THE BOOTLEG FILES: DOUG HENNING’S WORLD OF MAGIC III

BOOTLEG FILES 474: “Doug Henning’s World of Magic III” (1977 TV special starring Doug Henning, Glen Campbell and Sandy Duncan).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive title from the golden age of cheesy television.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely, sorry.

One of the most entertaining performers of the 1970s was the Canadian magician Doug Henning. With his shoulder-length hair, handlebar mustache and endless supply of enthusiasm, Henning won over audiences with cheerful displays of stage illusion.

I had the good fortune to see Henning in his Broadway production “The Magic Show.”  I was a kid in elementary school at the time, and I still fondly recall the energy he brought to that show. I also recall Henning’s’ many television appearances, where he always managed to win audiences with his charm and his magic skills.

Beginning in 1975, Henning starred in a series of specials that were broadcast on NBC. For the most part, they were hit-and-miss affairs – while Henning’s magical endeavors inevitably created delight, the productions were often weighed down by the klutzy entertainment protocols of the era. The 1977 offering “Doug Henning’s World of Magic III” was typical of  what the network served up for Henning. While several segments were fun, the show was mostly something of a disappointment.

The main problem with this show was that Henning was not the host. That duty was given to Glen Campbell, who read from his cue cards with a conspicuous lack of joviality and interacted with Henning in a rather obvious display of indifference. I can’t say whether Campbell’s performance was being influenced by anything he may have consumed, but his low energy helped to deflate a great deal of the production’s personality. Mercifully, Campbell mostly gave a mediocre introduction to each act and then stepped out of the way to allow Henning perform.

Henning opened the production with a few small and intimate tricks. First, he tore up a small piece of cigarette rolling paper before reassembling into a whole, and then he employed a pair of audience members in a card trick where it appeared the deck was moving by its own power. His audience volunteers also helped him scissor a silk scarf (which he magically reassembled in his fingers) and then showed off a seemingly impossible transfer of Canadian silver dollars between clenched fists that were held far apart. These little tricks were probably the most endearing part of the program.

In the following act, Henning took on the role of a janitor in a toy store. Several oversized dolls (dancers in costume) stood quietly while Henning enjoyed some good-natured foolery with broom balancing. Henning then assembled five large boxes into a vertical column, which he opened to reveal Sandy Duncan dressed in a blue trapeze artist’s costume. Duncan waved her arms and hopped around (she might have been dancing, though I’m skeptical), and then joined Henning and the large dolls (which suddenly came to life) for a series of mildly entertaining tricks.

After this, Henning returned and stepped into a giant cabinet where his face and hands were visible through large holes in the cabinet door. Henning promised that he would create something inside the cabinet by simply using his mind – and every minute or two, he opened the cabinet door to show his progress. By the end of the trick, he emerged wearing a different outfit and carrying a rabbit.

Campbell then reappeared, and Henning tried to show him the basic trick of making handkerchiefs disappear in one’s hand. After failing, Campbell stepped back and allowed Sandy Duncan to return (this time, she was wearing a blue quasi-Cossack outfit). After some more arm waving and hopping to music, Duncan allowed herself to be levitated by Henning on the edge of a sword.

For the show’s climax, Henning promised to walk through a brick wall. He produced the wall and one Mr. Jensen, a large man who was supposedly the bricklayer. Mr. Jensen stumbled when coming on stage, but was otherwise confident in promising that the wall was solid. Ultimately, the audience never got to see Henning actually walk through the wall – Mr. Jensen’s alleged creation was surrounded with a gauzy curtain and the camera was at an angle where it was impossible to determine what Henning was doing behind the curtain. Nonetheless, Henning’s ecstatic insistence that he passed through the brick barrier was enough to get the audience’s applause.

In order to ensure that viewers would not assume the magic was the result of clever editing, Henning insisted that this special was broadcast live. Alas, not having the luxury to re-record mistakes allowed for Campbell’s slovenly delivery, Mr. Jensen’s stumble and the surprise appearance of the boom microphone in the climactic act.

Ultimately, the special seems like a host of missed opportunities. One could easily imagine Henning staging a country-flavored magic sequence playing against Campbell’s music, or having Duncan (who was a genuinely effervescent performer) offer more input to the proceeding beyond a few mock-ballet movements or merely serving as a prop for a hoary old levitation trick.

Nonetheless, nobody back in the day was complaining. “Doug Henning’s World of Magic III” was broadcast to strong audience feedback on December 15, 1977, and earned four Emmy Award nominations including Outstanding Special. Henning returned the following year with another NBC special, but that program was marred by various accidents (including the backstage escape of caged tigers). As a result, his subsequent NBC specials were videotaped for later broadcast.

Henning remained active on television and stage through the mid-1980s, when he abruptly decided to quit performing and become involved with the Transcendental Meditation endeavors of the Beatles’ one-time guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He pursued political office and sought to create a TM-inspired theme park, but these efforts were anything but magical. Despite persistent rumors of a comeback, Henning stayed out of the spotlight and never sought to recapture his stardom. He died in February 2000 from liver cancer.

None of Henning’s NBC specials are available on commercial home entertainment labels. At least one enterprising bootlegger assembled all of the specials for unauthorized DVD anthology, while Henning fans have also posted some of the specials (including this edition) as well as his other TV appearances on YouTube – where at least he enjoys some degree of immortality (albeit in a slightly blurry bootlegged manner).

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on April 5, 2013 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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One Comment on "THE BOOTLEG FILES: DOUG HENNING’S WORLD OF MAGIC III"

  1. Ryan on Fri, 5th Apr 2013 10:19 am 

    Doug Henning, lol. There’s a flashback. I never saw this one, as I probably wouldn’t have been as amazed (and, frankly, creeped out) by David Copperfield walking through the Great Wall Of China some 10 years later. I don’t believe in God, but I still believe he was the devil. Doug was always great, tho.


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