Thursday, August 2, 2018

Doug Henning marks Houdini's 100th

Houdini once told an interviewer, "I am going to live as long as I want to and on my 100th birthday I am going to do my upside-down strait-jacket escape hanging from the tallest building in New York City."

Houdini did not live to be 100. However, New York City was the site of an outdoor Houdini feat to mark his 100th birthday in 1974. Doug Henning--at the time a largely unknown Canadian magician--marked Houdini's centennial by doing Metamorphosis in front of the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Ave. and 59th St. with his assistant Dale Soules. As you can see from the photos in the Daily News account below, he drew a nice crowd (click to enlarge).

Henning was in New York preparing The Magic Show at the Cort Theater. The musical opened two months later and became a Broadway hit, kicking off what we now consider the Second Golden Age of Magic. Maybe we can say it all started on Houdini's 100th!

For all things Doug Henning related, be sure and check out Neil McNally's terrific blog The Doug Henning Project.



  1. I knew that Dale was Doug's co-star in "The Magic Show"...but she was his girlfriend too?

    I always thought they looked cute together...they probably could even share each other's clothing (similar body-type).

    1. Maybe I don't have that right. I knew Doug lived with a girlfriend in NY during The Magic Show and I thought it was Dale, but I might be confused. Paging Neil McNally! (I've cut that for now.)

    2. In addition, to costarring with Doug in "The Magic Show" Dale Souls would frequently act as his assistant in touring college shows and other performances. But, I'm pretty sure their relationship was platonic.

    3. Thanks Neil. Maybe I was thinking of Mars.

  2. Trunk in the Park - Brian Lumley
    Doug made his first NYC public appearance on Harry Houdini’s 100th birthday anniversary, Sunday March 24, 1974. It was performed at the south east end of Central Park in the Grand Army Plaza in front of Sherman’s statue. At the corner of W59th St. and 5th Ave. across the street from the Plaza Hotel.
    Doug called himself the Wizard of the North; The Magic Show is not mentioned in the article because the show had not been named yet.
    This was at the very beginning of six weeks of rehearsals for an unnamed Broadway musical based on magic. Doug’s new magic show was not yet fully written and the music was not yet complete.
    Dale Soules had been practicing with Doug for about a month, this was her first public performance. She had performed with Doug at closed backer’s auditions but not the open public.
    They performed it on the pavement with no stage. With only his unamplified voice Doug gathered a large crowd of passersby, at least 100 people, with his patter. The performance was so well received they had to repeat it.
    It was one of those performances where I had to get the camera man, Mel Finkelstein, back from the illusion. He was so close he was standing on the cover drape as well as trying to get a picture of the switch. By standing on the drape he would have made Doug drop the cover banner and exposed the whole illusion.
    Mel was a little persnickety at first when I was trying to get him to back up. But Doug saw what was going on and said just the right thing. The camera man apologized, backed up and kept on taking pictures.
    Doug was very good at handling the audience. He was a true 10,000-hour tradesman that had knew how to get the audience where he wanted them. I was impressed with how he got this completely spontaneous and undisciplined crowd to “Stop, Look and Listen” to his patter and watch act twice. The second time they performed the trunk the audience grew. The gasps and applause were legitimate.
    I don’t blame Mel for his enthusiasm. He was wandering around the plaza looking for something interesting he could sell a photo of. Doug gave it to him.
    We saw more of Mel over the next three years.

    Doug and Dale truly loved each other but they were not lovers. They did not live together either. Glen Priest and I did live with Dale in her house in Brooklyn though.

    1. BTW, the date I have for this is Sunday, April 7, 1974. That's what the papers reported.

  3. Thanks John for catching the date. April 7/74, actually sounds better to me than March 24. I remember the event as being part of the NYC Easter events. April 7/74 was Palm Sunday. The weather was glorious, a genuine Easter bonnet day.
    Merle Frimark, The Magic Show's first publicist, sent me this clipping a couple of years ago and we have been discussing the date. For forty eight years I had thought it happened in April but the article says it was Houdini's birthday which is March 24 so I thought I was wrong. I changed my date to match the news clipping.
    You correcting it shows me that my mind and memory near seventy is still fairly accurate, thank you.
    In the last photo Merle is in the crowd watching the event. I can pick her out in the last photo with Dale holding the banner.
    The first three photos are from the first time they did the illusion. The last photo is from the second time it was performed. You can see the photographer has changed his position from the rear and above to down low in the front.
    Doug did a costume change in the trunk. The costume you see him in is his green opening costume for Act 1, scene 2 in Spellbound. He is in the same costume in the Variety ad of December 19/73. He came out of Metamorphosis here in his white Spellbound jumpsuit. The Magic Show copied the white costume.
    Merle and Dale are still very close friends.

    1. Back in 1974, April 6 was still widely accepted as his birthdate by the general public. It took a while for March 24 to permeate. Heck, the AP still shows Houdini as "born on this day" every April 6!

      Thanks for the memories and great details. :)