Magician Doug Henning wants to fill the world with wonder.
"Magic is very, very important to the world right now," he insists, words rushed with enthusiasm. "People have totally lost their sense of wonder because of the stress of modern-day life. Wonder is seeing the world the way it really is. William Blake said if we could cleanse the windows of our perception, we'd see infinity in every direction; and when we do that, we see the world the way it really is--a totally miraculous place. Every instant of our perception should be totally filled with wonder.
"Let's say I'm doing an illusion--I'm making fountains come out of a table and I hypnotize a girl and put her on the fountains. The audience's intellect starts to become very sharp and they try to figure it out--there's 'something in the water, wires, magnetism.' All of a sudden, the fountains go down . . . there's nothing in the water. They're starting to doubt their own experience.
"And then I pass the hoop over the girl, which shows there's nothing in any direction. Suddenly they transcend their own intellect. They're still perceiving the illusion--which is beautiful--and they feel an upsurge of pure consciousness. Maybe for the first time in their lives, they feel wonder, real wonder; maybe for the first time they've experienced a higher state of consciousness. I used to have wonder as a 5-year-old, but I lost it, like most people do, going through the school system and the hustle-bustle of the world. But wonder--that's the true way we should experience life."
When Henning, 34, wand-thin with shoulder-length brown hair, brought magic out of the closet and onto the stage, the medium had been on a half-century-long downward spiral from the heyday of Harry Houdini. But from his first major production ("Spellbound" in his native Canada) through the "Magic Show" (the eighth-longest-running musical on Broadway) to seven yearly television spectaculars, the toothy Henning has brought his irrepressible showmanship to millions of new fans.
Houdini's magic was perceived as infatuated with death and the dark side of nature, but Henning's is positive, life-affirming. Although the spark of wonder has always been there, Henning attributes much of his current success to his deep involvement with transcendental meditation. To study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Switzerland, he left his Broadway hit (which ran two more years without him) and turned down a command appearance on Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee show, telecast around the world. Henning feels his magic has evolved so much that those costs were minimal.
Henning's first sense of wonder came at age 6 while watching a television magician levitate a woman. His first giving of wonder came soon after. "I got a magic kit. My first trick was to make a coin vanish from my father's handkerchief and reappear inside a box wrapped inside elastic bands. He was amazed, and that started me in magic. I couldn't believe he couldn't figure it out; I wanted to know why magic worked."
So Henning studied, poring over library books and mail-order magic kits (he's just approved and endorsed his first mail-order kit, from Japan). The first performances came at 14 (Henning's card read "Magician: Have Rabbit, Will Travel"). "I was a shy boy who did magic because it was a way to be different, and for my own ego."
After graduation from college with a degree in physiological psychology, Henning traveled all over Canada and the United States searching out masters who could teach a young Doug old tricks; post-graduate work included opening for Canadian rock groups. He soon found backers for "Spellbound." Opening night in Toronto was not too promising--the set fell on him, he fell offstage and then got stuck in a secret tunnel between sets and had to be pried loose--publicly. The rest of the run was smoother, though, setting attendance records and beginning the upward swing for theatrical magic. (Not all Henning's shows have been problem-free: Once a Bengal tiger got loose backstage at NBC and chased Tom Snyder into the bathroom; another time, another tiger ate up 27 of Henning's 30 prop animals, causing some fast and furious recycling--on live television.)
But while some magic tricks require artifice, Henning believes real magic is possible. "Things like levitation. I'm saying it is possible; my show is a metaphor for real magic. I'm saying, look folks, I'm doing all these things through illusion, but there is real magic. That's not a contradiction of science, it's an extension of science. The magic of today is the science of tomorrow--levitation, clairvoyance, telepathy, psychokinesis.
"Wonder is there, it's just blocked."
For Henning, "everything is caused by a law of nature. Nature cannot be altered. Magic is something that appears to be impossible--I levitate a girl, I levitate myself. In illusion magic, the cause of a phenomenon is known by everyone (it's usually a simple thing) but is hidden by using the four great tools of the magician--optical illusion, physical or mental misdirection and the power of suggestion. Magic is not beyond nature, it's not supernatural; it is supernormal, beyond what people normally think of as nature."
Henning sees distinct levels of magic: "The first is called tricks. You use the laws of nature, but you make something look impossible; you fool somebody and they try to figure it out. It's for entertainment value only, a trick or puzzle. The next level is illusory magic, which is what I do on the stage. It creates wonder. It's not a puzzle to figure out, it's a mystery to be experienced with wonder."
The next level is "real magic" where the magician makes something impossible happen by controlling the laws of nature, using his own mind, his ego. "It looks exactly the same as illusory magic to the viewer, except it's caused by a law of nature that they don't know about. The fourth level is miracles, which is not real magic. A miracle is when something happens and it's completely impossible and its cause, the person, is an instrument of God; there's no ego, he's doing God's will for the benefit of good. Real magic can be black magic or white magic, the ego is still doing it for good or for harm.
"We are the architects of our own lives, we control our lives with our own consciousness. If I were to levitate, I'd use my mind to control matter, make my body lighter than air, I'd rise up. I wouldn't go against the law of nature, I'd be controlling the law of nature from a subtle level of consciousness."
The Heir to Houdini
Henning is spending this week at Merriweather Post Pavilion with one of the last road shows he'll be doing for a while. All his time and energy are going into "Merlin," which he describes as a 6-year-old project about "a young man who becomes enlightened and gains control over the laws of nature, finds a disciple named Arthur and brings in the age of enlightenment when he pulls the sword from the stone."
Set for a November opening at the Alvin Theater on Broadway, the $4 million production will feature music by Elmer Bernstein, sets by Robin Wagner, and direction by Frank Dunlop. Henning says it will be quite different from "The Magic Show," which started out with illusions and had a thin plot written around it. "In 'Merlin,' the magic will be organic, it will flow, will motivate and be motivated by the plot and end up with a huge battle between white and black magic.
"It will feature some of the best effects we've ever invented. There's one illusion that'll knock everybody's socks off, one that hasn't been done for many years where a girl visibly vanishes on the stage into nothing-- away from all props."
Henning feels it's a play whose time has come as entertainment continues to move away from a base of violence and sex. "People are looking for happiness and the first place they look is the imagination, which is why there's the huge resurgence of fantasy and magic. But the real happiness is inside ourselves, in a harmony with ourselves and nature. Magic reflects the fantasy aspect, but it reflects this other aspect, as well."
As the popular successor to Houdini, it was fitting that Henning be given access several years ago to many of Houdini's secrets. While writing a book on those tricks, Henning "learned a very interesting thing: Houdini was a great seeker. He was obsessed with the fact that there was more to life than his senses could tell him. He wanted to conquer death, so he tried everything. Everybody thought he had a death wish; he didn't. He was an incredible spiritualistic seeker, but he had nowhere to look; he was looking outside himself instead of inside himself."
For those who still look outside, Henning has a stunning show. For those stagehands and technicians who actually work with Henning, there is a secrecy contract. "It's a friendly agreement," he explains. " 'If you tell the magic, you're spoiling it for your friends, you're taking the wonder away and they'll never enjoy the magic again, so don't go spoiling . . . also, this is a legal contract . . .' And nobody has ever told."