After Falling Under the Spell of Wife Debby, Doug Henning Hopes to Charm Broadway Again

updated 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Doug Henning learned one of his most valuable tricks not from another magician but from the manager of the famous mime Marcel Marceau: "Keep yourself scarce." He has. Though he's been doing his annual NBC-TV specials for eight years now, and frequently takes his act on the road, he hasn't set foot on Broadway since The Magic Show, the popular revue that established him as big box office when he starred in it from 1974 to 1977. Now he's back, this time with Merlin, a musical with a $4 million budget, lavish sets, stunning effects and stunts on a scale that, he says, "staggers the imagination."

Indeed, the Mark Hellinger Theater has never seen quite such goings-on. There is exotic music. Beautiful women emerge from fire, burst into a constellation of stars, disappear into thin air. Chita Rivera, as the evil queen intent on doing in the young Merlin (Henning) before he meets the future King Arthur, changes a black panther into a temptress who tries to distract him from his magic. But Henning survives this and other hazards—at one point he disappears from a flaming cage being lifted above the stage—to triumph in the end.

Whether all this will dazzle the critics won't be clear until the show, now playing to preview audiences, opens on Jan. 9. But for Henning, at least, Merlin is already a milestone that is not only professional but personal: The show's water spirit, a lithe brunette dream woman he levitates above a fountain, is in fact a new wife who's given him a badly needed lift.

Cut to 1981. Henning was trying to bounce back from a busted marriage. Exhausted after doing one of his TV shows, he retreated to a favorite haunt, the Transcendental Meditation Center at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. "Doug was just so sad and lonely," recalls friend Jim Bagnola. "It seemed as though he was achieving all his goals and still remaining unfulfilled." Call it luck. Timing. Or was it life playing a trick on a superillusionist? There, at a banquet, he met a beauty who would sweep away his woes like, well, magic.

"My friends said there was practically a flash of light," says Henning, 35. "I had never felt anything like it in my whole life." The dazzler was Debby Douillard, 27, an abstract painter with bottomless blue eyes who was taking classes at the university and also had just separated from her spouse. She, too, felt Cupid's bolt: "It was like I blossomed right on the spot."

They got engaged within the week and wed last December. He still marvels at the sorcery she's worked on him. "When I perform, I could love a million people," Henning admits, "but I had trouble loving one person. I would separate love and sex. Debby's helped me overcome my fear of intimacy." Her problem was shyness, and Henning's Rx has been to use her not only in Merlin but also on tour, where she performs as a singer, dancer and his assistant. "I have a tendency to be inward," says Debby. "Doug's turning me inside out. Sometimes it's painful, but it's a great growing experience."

Henning's interest in magic was sparked when, as a 7-year-old in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, he saw a magician levitate a girl on TV. He got a magic kit, and his mother Shirley encouraged him to perform for his two sisters, hoping it would draw him out. He was so shy, he recalls, that "when company came I used to hide in the clothes hamper." His father, Clarke, an Air Canada pilot, built him a table to perform on, and by 14 he was making $15 a week at parties. At 17, he spent a summer playing nightclubs in Barbados. Then, when he was 21, his father died in a plane crash. He had to use his magic act to earn enough to finish McMaster University, where he majored in psychology. Once he worked a strip joint: "I was real innocent and had never seen a naked woman."

After graduating in 1970 he decided to "give magic a whirl" before going into medicine. But the next year he suffered a lung collapse, the result of a congenital ailment. In three months he underwent 13 unsuccessful attempts to permanently reinflate his lungs. He says he lost 35 pounds, became addicted to morphine, the painkiller he was given, and came to realize "there was a chance I was going to die." Then a 14th try succeeded. "It's the greatest miracle that I am alive," he says.

He stuck with magic. In 1973, he borrowed $5,000 from his mother and, with a friend, launched a rock musical-cum-magic show called Spellbound in Toronto. That led to his role in The Magic Show. Though one critic hailed him as "the most exciting magician since Houdini, Thurston and Blackstone," Doug recalls, "I was only making $500 a week, less than the members of the orchestra."

Assorted groupies and sharks pursued him, however: "Every night there would be some agent with a beautiful girl. He would buy me champagne and try to have her take me home to get me to sign up." Henning credits Transcendental Meditation, which he practiced daily to keep rested and alert enough to perform, with keeping him from booze and other temptations. "If I didn't have meditation it would have been pretty hard for me," he says.

After leaving The Magic Show, he eventually received $50,000 that was due him from the producers. He went to California and set up a factory to make props and other paraphernalia for his act and for the soul group Earth, Wind and Fire. He also wed songwriter Barbara DeAngelis, with whom he hammered out the Merlin concept. But career demands drew them apart. They divorced last year, a few months after he met Debby.

The daughter of Roger and Ann Douillard, who run a contracting firm in a New York suburb, Debby grew up with "two selves," she says. "One really loved art. The other really wanted to be onstage." She majored in fine arts at Cooper Union in Manhattan and did summer stock. After graduating in 1977 she wed José Carcamo, a Mexican artist she met at a Transcendental Meditation center. They moved to Mexico to paint, but split in 1980. "Culturally there were too many differences," she says. A few months later she went to Maharishi University.

Henning remembers that at first her folks "were afraid I'd take their daughter off and dump her." They needn't have worried. The Hennings are now building a home next to the Iowa campus as a retreat from showbiz. In New York they have a sublet overlooking Central Park. They even share each other's clothes. "We're the same size," says the 5'6", 125-pound Henning. Both are vegetarians who don't drink or smoke. "Our bodies are very pure," says Debby, "and meditation refines the nervous system." Observes Merlin director Frank Dunlop: "They have a sort of serenity."

They want children eventually. Says Doug: "The first words our kid will say will be, 'Pick a card.' " By that time, though, Mom and Dad hope to have gone beyond illusion to the "real magic" they say comes from meditation and a superhigh level of consciousness. "We know it exists," insists Debby. "Someday you'll see us flying over Central Park. We really have that much belief." Perhaps. But for now, they'll settle for levitating nightly at the Mark Hellinger.

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