Doug Henning: Magician Addled by TM

Doug Henning liked to say that his ambition was to restore a sense of wonder to jaded Americans. There’s little doubt that he did it, even if it was only a sense of wondering why this droopily-mustachioed, diminutive fuzzball was making an elephant disappear instead of toking on a fattie. His goggle-eyed wonderment and gooey narrations were extremely irritating. But what was most interesting about Henning’s life was that he eventually rejected the mechanical production of illusion because he came to believe that people could fly for real, if only their minds could be changed.

In 1986 Henning, whose annual specials were still garnering high ratings, quit performing. He rejected his craft, which he had come to call “fake magic” altogether for the “real magic” of Transcendental Meditation. He sold his best tricks to magician David Copperfield and retreated into silence for a few years. It was a shocking move for the man who had done more to publicize magic than anybody since Harry Houdini. Henning had done the master one better by recreating the famous trick of escaping after being handcuffed in a sack inside a padlocked chest. Houdini did it in 20 seconds. Henning did it in less than 10. Houdini was a famous debunker of mystical frauds. But Henning became one and spent the remainder of his life trying to popularize mystical flying in politics and theme parks.

If his ambitions were absurd, perhaps it was because his determination led to absurdly early success. He turned a childhood interest in magic into a profession while still in his teens. Blocked by his age from performing in Las Vegas, he flew to Barbados, acquired a motorcycle and displayed a sign reading “Magician. Have Rabbit. Will Travel.” He returned to Canada, finished college, and convinced the government to give him a small grant to revive magic as a theatrical form. In a short time he had learned enough from veteran magicians in Los Angeles to put together “The Magic Show,” which opened on Broadway when he was only 26. It was a smash, running for over four years. The show combined flashy big-trick magic with rock music and elaborate sets. It helped fuel a revival in the ancient art of legerdemain that has continued until this day. David Copperfield would be a mannequin-like waiter, had Doug Henning not existed. Henning realized that illusions had to be big to impress people: “If I produce a 450-pound Bengal tiger, it’s going to create a lot more wonder than if I produce a rabbit.” The man was a colossus in New York.

He parlayed “The Magic Show” into an annual TV spectacular called “World of Magic.” In his second “World of Magic” special, in 1976, Henning made an elephant disappear and transformed a beautiful girl into Michael Landon. In an unscripted moment, a Bengal tiger escaped backstage and chased talk show host Tom Snyder into a bathroom.

He ended the show by saying “Anything the mind can conceive is possible. Nothing is impossible. All you have to do is look within and you can realize your fondest dreams. I would like to wish each one of you all of life’s wonders and a joyful age of enlightenment.” It might have sounded like a hackneyed TV signoff (these days it might include a few words about role models or a federally-sponsored anti-drug message). But what the audience at home didn’t know was that Henning was deeply committed to Transcendental Meditation. At one point he floated about the stage for a time cross-legged, like a yogi. He believed that enlightened people could fly, and he flew through mechanical illusion to inspire enlightenment.

The wonderment was real. According to the vigilant Martin Gardener, veteran cultural fraud policeman, Henning would periodically halt rehearsals of his TV specials so that those present could meditate while he attempted to float without mechanical assistance. His goal, Gardener says, was to float for real via TM on national TV.

Henning did seven annual “World of Magic” shows for NBC, more shows on Broadway, and staged magic effects for rock bands, including the Jacksons. He was a celebrity, appearing on the Tonight Show, dining at the White House, and shilling for various products. He had his hands insured for $3 million, $300,000 per finger.

Once he quit performing, Henning traveled to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He was convinced that his life should be devoted to promoting TM. He returned to Canada, where in 1994 he ran for parliament as a candidate of the Natural Law Party. His platform included employing 7,000 flying yogis who would meditate to cure the nation’s ills. Natural Law touted the “Maharishi effect,” which they claimed helped to bring down the Berlin Wall, caused stock-markets to rise, and cut crime. As powerful as it might be, the Maharishi effect couldn’t get Doug Henning elected to the Canadian Parliament. He garnered a distinctly unmiraculous 839 votes out of 55,298 cast.

Having failed in politics, and been branded a kook in the Canadian press, Henning turned his eye to publicizing the Maharishi’s teachings at a theme park he called Veda Land. Veda Land was to be a $1.5 billion project, to be located, he explained in interviews in different years, somewhere in the Canadian wilderness, or at Niagara Falls, or in the middle of Iowa. When asked whether it would resemble Jim Bakker’s failed Christian theme park Heritage USA, he replied, “It’s more like, Wow! Isn’t enlightenment great?” To promote such deep sentiments, Veda Land would feature a floating building and, well, Ganesha knows what else. The man who found unparalleled success creating illusions ended up fooling only himself.