Houdini’s Chinese Water trick
By Ken Zurski
On December 26, 1975, a Friday, millions of viewers tuned their TV sets to NBC and watched a special hosted by comedian Bill Cosby, featuring dancer Gene Kelly and film director Orsen Welles, and starring a performer most people were not all that familiar with.
Not yet, at least.
Almost overnight, Doug Henning would become a household name.
Doug Henning’s World of Magic became the highest rated show of the evening and the third highest rated show of the week behind sitcom giants All In the Family and Maude according to AC Nielsen. Most importantly, it was the top magic television show of all time, drawing an estimated 50-million viewers.
Henning, a Canadian native from Winnipeg, Manitoba, had already been a successful act on Broadway starring in the rock musical The Magic Show in 1974. Henning had initially funded the project himself, calling it Spellbound, and opening to rave reviews in Toronto. When New York came calling, Henning reworked the show into a hit that ran for more than four years.
Henning says he got interested in magic at an early age while watching acts on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He started doing magic as a teenager but quit because he didn’t want to be just “a magician for kids.” While finishing up his physiological psychology degree at McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario and preparing to enter medical school, Henning’s love for performing returned. He also met a young writer and director named Ivan Reitman, who would direct Henning’s Spellbound production. (Reitman would go on to make several successful Hollywood movies like Stripes and Ghostbusters.)
The TV Special was the next logical career step for Henning. Sporting long curly hair, a bushy mustache and a big-toothed grin, Henning looked more like a happy hippie than a magician. He also wore colorful body suits rather than the traditional tuxedo and tails associated with magic acts. “Henning appears to be one of the last cheerful survivors of the Age of Aquarius,” wrote Jay Sharbutt, the television writer for the Associated Press.
Henning didn’t call himself as much a magician as an illusionist, saying it in a way that emphasized his point. “I’t’s an Illuuusion” he explained in a close up camera shot with his hands expressively fluttering the air in wonderment.
In Henning’s hands, things disappeared, vanished into thin air, then reappeared again. It was a magic in a sense, but in a sense, it was magical too.
“It’s important to me to create the largest wonder,” Henning told The LA Times in 1984. “If I produce a 450-pound Bengal tiger, it’s going to create a lot more wonder than if I produce a rabbit.”
In the first TV special he went big. For the finale, Henning recreated, in his own frantic way, Houdini’s “Chinese water torture” trick. The first trick of the show was a bit simpler, involving a coin in Henning’s hands.
Thanks to a sponsorship from oil giant Mobil, the show was broadcast live and without commercial breaks. Henning himself insisted there be no interruptions. “What’s the use of creating a sense of mystery and magic,” he explained,”when suddenly you see a guy pumping gas into a car.
“The reason why I wanted to do it live is that I feel magic has never been performed successfully on TV before. People are always suspicious of trick photography; they can’t really see what’s going on. I have created five illusions specifically for television in which a hand-held camera will be used extensively to give viewers a close look at the hocus pocus.”
Henning continued to enjoy popularity through most of he 80’s appearing on a dozen more TV specials and numerous talk shows. He worked on Micheal Jackson stage shows and went back on Broadway for another magic inspired show, “Merlin.” Henning also appeared on several segments of TV’s “The Muppet Show.” “Believe in your own magic and then nothing is impossible,” he told Robin the frog, Kermit’s nephew.
“With a curly mane of hair and a near-constant grin, Mr. Henning was one of the most famous illusionists in the world,” The New York Times explained. “In each case, he stunned audiences with a seemingly impossible array of disappearing assistants and levitating ladies. Doves became rabbits in Mr. Henning’s hands, and horses took wing.”
Before his death due to illness in 2000 at the age of 52, Henning had transitioned from magic to what he called the “real magic:” meditation and transcendental levitation. Some say he just dropped out of sight, but he claims it was more personal. “Magic is something that happens that appears to be impossible,” he said. “What I call illusion magic uses laws of science and nature that are already known. Real magic uses laws that haven’t yet been discovered.”
In his obituary, the LA Times wrote: “Wonder, Henning always said, is necessary in life, and magic can reawaken the wonder that occurs naturally in children but is lost to cynicism as people grow up.”
“Henning’s own sense of wonder,” the Times continued, “fueled his professional success and personal appeal.”
Even today, Henning’s groundbreaking TV special still resonates: “Every magician that’s out there working today owes Doug Henning a great debt,” said Las Vegas stage musician Lance Burton.