Big Cat Trouble in Las Vegas

American icons, the illusionists Siegfried and Roy performed with big cats over forty years. Until the evening when Roy was attacked by one of his tigers...

By Emmanuelle RICHARD
Friday, October 31, 2003
Los Angeles, correspondence

"It's as if an American eagle had attacked the president of the United States..." cried Las Vegas resident in the Boston Globe column, expressing the perturbation of the worldwide gambling capital. The oasis of neons in the middle of Nevada desert cannot get over the drama which hit one of its biggest stars: Roy Horn, one half of the duo of suntanned illusionists, Siegfried and Roy. The "Masters of the Impossible" show, futuristic combination mixed with their white tigers(1), has been running for several decades. It is one of the most popular shows in Las Vegas. Or rather, was: in October 3, 2003, Roy was attacked on stage by one of his big cats, and is now hanging between life and death. The show was suspended.

Candles, balloons, fan letters accumulated at the foot of the bronze statue of Siegfried and Roy in front of the hotel-casino MGM Mirage, which housed their show since 1990. From California's new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Elizabeth Taylor, politicians and stars sent their best wishes for Roy's recovery. The tabloids printed columns, day after day, about the fight of the University Medical Center doctors for Roy's life. The blond Siegfried Fischbacher and the dark-haired Roy Horn are not always very well-known outside Las Vegas and their native Germany, but they are icons of the American popular culture: featured in films such as Casino by Martin Scorsese, parodied in cartoon The Simpsons, and made fun of by comics of prime time television, such as Jay Leno and David Letterman who happily made fun of the flamboyant illusionists, their sharp accent, and huge leather codpieces protecting their manhood from the big cats claws.

Like a rag doll

The jokes stopped in October 3, 2003. That night, Siegfried and Roy entered the stage of the theater in the gigantic hotel-casino with tropical theme, constructed especially for them. Each had a white tiger on a chain at his side. For forty-four years the illusionists performed together, perfect hairstyles, gleaming smiles. Their specialty: to make big cats "disappear". Their magic word: "Sarmoti!", an abracadabra sort, which serves also as a greeting, is acronym of Siegfried And Roy, Masters Of The Impossible. Inside the theater is 1 500 spectators from the whole world, some of whom waited weeks for a ticket. Expensive: 225 dollars in average. Roy introduces a seven years old white Bengal tiger, Montecore. "This is his first time on stage!", Roy announces. Nothing like nourishing the suspense, while in reality, the big cat participated in the show for six years.

Suddenly, Montecore throws himself on Roy and bites his arm. The illusionist attempts to break free. In front of the audience which thinks that they are witnessing a stunt, he hits the tiger over his head with a microphone. No use against 270 kg. Montecore sinks his teeth in Roy's neck, drags him like a rag doll. The technicians are forced to use fire extinguishers to make the tiger let go of his prey. Roy Horn suffers a stroke on the way to the hospital.

His survival is a true 'miracle", according to the neurosurgeon who operated on Roy, Roy remains incapable to speak, and is without a doubt partially paralyzed. He was celebrating his 59th birthday in the evening of the accident.

Why Montecore attacked his master? That remains a mystery. During almost half century of shows, the duo was never subjected to a single aggression act from the animal stars of the show, assured Alan Feldman, spokesperson of the Mirage. Roy Horn himself, however, had mentioned that he brushed by a disaster two times. Once with a black panther, that, in an angry fit "almost castrated him," according to an interview granted to Vanity Fair in 1999. Another day, with a Siberian tiger which nailed him to the ground. "Our eyes met. I realized that she did not want to play anymore but was getting ready to bite me," he related to Associated Press three years ago. "Instinctively, I bit her nose as strong as I could. She never tried to bite me again." Two isolated incidents and off-stage.

"Who are these curious characters? Are they brothers?", visitors regularly inquire from the Las Vegas taxi drivers. Siegfried and Roy very rarely give interviews and live disconnected from the reality, a little as their friend Michael Jackson, in an immense villa on the border of Las Vegas, with 55 white tigers, 38 servants and 16 lions. The menagerie moves around under a ceiling which is a replica of Sistine Chapel in Vatican. The two illusionists also own an estate nicknamed Little Bavaria, where the loud speakers broadcast German organ music. Both sons of Nazi soldiers, products of abusive families, they shared the same desire: to flee the post-war Germany.

Through Europe with a leopard

They met at the end of the 50's on a cruise ship. Roy Horn was 15 years old and worked as a captain's servant. 21 years old Siegfried Fischbacher was a magician on the ship. The duo performed through Europe with a leopard, worked at the Folies Bergère in Paris, before landing in Las Vegas. The rest, as their friend Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "Is the most beautiful story of immigrants that I know: two guys came to the United States with nothing, and realized their dreams."

For forty-four years they divided their tasks evenly: Siegfried is in charge of magic and illusion; Roy masters the beasts. They are secretive about their private life: they were lovers a long time ago, according to their friend, actress Shirley MacLaine; but today they live separately. Siegfried's bedroom is painted with a gigantic picture of him, nude, surrounded by panthers.

"All his life, Roy was a mystery. We really do not know him," Siegfried revealed recently on television, causing general bewilderment. After their life together and 30 000 shows?

Roy, apparently, spends more time with the big cats than with humans. Sleeping with the baby tigers in the manor, swimming with them in his Hollywood-style swimming pool and meditating every morning with a white tiger named Mantra. His almost transcendental link with the big cats is so strong that he thinks he was a tiger in a previous life. But when a week after the almost fatal Montecore's attack hospital team removed his respiratory tube, the first person Roy asked to see was his dog.

Distracted by a puffed hairstyle

In tears, Roy's partner Siegfried assured Larry King on CNN that Montecore's bite was a gesture of love, "Nothing vicious, nothing mean." According to him, the tiger came to Roy's rescue, because he stumbled: "Roy falls, and [the tiger] wants to protect him, because there is danger, you understand? Then he caries Roy and takes him backstage behind the curtain." The wealthy former owner of The Mirage, Steve Wynn, has another explanation: the tiger was distracted by the puffed hairstyle of a female audience member in the first row, who, finding him charming, attempted to scratch his chin. Roy jumped in to separate them. The experts are less romantic: Jonathan Kraft, member of Arizona's "Keepers of the Wild", believes that the tiger acted as if it had the intention to kill. Specialist in animal behavior from Dallas, Louis Dorfman, declared, that "stress caused Montecore to bite. The tiger wanted to express his irritation."

On the way to the hospital, Roy, short of breath, requested that Montecore be spared. His plea was respected: the tiger, put briefly in quarantine, rejoined the group of about sixty big cats in their habitat at The Mirage, nicknamed "Secret Garden." Far from being touched, PETA, the American leading protective society for animals, roars in a letter addressed to the illusionist confined to bed: "Maybe this horrifying incident will force you to admit that a stage beneath the spotlights, with loud music and screaming audience, is not a natural habitat of tigers and lions!" With the support of Pamela Anderson, PETA accused the federal department of agriculture, USDA, (that has, without surprise, launched an investigation of the attack), to be very indulgent with Siegfried and Roy. The routine inspections of last three years run just like a charm, and PETA suspects that the USDA inspectors had been enchanted by free tickets to the show. With the USDA inspectors on their back, and the show room empty, MGM/Mirage licks its injuries. The hotel-casino, which has a life contract with Siegfried and Roy, lost its main attraction for tourists. "When you go to New York, you go see the statue of Liberty. In Las Vegas, you go see Siegfried and Roy," stated Bernie Yuman, the duo's manager. The joint MGM/Mirage announced to its shareholders that the cancellation of the show will cost them presumably 2,5 million dollars per quarter.

A show abominably kitsch

The hotel terminated immediately the 267 employees of the show, which was canceled at least until Christmas... With 75 to 80 advertised shows, Las Vegas' economical plan should not suffer too severely, but there is a feeling of sadness: the disappearance of Siegfried and Roy marks the end of an era.

David Hickey, professor of criticism at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas (UNLV), described the show as a "conflation combining Wagner, Barnum, Rousseau, Pink Floyd, Fantasia, Peter Pan and Midsummer Night's Dream." An English critic who came into Las Vegas recently, characterized it with more insight as abominably kitsch, adding: "The true reason why everyone is here, is to see the white meat-eaters, and maybe, just once, reverse the situation."

(1) The white, native tigers of the Himalayas, are on the brink to extinction. Their color makes them visible to prey.

© Libération

Translated via Free Translations.
Translation not accurate.