A Magical Encounter: meeting magicians Doug Henning and Mars Barrick
My cousin Mark Wicken is a magician. In fact, he’s a very good one from what I’ve seen and read on the internet. So it wasn’t a surprise when Google and YouTube started offering me links to other Canadian magicians. That was when I noticed the name “Doug Henning”. If you recognize that name, it’s because Doug was one of the most celebrated magicians of the 70s and 80s. He appeared on late-night television, numerous TV specials, had a hit Broadway show and even appeared with the Muppets. But for me, seeing Doug’s name had more than media significance.
I met Doug in the summer of 1971. I was hitchhiking alone on Canada’s east coast, my first time away from home. I’d been standing on the TransCanada Highway near Fredericton for some time when a VW bus pulled over to pick me up. It was being driven by a couple who introduced themselves as Doug and Mars. They were touring their magic show and invited me to hang out with them for a day or two in between their gigs. I agreed and squeezed into the back of the van. It was filled with chests, changes of clothing, and a variety of what Doug called “magic stuff”. On the bed built into the back was a black top hat and a white rabbit. Mars told me that the rabbit was friendly and put me in charge of bunny cuddles.
As we headed down the highway, Doug and Mars shared stories of their adventures. Doug was originally from Winnipeg but had moved to Hamilton (my hometown) to attend McMaster University (from which I’d recently dropped out). We also both shared an interest in transcendental meditation (something which Doug pursued in earnest later on). The three of us (four counting the rabbit) hit it off and I ended up camping with them for a couple of nights (I had my own pup tent). Around the campfire, we shared stories and I marvelled at Doug’s passion for magic and his laser-focused vision for his career. He even mesmerized me with a few card tricks and the cutting rope illusion. At one point he suggested that I become their roadie, although I wasn’t quite sure if he was serious or if it was the ‘magic herbs’ talking. Still, with hindsight, I wonder where that decision would have taken me. But back then, I was just setting out on my own journey, searching for my purpose in life. I declined and said I needed to be getting back on the road. Besides, I was beginning to develop a crush on Mars and I didn’t wish to piss off a magician. I wished them and their rabbit all the best and waved goodbye after two magical days.
As the years passed, I’d read about Doug now and again. Within a year or so of our encounter, he’d quickly risen up the ladder of fame becoming one of the most celebrated magicians in the world. He was even parodied on Saturday Night Live (by another Hamiltonian, Martin Short). He had a Broadway spectacle and Hollywood specials. But by the mid-80s, Doug had more or less retired from the magic circuit and focused more on his interests in meditation. He even ran as a candidate for the Natural Law Party in England in the early 90s. I was living in Scotland at the time and thought about connecting with him but figured too much time had passed between us. However, I did wonder about Mars. Doug and she must have split up years earlier because Doug had married Barbara de Angelis in the late 70s, gotten divorced and married Debbie Douillard a few years later. Then sadly, in the late 90s, I read that Doug had been diagnosed with cancer and had died in 2000.
It’s funny how a chance encounter can stick with you all your life. When I met Doug and Mars, they weren’t famous. They were just a young couple on the road, a couple of artists trying to make a living doing magic. But what was ‘magic’ for me was their kindness and trust. They were the first people on that maiden hitchhiking trip who didn’t just give me a lift from point A to B. They invited me, albeit briefly, into their life. We connected in a way that felt authentic and meaningful. They trusted me and I trusted them. I’d never met anyone like them up to that point in my life.
Doug and Mars really believed in magic. For them, ‘magic’ was a choice you made about how you saw the world. Ok, it was the 70s and everyone believed in ‘magic’. But in the short time I was with them, I sensed they were different. They weren’t just long-haired hippies. They really wanted to change the world with their magic. And they did. Doug went on to become a show biz phenomenon and Mars (aka Mars Barrick) founded one of the first female magic duos with Maya (aka Lesley Walker-Fitzpatrick from Scotland).
But what’s always remained with me is the ‘magic’ they bestowed on a young, naive young traveller in the form of kindness, optimism, and a deep connection. And that wouldn’t be the last time someone who’d become famous blessed me with such magic. But those are stories for another time.