Siegfried and Roy and Everything After

Ten years ago, a tiger named Montecore ended an era in Las Vegas entertainment. What did we lose?

Illustration by Feld Entertainment

Illustration by Feld Entertainment

For the ninth year in a row, Roy Horn stood next to his partner of half a lifetime as they tapped the ceremonial keg at Hofbräuhaus and ushered in Oktoberfest. Siegfried Fischbacher, in a traditional green jacket and lederhosen, looked like a Bavarian fairy-tale prince. Roy, dressed in an American and German flag-patterned jacket and a white glove on his right hand, stood with the help of an assistant crouched behind him. The assistant was not visible to the audience of eager photo-snappers. Siegfried took the ceremonial mallet, and after three warm-up swings tapped the keg. Cheers all around, cameras clicked and glass steins were raised.

The ceremony was over, and with the help of an assistant, Roy lowered himself into his electric wheelchair, leaving Siegfried to face the crush of fans kept at bay by two employees carrying a comically ineffectual rope barricade.

Siegfried and Roy’s show at The Mirage has been closed for a decade. Yet for all the time that has passed, their fans remain ardent, and no Strip headliner has emerged as their equal. There is still a mullet-and-tiger-shaped vacuum in the hearts and minds of tourists and Las Vegans.

October 3 will mark 10 years since the era-ending “incident,” as insiders call it. “It was not an ‘attack,’ and it was not an ‘accident,’” says the magicians’ longtime manager Bernie Yuman.

So why did Montecore, a then-7-year-old white Bengal tiger, bite Roy in the neck and drag him offstage? Depends on whom you ask. The official Siegfried and Roy account is that Roy fainted or had a stroke due to a bout of high blood pressure, and the tiger carried him to safety as a mother would carry her cub. Steve Wynn, who as the owner of The Mirage had access to the never-released tapes of the event, says an audience member’s hairdo distracted the animal. According to eyewitness accounts, Roy prevented Montecore from going into the audience, getting his arm bit in the process, causing him to fall as he hit the tiger with his microphone. And once Roy was on the ground, the tiger went for his neck. Publicist Wayne Bernath, theorizes that it was the unfamiliar smells from Roy’s 59th birthday party lingering from the night before. In the 1970s, Bernath had seen one of Roy’s tigers go crazy over the scent of a lamb during a photo shoot.

Or, as comedian Chris Rock says, it was simply the “tiger going tiger.”

Whatever the reason, the result was the same. A stagehand staunched the bleeding as Roy begged for Montecore to remain unharmed. The entertainment community gathered at University Medical Center, waiting to find out if one of their favorite sons would live or die.

“You can’t ignore the symbolism of doing our bullet catch [routine] and then walking offstage,” says magician Penn Jillette, who learned about the incident after that night’s Penn & Teller show at the Rio. “I guess it’s just [a case of] riding a motorcycle without a helmet for a really long way. I felt scared, worried. I probably felt a little bit of guilt for all the jokes I made about someday the tiger’s going to bite his fucking head off. I wanted to get to the hospital and worry about him with other people who were worried about him.”

“The show manager called me and told me what happened,” show producer Kenneth Feld says. “Obviously, I didn’t sleep. There were a lot of decisions. We had to make decisions in the best interest of the show. There was unbelievable sadness. We didn’t know the ultimate outcome, so you hope and pray. There were hundreds of people who were employed that had families. We had to think about that, and what we were going to do from a business standpoint.”

“I talked to Siegfried, and he was distraught,” says Gary Waddell, a now-retired anchor for KLAS-TV Channel 8. “His life was on that stage—that was where Siegfried was the happiest.”

“The weird thing was the juxtaposition from that night and the night before,” says longtime friend and magician Lance Burton, who rushed to the hospital after his show and waited in seclusion with Siegfried and close friends to hear from the doctors. “That night before was Roy’s birthday, and they had a big party for him at The Mirage. There [were] a couple hundred people there in the showroom. They had music playing and dancing, and people brought gifts. When I saw Roy that night of his birthday, I said, ‘Hey, Roy, happy birthday.’ He said, ‘You know, I want to forget my birthday, but they won’t let me forget.’ [Laughs.] And he kind of gestured because there were a lot of people there. And I said, ‘But, Roy, all these people love you, that’s why they’re here.’ And he smiled, and everybody was having a good time. And then the next night was terrible.”

Instead of “abracadabra,” Siegfried and Roy devised their own magic word: “Sarmoti.” It stands for “Siegfried and Roy Masters of the Impossible.” The most impossible thing that Roy did? He lived. After flatlining three times and suffering a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Credit the efforts of neurosurgeon Dr. Derek Duke and the UMC trauma center. And credit Roy.

“Roy Uwe Ludwig Horn has the will of a thousand men,” Yuman says. “He returned from the dead. He had more work to do.”

As Roy fought for his life, fans and friends gathered for a prayer vigil. “You could feel it through the whole magic community,” Burton says. “A lot of guys my age remember when they were kids looking up to them, seeing them on TV. They’re really beloved figures. It was like a family going through that.”

“The city was shocked,” Waddell says. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. These were house cats at that point in our minds. We never dreamed that that would happen.”

The Last True Headliners

What does it all mean now? A decade is enough time for Las Vegas to reinvent itself. And it did. We finally have enough distance to understand exactly what was lost when the $60 million spectacular went dark.

“On his own, Siegfried is one of the great magicians of all time,” Burton says. “I feel confident in saying that as an authority on magic. Roy has an amazing gift to be able to communicate with animals. Roy was Superman for 30 or 40 years. He was doing things that no human should really be able to do. So you have these two guys, both gifted in separate areas, and then combined together, you have something totally unique that the world’s never seen before and will never probably see again. Once you’ve gone in the Apollo spacecraft and walked on the moon and come back to Earth, you did it. You’re not going to go out and fly a kite after that. Those two guys were walking on the moon. And that’s how we’ll remember them.”

Unlike Celine, Elvis or Sinatra, who all arrived in town as fully formed stars, Siegfried and Roy made their fame and fortune in Las Vegas, growing alongside the city, absorbing its personality and imprinting it with their own. (In this, their careers best resemble that of “Mr. Las Vegas,” Wayne Newton.) They arrived in 1967 to do a three-month gig as a specialty act in the Folies Bergere at the Tropicana. Then it was a upward trajectory through Le Lido de Paris at the Stardust, Hallelujah Hollywood! at the original MGM, and, in 1981, their own production show at the Frontier, Beyond Belief. They took a break to prove their mettle outside Las Vegas with shows in Japan, where they performed in Japanese, and at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Finally the big kicker came in 1989: their own show and a $57.5 million contract at Wynn’s paradigm-busting new luxury resort, The Mirage.

Siegfried and Roy at their home.

Siegfried and Roy at their home.

“Mr. Wynn gave them the best toy box on the planet, full of the best people and said, ‘Go do it.’ And they did,” says Todd VonBastiaans, the president of Alios, an entertainment and architectural lighting company that works with Cirque de SoleilCaesars Palace and Le Rêve. VonBastiaans saw Siegfried and Roy for the first time in 1994. He would see them 20 more times, and cites the show as one reason he left a career in L.A. doing lighting for film, TV and theme parks in 1996 to work in Las Vegas. “[Wynn] elevated them. They took it and ran and created something that was totally monumental.”

“When you go to New York, you see the Statue of Liberty,” Yumans says. “When you go to Las Vegas, you see Siegfried and Roy.” This was fame, Las Vegas style. The late Danny Gans, another Wynn protégé, was a successful Vegas-bred performer, but he never reached the stratospheric heights of Siegfried and Roy. Today, musician Frankie Moreno is giving it a try at the Stratosphere, as is magician Jan Rouven at the Riviera, singing impressionist Véronic DiCaire at Bally’s and puppeteer-impressionist Terry Fator at The Mirage with the help of an America’s Got Talent win. But while Siegfried and Roy showed the way for these performers, none have yet rivaled the phenomenal splendor of the magical duo.

“It was an era, and I don’t know if that ever comes back,” Waddell says. “We were entertainment back then. Now it’s spread out across the country and it’s television and it’s all that. Back then, we were the place, we were the big names. Siegfried and Roy were the end of that big-name-only-in-Las Vegas-type event.” As such, they bridged the gap between Old and New Vegas. And they helped create New Vegas by opening The Mirage.

“[After] Sinatra and the Rat Pack and Steve and Eydie, Siegfried and Roy may have been the transition point,” Waddell says. “Right in the middle. They were the first of the non-name entertainers. That was what moved Las Vegas to where it is today, to the production shows.”

“We had a goal, to bring theatricality to Las Vegas that had only existed on Broadway and London,” Yuman says. “We changed the face of live entertainment as we knew it in Las Vegas, and forever. The derivative is commonplace, but the original is extraordinary. Siegfried and Roy were the first original entertainment in Las Vegas history, paving the way for all that came after.”

The Fantasy

Nobody has embodied the “fabulous Las Vegas” ideal better than Siegfried and Roy. That great nebulous thing that gamblers hope for every time they pull the handle, that idea of winning—winning!—we need our headliners to live it, to give it shape and form, to build a scaffolding for our vague hopes and directionless yearnings. We need them to provide a dream of riches that we can recognize as our own. Siegfried and Roy represented wealth with a Las Vegas flair—a fortune so outrageously lived that it became an inspiration in itself. Old-money East Coast wealth is foreign to us; that’s not the life to which we aspire. We wouldn’t know which fork to use. But to have a sumptuous “Jungle Palace” or “Little Bavaria” over acres of land with swimming pools and thick imported rugs and tigers roaming around—yes, this is exactly our type of fairy tale. And Siegfried and Roy invited us into their storybook, both with their unapologetic style and with home videos and books such as 1996’s Siegfried & Roy Little Bavaria: A Magical Hideaway.

Jillette, whose own mansion is called the “The Slammer,” often mocked Siegfried and Roy on The Howard Stern Show. But he always respected the duo’s unrepentant fabulousness. “The people who do it right are the people we ridicule,” he says. “Those are the poets, those are the ones standing naked onstage.”

Here’s an anecdote about Siegfried and Roy that Jillette likes to tell so much that he included a longer version in his 2011 book God No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales: “I’d be in jeans and a work shirt, looking like I was there to fix the toilets,” Jillette says of seeing Siegfried and Roy on various red carpets in yak-fur dressing gowns with glitter-coiffed hair. “I realized they were the ones doing it right; I was the one doing it wrong. When it looked like Roy was going to live, I went off by myself to the Forum Shops, to Versace, and bought the most expensive pair of leather pants I could buy and the most expensive shirt. I would try to be a star. I wanted to show the respect.”

Siegfried and Roy on stage at the Stardust.

Siegfried and Roy on stage at the Stardust.

In Las Vegas entertainment, the spangled culture of the 1980s remained ascendant through the grungy early ’90s and into the digital age. Siegfried and Roy made sure of that. “It was always 1986 at the Siegfried & Roy show,” VonBastiaans says. “It was the ’80s in the most deliciously decadent way—lots of moving lights and action. It was a giant cocaine rush when you sat in your seat for 90 minutes.”

What one references with “1986” is a sort of celebratory kitsch. It’s the same appeal as the Peppermill. It’s the glory of the scene in Siegfried and Roy’s show where they light a disco ball on fire, open the top and out jumps a white tiger. The tiger jumps on top of the disco ball, Roy jumps on top of the tiger and the whole thing rises up, floating in the air and spinning, throwing beams of fabulous fractured light around the room as the fog machine chugs out magic. Siegfried poses and the theme song “Bless the Beasts and Bless the Children” plays.

“It’s a magnificently goofy image—man astride the ghostly animal atop the spangled globe—somewhere between William Blake and The Little Prince,” art critic and former UNLV professor Dave Hickey wrote in his 1997 book Air Guitar. “The show is at once a seamless spectacle and a plausible, subversive conflation of Wagner, Barnum, Houdini, Rousseau, Pink Floyd, FantasiaPeter Pan and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In short, it’s 1986. If there is a year in which Las Vegas, for its own good, should permanently exist, that year is 1986.

This is the quality that former Mayor Oscar Goodman alludes to when praising the duo. “I’ve seen them all,” he says, “I’ve seen the Rat Pack, Elvis, Liberace and Celine. I’ve got an idea as to why they were so great—because they had natural talent, which was a God-given gift. But Siegfried and Roy were different. They created their own world, and they were unique as well as iconic.”

To better understand this aesthetic, Google “Boris Vallejo.” He’s Siegfried’s favorite artist, as described in the duo’s 1991 autobiography, Masters of the Impossible; Siegfried and Roy based their show’s aesthetics on Vallejo’s paintings. The artist, who created the movie posters for Barbarella and National Lampoon’s Vacation creates hyper-real, hyper-sexualized depictions of barbarians and slave girls populating a fantastic Eden where every muscle is rippling and every bosom bouncing. A theme through both Vallejo’s work and Siegfried and Roy’s shows is man conquering beast (even through Roy’s “affection conditioning”), be it feline or feminine.

“There was nothing in the show that I liked,” Jillette says. “Music was horrendous. Set design was not my taste. But it was one of my favorite shows: Siegfried and Roy, walking onstage in blue glittery rhinestone costumes, just standing there, so naked and true. I compare them mostly to the Ramones and Bob Dylan and, of course, Liberace. They are what the Rolling Stones tried to be. The Rolling Stones are really, really good, but not as good as Siegfried and Roy. I love being part of their trip, part of their fantasy. They carried themselves onstage with that much honesty.”

The Magic of the Individual

When Siegfried & Roy closed in 2003, there were three Cirque de Soleil shows on the Strip. Today there are eight—we’re more Montreal than Vegas. Cirque rules the Strip, perhaps because its ensemble nature has some distinct advantages. With few words spoken, no language barrier excludes international tourists. With an anonymous cast, there are no stars and thus no reliance on any one human’s frailty. When Sarah Guyard-Guillot fell to her death during the June 29 performance of , the show closed out of respect to her. But when it reopened 17 days later, audience members would not be able to recognize her specific absence. This was never a possibility for Siegfried and Roy. Despite a bizarre old rumor that the true Roy died of AIDS and was secretly replaced by his brother Ray, when tragedy really did strike, there was no replacing Roy.

“Vegas should be known as Siegfried and Roy, not as Cirque,” Jillette says. “It should be known by people who are individuals who should be recognized. Cirque obliterates the individual for the collective. It’s what a lot of cultures do, but America has rugged individualism. We had Elvis.”

As individuals, Siegfried and Roy represent the American dream, the lone cowboy conquering the Wild West. As opposed to DJs who look to meld with machines by wearing mouse-eared helmets, Siegfried and Roy are superstars at a very human level. As an audience, we connect with them. Unlike today’s era of Us Weekly celebrities who are “just like us!,” a connection with Siegfried and Roy offers fans a glimpse into a life that is not like ours at all. And we love them for it.

“They are ‘showbiz’ to their toes,” Dave Hickey wrote. “But I couldn’t help liking them, nor avoid feeling about them (as Fred Allen did about Hollywood) that beneath all that phony tinsel, there is real tinsel.”

Siegfried & Roy was personality-driven; the show was built to magnify its stars right down to their wildest idiosyncrasies. “They didn’t sing, they didn’t dance,” says producer Feld, who financed $30 million for the Mirage show when it opened. “They were illusionists at the top of their game—entertainers. You wanted to spend time with them. You were in their living room. That doesn’t exist anymore. There was a warmth that you couldn’t believe—that was the true magic.”

Everyday Wizardry

“The story of Siegfried and Roy is very simple,” Yuman says. “Take the human spirit to the highest level and overcome adversity.”

From their childhoods in World War II-era Germany to Roy’s miracle recovery from the tiger bite, Siegfried and Roy are exemplars of mastering the impossible. While Roy’s movement is not as free as it once was, his playfulness still shines through. Burton says Roy was lobbing water balloons and snappers at passing guests at his Little Bavaria Fourth of July party. Goodman remembers Roy throwing his crutch away and walking with the crowd at the Santa Run a few years ago.

On October 3, Roy will celebrate his 69th birthday with a private party at The Mirage. Similar to his birthday party a decade ago, Roy will be surrounded by people who love him. But instead of a precursor to tragedy, Siegfried and Roy will use the event to officially announce the formation of their Sarmoti Foundation, which will provide support to organizations that protect endangered and threatened animals. It’s part of their continued, if considerably quieter, engagement in Las Vegas: They remain involved with the Downtown Boys & Girls ClubOpportunity Village and the Metro Police K-9 Unit. They are donors—and occasional visitors—to The Smith Center for the Performing Arts; Siegfried reportedly caught Jethro Tull’s July gig at Reynolds Hall.

The fiery spectacle

The fiery spectacle

Siegfried and Roy have a total of 30 animals, down from the days when they had more than 50 white tigers. Roy still has a rich interaction with his menagerie. He rides horses and plays with his dogs. When his swans and alpacas see him approach, they line up to be fed. Publicist Dave Kirvin describes it as a quiet but active retirement. “We’re talking about guys who were on a first-name basis with the world,” he says of a new life where “they’re anything but in hiding.”

Yuman, who sometimes seems to speak in fortune cookies, says that his charges have lived their dreams and are fulfilling their destinies. “Their lives are filled with philanthropy, and their hearts are filled with knowing that there was nothing left unsaid, there was nothing left undone.”

Back at the Hofbräuhaus, on the dawn of another Oktoberfest with Vegas’ favorite German immigrants, the fans—otherwise polite-looking grandmotherly types—are getting aggressive. This is their chance to commune with their heroes, and they aren’t going to miss it. They come bearing gifts and seeking autographs for their memorabilia: a VHS cassette tape of the Masters of the Impossible television special, a stuffed white tiger, a ceramic bust of a white tiger, an old photo of Siegfried and a fan. One middle-aged female fan, younger than most, presents Siegfried with a framed sketch of a tiger. The magician graciously accepts the gift and poses for photos. The fan returns to her friends and receives envious congratulations all around. These fans, all jostling into view, have not lost any enthusiasm in the years that the duo has been offstage.

Siegfried and Roy at this year’s Hofbräuhaus keg tapping.

Siegfried and Roy at this year’s Hofbräuhaus keg tapping.

The scene is oddly reminiscent of a ’60s-era anecdote Roy tells in the book Mastering the Impossible. The event takes place after a nightclub performance in Madrid before the duo had ever performed in the U.S.: “There were three typical old American ladies with blue-rinse hair, little strands of pearls and mink stoles. They all recognized Siegfried. ‘Oh, you’re the magician. Oh, my God, you’re so handsome! … You and your partner are terrific. Have you ever performed in America? You should! … You’re absolutely tailor-made for Las Vegas. We go there all the time, and you would be fantastic there.’”

Siegfried and Roy leave the Hofbräuhaus while the party is still raging and before the alpenhorn is even getting started on a jaunty cover of “Yellow Submarine,” which sounds like a mountain trombone playing underwater. They move in herds, surrounded by an entourage halo. First Roy in his sleek motorized wheelchair—the sun of this solar system. He’s orbited by caretakers and friends. Then Siegfried and his ravishing former co-star, Evil Queen Lynette.

In their wake, rolling and billowing like a laser-filled fog, are the whispers. That’s their fame. It’s atmospheric. A slight yet perceptive elevation from normal, like the anomalous feeling of humidity in Las Vegas. Siegfried and Roy are gone. The party roars on, but the rainbow-magic fog has dissipated, and it’s dry again in the desert.

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