FOR HIM, MAGIC IS MORE THAN TRICKS By GLENN COLLINS Published: February 13, 1983
Television newsmen have tried to bribe Mr. Henning’s stagehands – unsuccessfully – to learn his secrets. ”I could patent the illusions,” he said, ”but then anyone could find out how it’s done.” Instead, through the years, the hundreds of people who have worked on Mr. Henning’s shows have been required to sign secrecy forms that read ”Because of my association with illusionist Doug Henning, I may learn some of the secrets of magic. I hereby agree that I will never reveal any of these secrets to anyone.” A few artisans who have constructed magic apparatus for Mr. Henning have tried to build the contraptions for others, and have been sued until they desisted.
Doug James Henning began saying his Abra-cadabras for pay in Oakville, Ontario, at the age of 14. Busily working children’s birthday parties, he used to levitate his sister Nancy; a few years later he was paying his way through college, earning $4,000 to $5,000 a year from sleight of hand. ”I did Rotary Club stag stuff in a tuxedo,” he said. ”You know, they’d have a belly dancer, a bad pianist, a terrible comedian – and me.”
It made him special. ”I was a little skinny kid with buck teeth and glasses,” he said, ”and I couldn’t get a date. I was real shy.” By the time he came to Broadway in 1974 at the age of 27, he was still shy. He was also a star. As with Mr. Rich’s review of ”Merlin,” his magic, and not the show, won raves.
”On Broadway I was like a kid in a candy store,” he recalled. ”Girls came backstage. I went to lots of parties. I had plenty of girl friends – but no relationships. I had money but I wasn’t happy on the deepest level. I don’t want to sound corny about it, but happiness comes from inside.”
It was during this time that Mr. Henning made his forays into impromptu magic, mystifying waiters and cashiers. ”Doing magic off the cuff, people only got mad,” he recalled. ”I hadn’t announced to them, ‘I am a magician and you are here to see magic.’ You see, people don’t want to be tricked or fooled: fooling and tricking and frustration go together.” He shook his head. ”I suppose I had to go through that stage.”
Although audiences are curious about how magic is performed, they have a certain ambivalence, he believes. ”Every once in awhile, something in a performance will go awry and people may see how an illusion works,” he said. ”You might think the audience would be ecstatic, but it’s always a real downer. People think they want to know. But they don’t really want to know.”
What people do want is a moment of wonder. ”There is a sequence of reactions for anyone watching magic,” he said. ”You say, ‘I see it.’ Your mind then asks, ‘How is it done?’ But at a certain point your mind gives up and says, ‘wow.’ There is a moment of wonder. You attain a state of innocence, as a child does. Then comes the applause.”
His magic has grown as he has grown, he said: ”In ‘The Magic Show,’ I was displaying my talents for the audience. I was so insecure – I wanted love from the audience. I needed and I wanted. But for the last four years or so I’ve just had the conviction that I was there to give.”
What does he give? ”I feel – how do I describe it? – in complete unity with my audience,” he said. ”I feel wonder about the illusions I do. I don’t like the word trick – what I practice is illusion.”
But still, isn’t he tricking the audience in every show? ”You can’t justify tricking people for a living, but you can justify giving people wonder,” he said. ”It can be uplifting and healing.”
Hearing him say these things that might make a press agent’s nose grow longer, it is hard not to be spellbound by his sincerity. The off-stage Doug Henning has the same gosh-Mr.-Wizard enthusiasm that so charms theatergoers. ”I don’t know why audiences like me,” he said. ”Maybe my magic makes people feel better.”