Why Should Magicians Know About Glenn Priest?

In today's guest post, Chris Pilsworth writes about how Glenn Priest's career suddenly pivoted to work alongside magicians like Doug Henning and David Copperfield.

Why Should Magicians Know About Glenn Priest?

In my 35 years as a full-time magician, I’m frequently amazed at how serendipity jumps in and creates a detour in a planned career. I live in Ottawa, Canada and one evening, when I was performing walk-around magic at a corporate event, one of the guests stated that he went to high school with Glenn Priest in Granby, Quebec. He thought Glenn was back in Granby looking after his mom, who was ill.

The next day I found out that there were two Priests in Granby. Fortunately, the first call I made was to the correct residence (this would have been before the internet made tracking people so much easier).

At this point, I should explain that Glenn Priest worked as a technical director, builder and fixer for Doug Henning. Glenn had graduated from George Brown College in Toronto in theatre, and Doug was preparing his first significant theatre show, Spellbound, which was presented at the Royal Alexandra theatre in Toronto. Glenn was working at a strip club, running the sound and lighting. Above the club on the second floor was where Doug was rehearsing the show.

When Glenn went out for a smoke on the fire escape, Doug came out, and the door hit Glenn. The two started a conversation that would last many years. Doug needed what Glenn had studied, and that began the friendship.

A few Broadway producers were in Toronto when Spellbound ran for a few weeks. They thought the show had the potential for New York audiences. Ivan Reitman was the director of the show. You may know him as the director of Ghost Busters and other Hollywood hits. Ivan negotiated the transfer of the show to New York. The new show required Doug as the lead and Glenn Priest as the tech director. The show was rewritten and became The Magic Show.

Doug wasn’t a star when he arrived in New York, so he was being paid scale for his performance. During the daytime, Doug, Glenn and another assistant would load up a van, perform shows at colleges within the NYC area, and then return to perform The Magic Show at night. The theatre in which the show was held was the Cort Theater, which has recently been renovated and re-named as the James Earl Jones theatre (James Earl Jones is the voice of Darth Vader).

During the 4-year run of The Magic Show, promotion was always important. A children’s TV show, The Electric Company, had a magazine that they published. One issue featured Doug. The cover photograph had Doug suspending one of the cast members of the Electric Company while atop the former World Trade Centre in New York. Glenn was responsible for the set-up of the Super X. The shot gave the impression that Doug was on the very edge. However, it was safe for all.

Fast forward a few years when Doug was preparing his first TV special. The finale was Houdini’s Water Torture Cell. The motor to raise the curtain was malfunctioning. This was the evening before the show was to shoot live. Glenn needed a quick solution, so he ended up going to a junkyard that was nearby and open all night. He bought a scrapped engine block which was rigged up as a counterweight for the curtain. This is one example of creating a solution that needs to be quick but not necessarily pretty or elegant.

After the Magic Show finished its New York run, Doug was performing his TV shows and touring. The finale of one tour was the vanishing of an elephant. One major accident occurred in the theatre in Buffalo, NY. The elephant was usually led onstage by the handler. This night, the elephant was hesitant. When finally coaxed on, the elephant broke through the stage and landed on the floor below.

Glenn told me a company had rented the Buffalo theatre to introduce a new American car. The introduction of the vehicle involved raising it up through the stage floor. When the car company restored the stage floor, they didn’t fix it to the original specs. The weight of Doug’s elephant exceeded the capacity of the stage floor. The elephant was not injured. However, many lawsuits ensued. Doug’s tour resumed several days later. The theatre's roof was cut open to rescue the elephant, and a crane lowered slings to lift the elephant up and out.

The first time Doug performed in Las Vegas, the show went ten minutes over time. Glenn told me that a big tough guy associated with the Casino showed up in the green room and demanded cash for the time that the theatregoers were not in the Casino losing money. The amount of cash was substantial. Glenn believed this was one of the reasons that Doug preferred not to work in casinos. He didn’t want to be the draw for showgoers to lose their money.

Glenn worked for Doug until just before previews of Doug’s second Broadway show, Merlin. Doug was now very involved in Transcendental Meditation and would carve out specific times of the day to meditate.

While preparations for Merlin were taking place, Doug would meditate. This would mean union stagehands and other union workers would be waiting around, doing nothing until Doug finished his session. The amount of money being wasted was significant. Exasperated, Glenn asked Debbie, Doug’s second wife, to get Doug to the stage. If he didn’t return to the stage, Glenn would quit. Doug didn’t return, and Glenn left.

After leaving Doug’s organization, Glenn worked on other technical direction contracts. He was involved with David Copperfield’s Vanishing the Statue of Liberty. When permission was granted to Copperfield to film the illusion, the team rehearsed the entire procedure on a sports field in New Jersey. They needed to bring all the equipment in by barge, set up and shoot, pack up and leave in a very short overnight window. The rehearsal process allowed the team to work out all the details in advance.

Glenn was also the principal technical director of one of Michael Jackson’s world tours. The production was so big that there needed to be 5 or 6 subtechnical directors. Glenn phoned the top 10 in the US. Some wouldn’t accept the contract because they would not be the chief. He did get enough to make the show work.

Another project that Glenn had was as the technical director of Expo ‘86 in Vancouver, Canada. One of the performers was Philippe Petit, a circus performer who would walk on a tight rope. If the name sounds familiar, it is because Philippe strung a cable across the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and walked between the two towers.

In Vancouver, Philippe was hired to do his high-wire walking. Philippe became exasperated when the cable was not strung properly. He approached Glenn, who then fixed the problem immediately.

Glenn’s skills in problem-solving weren’t limited to the theatre. When he retired, he retrofitted his mother’s home to allow her to live comfortably. She used a wheelchair. Included in the many modifications was a brilliant system so that she could use her bath and shower.

When I was presenting my illusion show, I hired Glenn as a consultant to improve the illusions. He travelled to Ottawa, where I live, and for a couple of days, instructed my team and me on improvements that could be made with the illusions to make them more deceptive and with staging. He had a no-nonsense approach built up over decades of working with the best.

I was very fortunate that he was willing to work with an unknown. He was very down-to-earth. Glenn is no longer alive, but I’m very happy that I got to know him as a result of performing walk-around magic at a company event.