by Byron Craft
Once upon a time, there were two boys from Germany.
Both had their childhood imaginings. It was an elusive melody which, when heard, led them to the fulfillment of their fondest dreams. Little did they know that someday they would go to an enchanted land called Las Vegas and establish a miraculous spectacle of magic on stage.
Growing up in the small town of Rosenheim, Bavaria, Siegfried Fischbacher experienced a powerful feeling of destiny at the tender age of nine. He was drawn to the world of magic. He discovered a book about sleight of hand at the village bookstore. Unfortunately, his parents couldn’t afford to buy it for him, so he would often walk by the bookstore, and just gaze at it through the shop window. One afternoon, on his way home, the youngster found a five Deutsche Mark bill floating in the gutter. Overjoyed, he picked it up, raced back to the store and purchased the book. At home and in the privacy of his bedroom, the child spent hours practicing his magic. Once he had perfected his first trick, he performed it for his father. Siegfried put a coin in a glass, covered the glass with a handkerchief and made the coin disappear. His father’s reaction buoyed his spirits...he had impressed his first audience.
Meanwhile, growing up in Nordenham, Germany, a young lad named Roy Uwe Ludwig Horn was spending a lot of time with his beloved companion, a half-dog, half-wolf named Hexe. One time, while the boy and his dog were on an afternoon walk, they stopped to rest under a tree. Above them was a raven perched on a limb. Taking a nap, Roy was awakened abruptly by the raven’s cawing. He reached out to touch the bird, but it flew away. Intrigued, he decided to follow. Straying into a patch of reeds, Roy unexpectedly found himself sinking in quicksand. Sensing the danger, Hexe ran off. A short while later, the boy heard a human voice…the half-dog, half-wolf had fetched a farmer. Hexe had saved young Roy from certain death. That was Roy Horn’s first real lesson in the bond of trust between humans and animals.
On the other hand, Siegfried Fischbacher’s childhood was not a pleasant one. There was very little love in his home life. His father was in World War II and ended up a prisoner of war in Russia. After the war he came back a miserable alcoholic. Siegfried never remembered a time when his father was sober. Instead of parental hugs and support, Siegfried and his sister Margot endured constant abuse and harsh guarantees that none of them would ever amount to anything in life. Both were out of the household by the age of 17. Margot later became a Franciscan nun known as Sister Dolore.
Siegfried and Roy met in 1959. Siegfried Fischbacher took a job on an ocean liner, called The Bremen, working as a ship’s steward. Roy got a job on the same ship as a waiter. While working one night, Roy heard people applauding and looked over to see Siegfried on a makeshift stage, taking a rabbit out of a hat. The two young men became friends and Roy began to serve as Siegfried’s assistant.
One evening, Siegfried asked Roy what he thought of the show. Roy got up the courage to tell him that he found the magic a little too predictable. Astounded at Roy’s candor, especially considering he was five years Siegfried’s junior, Siegfried asked him how the show might be better. “If you can make a rabbit and a dove appear and disappear, can you do the same with a cheetah?” Roy inquired.
"In magic, anything is possible." —Siegfried responded.
Unknown to the crew, and as fate would have it, Roy had smuggled Chico, a cheetah, onboard. He had come to know the large-sized feline from his frequent visits to the Bremer Zoo in Germany. Roy had liberated Chico from his cage. Siegfried and Roy began to develop the magic that would eventually become their trademark. Though the next five years were tough, traveling around Europe, playing small, unsophisticated clubs for little pay, they refused to become discouraged. Instead, they focused on their magic and presentation.
The pair became lifelong companions and partners in magic, touring the world and featuring big cats in many of their acts. They began to specialize in rare white tigers, which became their signature animal. They got their first big break when they were booked at the casino in Monte Carlo. There, they received a standing ovation from the many important people in the audience. One, a representative of the “Folies Bergere”, tracked the illusionists down and asked if they were interested in going to Las Vegas.
When Siegfried and Roy first arrived in Vegas, over 30 years ago, a well-known hotel executive said to them, “Boys, I have to tell you, magic doesn’t work in this town.” Siegfried and Roy not only proved him wrong, but they succeeded even beyond their own wildest imaginations. The two fell in love with Las Vegas, as well as the free enterprise system of the United States of America, and channeled a great portion of their energy and hard work into becoming naturalized citizens. The story of Siegfried & Roy’s rise to the zenith of Las Vegas entertainment is as breathtaking as their stage show. It is a story of faith and dedication to dreams.
After developing their act, the two German-American entertainers became known for their appearances with their white lions and white tigers on stage. It was a famous glitzy act that soon became the toast of Las Vegas. Their first Las Vegas appearance was at the Tropicana in 1967, which grew to several engagements all over Sin City, and in 1972, they received an award for the “Best Show of the Year”. In some of their performances they transposed a woman into a 600-pound Bengal tiger within seconds; produced a white tiger from a large flaming silver ball, only to levitate it up into space, and made a two-ton elephant vanish on stage, only to reappear in the middle of the audience.
The pinnacle of their fame occurred in 1990, when they were hired by Steve Wynn, the owner of The Mirage, at an annual guarantee of $57.5 million. They settled permanently at the resort in a showroom built especially for them, where their splashy and spectacular show featured disappearing tigers, pyrotechnics, and outlandish costumes. In 2001, they signed a lifetime contract with the hotel. Siegfried & Roy, over the years, appeared in over 5,750 shows together, most of them at The Mirage.
The magic word of the dynamic duo that was famous in their act was “SARMOTI.” Simply, SARMOTI was an acronym for “Siegfried And Roy, Masters Of The Impossible.” Since there was nothing simple about this remarkable pair, the meaning of the word became much more complex. In one respect, the word was imbued with magic and wonder. Those who have seen their spectacular stage show know “SARMOTI” is used as a magical incantation. A simple “abracadabra” or “alakazam” would never suffice. But the semantics of the word cannot be captured in one definition. Indeed, the unique sound and character of SARMOTI also invoked the exotic majesty of the white tigers and white lions that were such an integral part of the world of Siegfried & Roy.
In September 1999, “Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box”, premiered in Los Angeles to a VIP audience, followed by premieres in New York, Munich, Berlin, Tokyo, Montreal and Toronto. The Magic Box IMAX 3-D film was narrated by Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins. The film presented Siegfried & Roy’s magic via a dreamlike journey into the imagination.
According to the 2000 Becky Celebrity 100 List, Siegfried & Roy were then the 9th-highest paid celebrities in America, coming in just behind motion picture producer and director Steven Spielberg. For their contribution to live theater performance, Siegfried & Roy were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7060 Hollywood Boulevard. In 2002, Siegfried & Roy were also honored as Grand Marshals in the German-American Steuben Parade in New York City. Tens of thousands of fans greeted the magicians on Fifth Avenue and celebrated their German heritage.
As International Magicians Society Chairman Tony Hassini stated upon presenting the illusionists with the prestigious “Magicians of the Century” award at the Millennium Merlin Award ceremony, “Siegfried & Roy’s contribution to magic is indefinable. To the public, they are the magicians, but they are also very much loved and respected by their peers. They have placed magic on a plateau and have become larger than life. I doubt if their contributions will ever be matched.” Hassini also mentioned that the “Merlin” represents the magic accomplished by Siegfried & Roy offstage, namely their efforts to preserve the magnificent Royal White Tigers and Magical White Lions. Such an achievement, Hassini noted, was particularly amazing since it was accomplished in Las Vegas, a testament to the dedication and perseverance of these two individuals. But Siegfried & Roy could think of no better place to make their magic.
The pair remained a Vegas staple until October 3, 2003, when Roy was critically injured. During a show at The Mirage, Roy Horn was bitten on the neck by a seven-year-old male tiger named Montecore. Crew members separated Horn from the tiger and rushed him to the only Level I trauma center in Nevada, University Medical Center. Horn was critically injured and sustained severe blood loss. While being taken to the hospital, Horn said, “Montecore is a great cat. Make sure no harm comes to Montecore.” Horn was in critical condition for several weeks thereafter, and was said to have suffered a stroke and partial paralysis. Doctors removed one-quarter of his skull to relieve the pressure of his swelling brain during an operation known as a decompressive craniectomy. Horn was eventually transferred to UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California for long-term recovery and rehabilitation.
By 2006, Roy Horn was talking and walking with the assistance of Siegfried Fischbacher. Roy commented, on a television news program, about his daily rehabilitation: “They are slave drivers over there. You’d think they are the KGB from Russia.”
Montecore had been trained by Horn since he was a cub; he had performed with the act for six years. Siegfried appeared on the Larry King interview program and told the viewing audience that Horn fell during the act and Montecore was attempting to drag him to safety, as a mother tigress would pull one of her cubs by the neck. He also said Montecore had no way of knowing that Horn, unlike a tiger cub, did not have fur and thick skin covering his neck and that his neck was vulnerable to injury. Siegfried told King that if Montecore had wanted to injure Horn, the tiger would have snapped his neck and shaken him back and forth.
Steve Wynn told Las Vegas television station KLAS-TV the events were substantiated as described by Siegfried Fischbacher. According to Wynn, there was a woman with a “big hairdo” in the front row who he said, “fascinated and distracted” Montecore. The woman reached out to attempt to pet the animal, and Horn jumped between the woman and the tiger.
Horn had given the command, “Release, release,” attempting to persuade Montecore to let go of his arm and eventually striking the tiger with his microphone. Roy tripped over the cat’s paw and fell on his back. Stagehands rushed out and jumped on the cat. It was only then that the confused tiger leaned over Roy and attempted to carry him off the stage to safety. Steve Wynn told the camera that although the tiger’s teeth inflicted puncture wounds that caused Roy Horn to lose blood, there was no damage to his neck. Stagehands then sprayed Roy and Montecore with a fire extinguisher to separate the two. Montecore was put into quarantine for ten days in order to ensure he was not rabid and was then returned to his habitat at The Mirage. While Roy Horn had requested that the white tiger not be harmed, the incident foretold the end of exotic animal shows in which there are no barriers between the animals and audience members.
The injury to Roy Horn prompted The Mirage to close the show indefinitely and to lay off 267 cast and crew members with one week’s severance pay. While Siegfried said “the show will go on,” a hotel spokesperson told the production staff that they should explore other career opportunities. According to the Las Vegas Advisor, The Mirage suffered financially, not just from the loss of 50 plus million in annual ticket sales, but from having to forego untold millions in sales of food, beverages, hotel rooms and the casino’s gambling winnings. An MGM Mirage spokesman said losing Siegfried & Roy is a bigger hit to the Mirage brand than to its finances, because the entertainers were “practically the faces” of the hotel and finding a new hotel brand or identity will be difficult. Even with Roy’s injuries and the pair’s retirement, they did one last magic act (with Montecore) at a charity appearance in 2009, then formally retired from performing in 2010…a moment described by their manager as “the dot at the end of the sentence.”
Siegfried and Roy are blessed with the gift of magic and they still exhibit it today off stage. In dedication to Roy’s love of animals and commitment to conservation, they created “Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden”, for the care and preservation of the Royal White Tigers, Magical White Lions, panthers, leopards, and also a Dolphin Habitat. The Secret Garden’s primary focus is scientific research and education. “Long ago, Roy and I realized that everything that happens to this planet is man’s responsibility. Our responsibility,” said Siegfried.
And for the magician inside all of us, the pair set funds aside to establish the SARMOTI Grant which enables disadvantaged young people to join the College of Magic in Cape Town, South Africa, and experience the world of enchantment.
Siegfried and Roy, masters of the impossible!
The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.