A quick glance on the internet will provide you with a wealth of websites devoted to Harry Houdini, Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, and many of magic’s most famous performers. Up until about five months ago, there was no such page for Doug Henning, arguably one of the most influential magicians of the 20th century. Neil McNally decided it was time to fix that by creating the Doug Henning Project.
McNally is a pop culture writer from Los Angeles who has long held a fascination both for the history of magic and Doug Henning’s work. He noticed that while Henning’s legacy is revered among the magic community, other than a 2009 book called Spellbound, a Wikipedia page, and a handful of articles in newspapers or on websites, there was no single source devoted to chronicling and archiving his career.
“When I first thought of the idea I was floored that someone else hadn’t done it before. It really, really surprised me,” McNally told GeniiOnline via email. “But, I think part of it has to do with a couple factors. One being that Doug retired in 1987 to pursue more spiritual matters with Transcendental Meditation. Once he was done with magic he was done with it. There was no legacy building or archiving of his career on his part and this was all pre-internet. So, unfortunately over time what happens with that is you get sort of lost in the shuffle.”
It also doesn’t help that Henning fully embraced the psychedelic colors, flashy style, and mysticism of the 1970s and early 1980s. While star-spangled spandex jumpsuits were all the rage then, they unfortunately make Henning appear dated compared to the formalwear of the magicians who came before and after, even though his actual craft remains just as impressive today. It means that, according to McNally, “[Henning’s] not taken as seriously as he 100% deserves to be,” and it’s one of the barriers that McNally is attempting to break down with his work on the site.
Even though the drop in awareness of Henning’s legacy among the general public in recent years makes the archival process difficult, luckily there’s no shortage of information out there to find. “Google definitely has been a great resource for finding old interviews with Doug,” McNally tells us, “but it’s not the only place. Services like eBay are also a treasure trove if you want to find rare items like programs and photos. I’ve also been really fortunate to have Doug’s fans send me items from their collections to post on the site. Whether it’s newspaper articles or photos of Doug’s old outfits, fans want to help and have really, really been appreciative of what I’m trying to do.”
The Doug Henning Project features YouTube videos, reprints of articles from vintage magazines, and other important ephemera, but it also features something you can’t find anywhere else: interviews with other magicians providing an oral history of Henning’s legacy. “As I live in Los Angeles,” McNally says, “I’ve been very fortunate that legendary names in magic such as Milt Larsen, Jim Steinmeyer, and John Gaughan have all made time to share their memories of Doug with me. It’s really a measure to how much he was respected.”
McNally hopes that the site can be a place to learn more about Henning’s life and career, of course, but he also wants it to be a place where fans and other magicians can go to share their own memories and reflect on his boundless enthusiasm and positivity. “I can’t tell you how many times people have sent pictures to me of meeting him after a show and how much that still positively affects them,” McNally says. “Also, on a deeper level the world is currently facing some troubling times. While I can’t solve its problems, what I can do is try to bring back a little bit of Doug’s magic, wonder, and positive view of the world that we all share.”
The Doug Henning Project updates regularly with original features and interviews, reprints of old articles, and various discoveries from YouTube and other corners of the internet. You can visit the Project directly via the official site, or follow it on Facebook or Twitter. And if you have any stories, photos, or anything else related to Henning you’d like to share, you can contact McNally directly via email.