FOR HIM, MAGIC IS MORE THAN TRICKS By GLENN COLLINS Published: February 13, 1983
Some of the ”Merlin” magic, like the horse and rider that vanish in midair, or the monster robot that mysteriously comes to life on stage, is new. Other illusions are updated variants of necromantic classics, like the elegant disappearing-duck stunt, based on a vanishing act performed by the magician Okito early in the century. One bit of magic was even acquired by barter: The witty double sawing in half – where two wiggling damsels are reassembled incorrectly – was acquired in a trade with Tihany, a popular magician in South America who often heads north to catch up with the latest in American magic.
”I traded him my water levitation illusion for his double-sawingin-half illusion,” said Mr. Henning. ”Only he can’t perform mine in North America, and I can’t perform his in South America.”
There is more than meets the eye to the life of this magician. ”People come up to me all the time and say they can sell me ink to make me invisible,” he said, ”or paint to make me fly around the room.” His staff magicians – he calls them his ”magical think tank” – check the offers out. ”We do, and have, made use of the ideas that some people have given us,” said Mr. Henning; some of the suggestions have been incorporated in ”Merlin.”
But most of the proposals are crackpot schemes; some end disastrously. Mr. Henning recently spent $40,000 to develop an idea offered by one inventor that, by exploiting an electrical phenomenon Mr. Henning declined to reveal, could have enabled him to fly through the air. Ultimately, after a small model had been built and tested successfully, the scheme was scrapped. Mr. Henning calculated that, to make the illusion work with a human-sized performer during his most recent television show, he would have needed all the electrical power for the city of Los Angeles for five minutes.
It is the nature of stage magic to appear effortless. It’s not. ”Magic is hard work,” said Mr. Henning. ”If you only knew every morning how my body aches – it’s like being shot from a cannon, like being an acrobat. But it must look effortless.”
He is always in training, and he practices some routines for hours. Mr. Henning does yoga exercises for flexibility and he jogs in Central Park with Debby, his wife of two years. He also trains with weights in their 17th-floor apartment on Central Park West, with its two canaries and its three terraces overlooking the park.
Consistently Mr. Henning has ripped a new pair of pants several times a week through the duration of the ”Merlin” rehearsals. ”My costume has to be sewn just about every day,” he added. At age 35, he is 5-foot-6 and slender as a magician’s apprentice, though he declines to say if he weighs less than 115 pounds, his levitating weight during the run of ”The Magic Show,” his 1974 Broadway debut, which played for four years. ”I weigh the same as my wife,” he said, with the hint of a smile. ”I have to. Because of my size and weight I’m able to do things that no other magician in the world could do.”
Unlike the young Merlin, Mr. Henning betrays not the slightest bit of arrogance about his magic. Instead, patiently, and very engagingly, he describes matter-of-factly all the ways in which it is, well, the best there is. For example, the great Thurston or Blackstone could not have performed many of the ”Merlin” illusions, he explained: ”We use state-of-the-art technology. Consider just the costumes. You would not believe how much those costumes have to endure. Some have to be waterproof and fireproof just to make the illusions work. Some of them have to be super strong – parachute materials. I can’t tell you what other materials we’re using, or you’d easily guess how some of the illusions are done.”