In doing some online research I came across this fascinating article from the December 20, 1982 issue of “People” magazine. The interview is notable for two reasons. For one it was written as “Merlin” was just about to open on Broadway, and the other being that it delves into Doug’s new marriage to Debby Douillard (Henning) and the beginnings of their relationship.
As all Doug fans probably already know, Debby was Doug’s second wife and primary muse/assistant during the last phase of his career. They were married up until his death, and in the years since Doug’s passing, Douillard has seemingly receded from the public eye. If any readers know what she is doing now “The Doug Henning Project” would be interested to know.
After Falling Under the Spell of Wife Debby, Doug Henning Hopes to Charm Broadway Again
Doug Henning learned one of his most valuable tricks not from another magician but from the manager of the famous mime Marcel Marceau: “Keep yourself scarce.” He has. Though he’s been doing his annual NBC-TV specials for eight years now, and frequently takes his act on the road, he hasn’t set foot on Broadway since The Magic Show, the popular revue that established him as big box office when he starred in it from 1974 to 1977. Now he’s back, this time with Merlin, a musical with a $4 million budget, lavish sets, stunning effects and stunts on a scale that, he says, “staggers the imagination.”
Indeed, the Mark Hellinger Theater has never seen quite such goings-on. There is exotic music. Beautiful women emerge from fire, burst into a constellation of stars, disappear into thin air. Chita Rivera, as the evil queen intent on doing in the young Merlin (Henning) before he meets the future King Arthur, changes a black panther into a temptress who tries to distract him from his magic. But Henning survives this and other hazards—at one point he disappears from a flaming cage being lifted above the stage—to triumph in the end.
Whether all this will dazzle the critics won’t be clear until the show, now playing to preview audiences, opens on Jan. 9. But for Henning, at least, Merlin is already a milestone that is not only professional but personal: The show’s water spirit, a lithe brunette dream woman he levitates above a fountain, is in fact a new wife who’s given him a badly needed lift.
Cut to 1981. Henning was trying to bounce back from a busted marriage. Exhausted after doing one of his TV shows, he retreated to a favorite haunt, the Transcendental Meditation Center at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. “Doug was just so sad and lonely,” recalls friend Jim Bagnola. “It seemed as though he was achieving all his goals and still remaining unfulfilled.” Call it luck. Timing. Or was it life playing a trick on a super illusionist? There, at a banquet, he met a beauty who would sweep away his woes like, well, magic.
To be continued….