“Bed of Horrors” Article by Brian Lumley-Part One

Over the next few posts, I’m going to be publishing an exclusive article from Brian Lumley. I’m sure many of you know, but Brian, along with Glenn Priest, was Doug’s right hand man and technician during the early days of Doug’s career. 

This article encompasses the treacherous set-up of the “Bed of Horrors” illusion from “Spellbound” to “The Magic Show.” As you will see, setting up this illusion to work properly was a horror unto itself. 

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “The Magic Show, 1974 May”  The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1974.

The Bed of Horrors
©2020 Brian H. Lumley

The “Bed of Horrors” was the dangerous and thrilling piece of magic in Spellbound, Doug Henning’s first magical rock musical. I was the first Shadow (assistant/illusion builder/animal wrangler/ rigger) he hired for his revolutionary show. I worked with him as he became famous and left when he was at the top of his career, at the end of the 2nd NBC Christmas Special.

We received the illusion called the “Canopy of Death” from Owen’s Magic in November, 1973. The piece came to Spellbound shrouded in a political mystery. It was a rendition of an illusion called the “Table of Death” that André Kole declared as his invention. The argument in the industry was that it was a rendition of Walter Jean’s older illusion called the “Death of Cora.”  I vaguely remember Doug having to settle something about it, but I was unaware of the specifics. There was some form of contractual disagreement as to how it was to be presented, but by the time the illusion got to us, it was a done deal and the unit could be performed as we saw fit.

Doug was excited about this piece and wanted to get a look at the spiked bed as soon as it came in. Normally when new illusions arrived, he would help us open them, look at the parts, count the pieces and determine if the unit was complete. Then he left the Shadows to assemble the unit while he rehearsed something not too far away. But for the “Bed of Horrors,” he assisted with the entire first fabrication.

It was labelled the “Canopy of Death” on the packing crate, but it soon acquired its real name in classic authentic manner. The illusion was designed to look much like a four-poster bed on wheels, except instead of a nice mattress there was a hard board with holes, chains and locks. Instead of a frilly drapery canopy the ceiling piece had 60 six-inch long aluminum spikes. Once it was assembled and set in the trip position, these dangling tines reminded me of a nightmarish image from an Edgar Allen Poe horror story. 

The “Bed of Horrors” as it came from Owens for Spellbound looked menacing and it was a menace. It was about 6’, 6′ high overall, a little over 3’ wide and just less than 7’ long, made of square steel tubing, angle iron, and plywood. The top crown was a 4”x 4” angle iron that was supposed to keep it square, and did the best it could, but was not good enough. The escape mechanism was very well done, and was never a problem.  

The magician was chained down to the bed, and low cover curtains were drawn closed around the frame.   When released, the canopy of spikes was designed to come hurtling down the four corner posts, and slam onto the bed with the spikes showing through the bottom. 

After the top had come crashing down, the curtains were drawn open, and there was Doug sitting on top of the canopy. It was truly something out of one of Poe’s tales. If the magician did not get out of the way he was in serious trouble.  

“Horrors” was a mean-spirited device that kept me awake at night. Doug and I both had a lot of anxiety about this illusion. Me because it was dangerous and not functioning properly, and him because his safety was at risk.  It was well built, but the physics were slightly askew, and caused no end of aggravation.  

The raised spiked top was to slide down the four posts, but had a very bad habit of jamming part way down. This would elicit rounds of criticism from Doug, and bouts of cursing and swearing from me. At one point early in Spellbound rehearsals, when it was being particularly exasperating, I started calling it the “Bed of Horrors”.

Everybody laughed because they thought I said “whores.” I repeated and enunciated the word “Hor-ror-s” loud enough for everybody at the rehearsal to hear. This evoked louder peels of laugher, and this time the band got in on it. Lenny Gibson, the choreographer, played with the words a little and deemed it a valid phrase. As long as the word was enunciated.

To Be Continued….

Special Thanks to Brian Lumley

Magic Show Splash Page Photo:

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “The Magic Show, 1974 May” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1974.


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