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Inductee: Doug Henning

Doug Henning displays his powers of illusion in 1981. AP Photo.
Doug Henning displays his powers of illusion in 1981. AP Photo.

Reason for Induction:
For putting the “Whoo!” in Houdini, reminding grown-ups why the world needs wonder and plotting a yogic coup to cure Canada's ails

Citation:
At age six, Winnipeg's Douglas James Henning (b. May 3, 1947) watched a magician's levitation act on The Ed Sullivan Show and knew his life's path. His first great trick, performed at 22, was convincing the Canada Council for the Arts to give him a $4,000 grant to study magic as an art form. Henning went to Hollywood's Magic Castle and spent the money learning from masters of the craft. He opened his first rock-magic musical, Spellbound, at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre at Christmas in 1973, then took Broadway with The Magic Show in May 1974.

Henning was a sensation. His chipmunk grin, tie-dyed couture and infectious trill – “It's an illoooosion!” – stoked the world's imagination, leading magic from its stuffed-shirt, top-hat tradition into the disco age. On Emmy-nominated NBC TV specials, Henning made an elephant disappear, walked through a brick wall and recreated Houdini's acclaimed underwater escape – completing the last feat in half the time it took the old master. Henning's hands were insured for $3 million US. As an illusionist, his credentials were unassailable.

As a politician, though, Henning was a whole other story. He began practising transcendental meditation in 1975, and received his mantra from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1976. Henning quit magic for TM in 1986, selling his illusions to David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy and other entertainers. He became senior vice-president of the Maharishi's Natural Law Party, running for parliament in Canada's 1993 federal election. “No one will be required to work hard, get tired, get stressed, get taxed, lose heart, give up and remain in chaos,” the NLP's campaign literature cooed. All this, Henning believed, could be accomplished by gathering 7,000 “yogic flyers” on Parliament Hill to meditate twice daily. He received 839 of 55,928 votes cast in Toronto's tony Rosedale riding – indicating, if nothing else, that there were almost a thousand people in the neighbourhood who might be fun to party with.

Henning next tried to build Maharishi Veda Land, a $1.5-billion TM-themed park near Niagara Falls. Its plans included a Magic Flying Chariot Ride that would “take the visitor deep inside the molecular structure of a rose” and the Courtyard of Illusion, with “the world's only levitating building, which floats 15 feet above water.”

Alas, Veda Land never got off the ground. Henning left this world for another on Feb. 7, 2000, dying of liver cancer at his home in Los Angeles. He was 52.

Matthew McKinnon writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

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