Remembering Doug Henning — looking back on the career of the popular magician

By Troy Patterson
February 18, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Remembering Doug Henning: The Day the Magic Died

To understand Doug Henning‘s trick of reinvigorating magic in the ’70s, glance back at 19th-century French trickster Robert-Houdin, who some say wore a top hat and tails to look more like his audience. “Magicians were so f—ing stupid they thought that was always how it was supposed to be,” explains rebel magician Penn Jillette. Henning started dressing down again, “with his tie-dye and his Farrah Fawcett hair. It was very different from the usual condescending, close-lipped magician.” That garrulousness extended to generosity when he let audiences in on the art of illusion.

Henning — who reportedly died Feb. 7 of liver cancer at age 52, in L.A. — was mesmerized as a boy after seeing a levitation stunt on TV in his native Winnipeg, Canada, and presto! — he became the most famous prestidigitator of the pre-Copperfield era. His Broadway Magic Show and his Emmy-nominated NBC specials (updating Houdini’s water-torture escape, among other hoodoo) spellbound millions. In the late ’80s, Henning virtually quit showbiz to pursue Transcendental Meditation and ultimately came to believe he could, literally, fly. With or without aerodynamic exploits, his was a soaring talent.