there was a modernness about it, a real brightness to his magic,” recalled Harrison, author of Spellbound: The Wonder-Filled Life of Doug Henning. “It was a completely different approach. He was the person who broke the old mould.”

Henning's magical repertoire was an impressive mix of the old and the new. He resurrected old tricks that hadn't been seen in years, Harrison said, but also wowed audiences with new illusions that eluded his peers.

Under Henning's influence, Harrison, too, became a professional illusionist in his 20s, performing at children's birthday parties and functions, which he eventually parlayed into an entertainment production company. He's now a real estate attorney.

When he heard of Henning's death on the radio, Harrison said it hit him like a wall.

“It felt like I lost a friend,” said Harrison, who first met his idol as a teenager, interviewing him for a magic magazine when he was 19.

It was at that moment that he vowed to write a book about him. “I was shocked that no one had done a biography.”

Henning was still at the peak of his career in the 1980s when he made an announcement that would shock the magic world. He retired from showbiz, turning down million-dollar contracts to perform in Las Vegas.

Henning had been battling a spiritual tug of war, Harrison said, that was heavily influenced by his interest in Transcendental Meditation, a technique from India that requires 15-20 minutes of meditation twice a day. The TM movement claims advanced practitioners could levitate — a feat Harrison says Henning hoped to achieve as a magician and ardent follower.

“There was a constant tension between the demands of his magic career and his quest for spirituality.”

The irony of a magician believing in the power of meditation to levitate wasn't lost on the magic community.

“Magicians, by nature, are excellent skeptics. They're unusually good at distinguishing between what's real and what's fraudulent,” Harrison said. “It left people scratching their heads.”

But it was also this transcendent belief in the impossible and in magic that made Henning such a successful illusionist, Harrison said.

“He was filled with a child-like wonder, from the day he was born to the day he died. Because of that wonder, he saw nirvana in Transcendental Meditation.”

In a statement to the Star, Henning's wife Debby said: “I'm honoured that Dougie is recognized for the legend he truly is — a legend not only in magic, but in the field of conscience exploration research. He's the pride of Canada and the pride of his family. I only wish he could have received it when he was alive.”

Despite losing out to Doug Henning for this year's Canadian Legends Award, a Facebook campaign to induct comedian Phil Hartman is back, spearheaded by Hartman's brother Paul. The Brantford native was best known for lending his voice to The Simpsons and his stints on Saturday Night Live and NewsRadio. He died in 1998 at the age of 49, murdered in his sleep by his wife, who also committed suicide.

The 2011 campaign to enshrine Hartman on Canada's Walk of Fame is part of a larger effort to honour Hartman and his work, with the first annual Phil Hartman Arts and Humanity Award, a charity auction, the launch of a website and film company producing original Hartman projects, and a gallery exhibit of Hartman's work as a graphic artist.

Before achieving success in Hollywood, Hartman designed album cover art for the likes of Crosby, Stills and Nash, America and Poco.

To vote for the 2011 Canadian Legends Award, go to canadaswalkoffame.com. It is the only star awarded based on popular vote.

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