What were your impressions of Doug’s as a person?
The thing about it was that that was 100% him. He didn’t come offstage and put on a three-piece suit, put his feet up, smoke cigars, and say “Hey, what do you think of this hippy look? What do you think I should be doing?” There was nothing calculated…So when that style later started to change a little bit, you know, it was a little awkward, but that style was him. You couldn’t say “Hey, Doug we have to do redo your style!” I think ultimately that’s why it worked because the audience perceived that that was 100% him. He was really that person onstage completely. He was sort of like a lot of performers where it’s that person turned up to an 11.
But, offstage he was quieter, a little sweeter, and a little more naïve. Onstage he was kind of knowing and sharp, but offstage he was much easier going and pleasant. I think that’s what audiences just got.
But, he was sort of a slightly chaotic guy. He would come in the office irregularly. It was always a whirlwind when he would come in. You know they were throwing mail at him, there would be packages there. He would be trying to sign pictures…It was kind of hard not be caught up in his whirlwind… However, his tendency was always to be a nice guy first which you really don’t see much these days…
Doug was aware of all of us…and I would say that was the difference with him…he was always aware that you were part of the team. He knew that you were involved in this thing. He felt your presence, and that was a pretty fun guy to work with.
What was it like working with him on his later TV specials?
The TV specials were amazing. I started full-time on them late, so by the time I started working on them they were no longer live. The live shows drove everyone insane. They were just hanging by their fingernails on all of them. Also, they were expensive because while you can say they were cheaper because you would just do them (live) they’d have to set everything up and rehearse it for months and months and months…
Doug was great in front of a live audience and just great on television as well…It was always exciting because Doug got super jazzed about magic. He loved interesting principals and interesting illusions. He was always happy with crazy ideas and so it was always fun working with him on that. Then as many of those as possible (from the specials) would work their way into the live shows.
Can you talk to me about your experience working on and designing for “Merlin” in 1982?
Merlin was a spectacular, fantastic experience at twenty-six. But, it was a huge, crashing, hair on fire disaster of a Broadway show. Now, having said that it’s really weird because having done stuff in New York you say “Merlin” and people go “Oh my God Merlin!” It ran for eight months, but there’s this feeling that it was one of those shows that opened and closed in one night. The thing that bothered people was that it previewed for two months, and they kept pushing previews back because they kept changing it. There was a reason for that because they kept bringing in different directors and choreographers. But, now you say previews for two months and people say “Yeah, so?”
They kept saying to the press that “It’s very hard because the magic is very technical and until we get that right we can’t open it.” That sounds right, that sounds good. But, in the magic department we were like “What do you mean? The only thing working is the magic!”
It was just a huge show that kind of didn’t have a focus. It also opened right before “Cats.” But, Doug was incredibly sweet and kind of incredibly beaten up and abused by it…There was no question that (for him) there was the weight of an eight million dollar show falling onto him. He felt that and it was really hard. So, it was really a tough show and he came through it okay. It should have been a bigger success and it wasn’t.
Doug Henning’s life was never ordinary. In our third part, Jim discusses Doug’s surprise retirement from the world of magic and the mysterious and never realized TM theme park “Veda Land.”