The most astounding, the most stupendous, the most magical
performance of Siegfried & Roy's career was no illusion.
Siegfried had just finished buzz-sawing Roy in half at the
Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas when a couple of the white tigers in
their act started doing the wild thing onstage.
"It was 18 years ago," says Siegfried in an accent as heavy as
German potato salad. "Neva, the male, was banging the hell out of
Sitarra, the female."
"They were very loud and noisy," recalls Roy in an even heavier
accent. "Her hissing was so sharp it could have cut him in half."
February 15, 2001
"They weren't so much Romeo and Juliet as..."
"...Tyson and Holyfield."
Mortified, Siegfried ordered the house lights dimmed. "But they
were not dimmed," he growls, fixing Roy with a death-ray stare.
"I thought, What can I do? It's O.K. if Neva interrupts my act,
but if I interrupt his, he kills me."
So the chivalrous conjurer removed his tuxedo jacket and held it
as a curtain between the two beasts and the 1,504 humans in the
audience. While Siegfried sweated it out, Roy stood in the wings,
The rest of the show was, for lack of a better word, an
anticlimax. "How can you top a full-blown sex act?" roars
Siegfried, his right hand fluttering against his heaving chest.
"I'll tell you how," says Roy, his left hand smoothing a rogue
lock on his scrupulously sculpted scalp. "Exactly 108 days later,
Sitarra gave birth to three white cubs as I sat meditating with
her. After licking the newborns clean and biting off their
umbilical cords, she picked them up with her teeth and placed
them in my lap for safekeeping. It was the greatest magic I've
A couple of strange cats, Siegfried & Roy. From their
taut-skinned publicity stills, you half expect to see the faint
stitchery of plastic surgery in person. But when you get up close
in their backstage lair, you see that they have allowed
themselves to age more naturally; their faces crinkle merrily at
the memory of that near cat-astrophe. At the ages of 61 and 56,
respectively, these German-born magicians--sometimes gentle,
sometimes predatory--still exercise all the charm and ferocity of
the truly celebrated.
Over the past 30 years Siegfried & Roy have cultivated their own
legend as the Liberaces of legerdemain. Siegfried, the blond one,
provides the magic; Roy, the dark one, works the menagerie--an
entire jungle's worth of exotic felines. "We are perfectly
matched," says Siegfried. "Roy's the fantasist, I'm the realist.
As solo artists, he would be too much, and I, too little."
Like Fred and Ginger, Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Uwe Ludwig
Horn have earned the distinction of being known simply by one
name each. Like Laurel and Hardy, they have occasionally earned
each other's enmity--24 years ago they nearly broke up when
Siegfried became dependent on Valium and started crawling on the
floor of the house they share in Las Vegas, babbling
incoherently. And like the Captain and Tennille, they have earned
the adoration of uberfans, who tend to sprinkle on superlatives
like an Italian waiter working a pepper mill. "Jay Leno has said
their show is the greatest he's ever seen," offers their longtime
manager, Bernie Yuman. "Michael Jackson thinks Siegfried & Roy
are the world's greatest entertainers. Liza Minnelli calls them
the greatest performers alive.
"Siegfried & Roy are not just the magicians of the decade," says
Yuman. "At the end of the day, they're the magicians of the
"Why not the magicians of the millennium?" asks Siegfried. A
little false modesty goes a long way.
In the $38 million Siegfried & Roy Theater at the Mirage, where
they have headlined since 1990, there has never been an empty
seat. The show has grossed more than $600 million and mystified
more than eight million people--remarkable considering that their
$100.50 ticket price is the second heftiest in town. "Siegfried &
Roy are what Bernie Yuman calls destination entertainment," says
Bernie Yuman, who calls himself "the ampersand" in Siegfried &
Roy. "When you go to New York, you see the Statue of Liberty.
When you go to Paris, you see the Eiffel Tower. When you come to
Las Vegas, you see Siegfried & Roy."
Lots of guys brag about turning women into tigers--Siegfried & Roy
actually do it, night after night. They also turn lions and
panthers into each other...and into thin air. Their 98-minute
extravaganza is a pageant of floor-show glitter and big-top
glitz. Amid a fusillade of lasers, holograms and New Age
Wagnerian fanfares, our heroes, decked out in lame capes, silver
Klingon gear and codpieces as big as soup bowls, levitate 50 feet
in the lotus position, straddle elephants and lions, duel a
colossal fire-belching dragon and a sorceress in the
Death-Defying Crystal Chamber. It's as if George Lucas had
channeled Wagner's Ring Cycle through Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
and hired Houdini and Tarzan as ringmasters.
Siegfried & Roy know every trick in the book. (They should--it's
for sale: Siegfried & Roy: Mastering the Impossible, Morrow,
$35.) Yet for all their high-tech razzle and big-cat dazzle, even
they acknowledge that nothing really new has been added to
large-scale conjuring since P.T. Selbit sliced a woman in half in
1921. "All illusions come out of five basic principles:
appearance, disappearance, transformation, levitation and
sawing," Siegfried says. "The challenge for us is to package
these ideas in our own wrapping. We are merchants of dreams. We
want to bring fantasy to an audience and awaken the children
The childhoods of Siegfried & Roy were more black than magic. Who
knows where fact ends and fable begins? Surely not Siegfried or
Roy: They've told and retold their tales far too many times. We
can be fairly certain that both were products of broken homes,
and that magic became a way of escaping the drudgery and
brutality of their postwar lives.
The story goes that Siegfried's father was a soldier in World War
II who survived a Russian POW camp, then began boozing when he
returned home. Left to amuse himself, Siegfried learned magic.
When he perfected his first trick--making a coin disappear in a
glass of water--his distant dad exclaimed: How did you do that?
"It was the first time my father had ever spoken to me," says
Siegfried. "Those words became the opening line to my life."
Roy's youth was equally miserable. He was raised in Nordenham,
outside Bremen, by his mother and an abusive drunkard of a
stepfather. Roy found solace in the love of animals, beginning
with a half-wolf dog named Hexe. It was while cleaning cages at
the Bremen Zoo that young Roy befriended Chico, a cheetah he
later "liberated." "I was 13 when I ran away from home to be a
bellboy on a German luxury liner," says Roy.
"Nein, nein, nein!" says Siegfried. He sighs, exasperated. "You
were 15, I was 21." Siegfried was a ship's steward and its
resident magician. He entertained guests by swallowing razor
blades and making rabbits vanish. Roy was enlisted as the
sorcerer's apprentice. One night Roy popped the question: "If you
can make a rabbit appear and disappear, could you do the same
with a cheetah?"
Siegfried replied haughtily, "In magic, anything is possible."
That was all Roy needed to hear. Before their next voyage he
sausaged Chico into a sack and smuggled him aboard. When they
were safely out at sea, Roy let the cat out of the bag, and, as
Yuman says, "the course of stage magic was changed forever."
It wasn't an unfettered ascent. A packed ballroom of passengers
nearly leaped overboard when Siegfried's rabbit was replaced by a
cheetah. Though the captain wanted to have them hung from the
yardarms, Siegfried & Roy knew they were on to something big.
Jumping ship, they played just about every cabaret and strip
joint from Lausanne to Madrid. Their big break came in the
mid-1960s in Paris. Performing with the Folies-Bergere and the
Lido, Siegfried & Roy honed what would become their trademark
shtick: a rapid and relentless accretion of illusions with big
cats. In '70 they moved their act to Vegas. "We were told, 'Magic
don't work here,'" says Siegfried. They didn't listen. Siegfried
& Roy put tops on their showgirls and encouraged gamblers to
bring their kids. Magically, over the next 20 years, Vegas was
transformed from gambling mecca into family amusement park. And
for that, as Yuman tells it, Siegfried & Roy deserve the lion's
share of the credit.
The magicians now share the largest private collection of big
cats in the world. Fifty-eight tigers, 19 lions, two black
panthers, two jaguars and a snow leopard, as well as an elephant,
ramble free at their two Animal Hauses: the Jungle Palace
compound in west Las Vegas, and Little Bavaria, a 100-acre
retreat in the foothills of nearby Mount Charleston. Among them
are the exceedingly rare white lions of Timbavati, bred jointly
with the Johannesburg Zoological Gardens in South Africa. Their
white tigers are bred in conjunction with the Cincinnati Zoo,
which gave Roy his first white tigers in 1982. Curiously,
Siegfried is no cat lover. "I'm allergic to them," he confesses.
"They're just not my cup of tea."
"But they are my bowl of cherries," says Roy. He has an almost
transcendental rapport with the world's deadliest creatures. He
contends only love, kindness and filet mignon will tame the
savage beast. "These cats are the love affair of my life," he
says. "I'm their father figure, their guru, their guide through
The felines are less jungle cats than backyard kitties, chasing,
clawing and nipping him with affectionate regularity. Roy treats
them the way other people treat their children. He swims laps
with them, sleeps with them and meditates every morning with a
Bengal named Mantra. Ashes of departed companions--including the
long-dead Chico--are kept in urns in his bedroom. Though Roy has
been scratched and scraped, the only time he felt in real danger
was while playing hide-and-seek with a 650-pound white Siberian
named Sahara, who suddenly pounced, pinning him to the ground and
changing the game to bite-and-chew. "For a moment she stared at
me like I was lunch," Roy says. "When I saw that look, my
instincts took over: I bit her on the nose. After that,
everything was fine."
The idea of two Germans propagating a race of Aryan carnivores
may be a bit discomfiting. In reality, however, the prospects of
white tigers are burning brighter these days because of Siegfried
& Roy. Without their intervention and financial support, nature's
disappearing act could have eventually rendered the cats extinct.
The real endangered species may be Roy himself. Not long ago he
was rumored to have died of AIDS and been hastily replaced by a
twin brother named Ray. Asked about this scuttlebutt, Roy cracks
a smile as mysterious as the Death-Defying Crystal Chamber. "All
I'll say is that a good magician should be in many places at the
GUYS BRAG ABOUT TURNING WOMEN INTO TIGERS, BUT SIEGFRIED & ROY
ACTUALLY DO IT
THEIR 98-MINUTE EXTRAVAGANZA IS A PAGEANT OF FLOOR-SHOW GLITTER
AND BIG-TOP GLITZ
ROY'S CATS ARE LIKE HIS CHILDREN. ASHES OF DEPARTED ONES ARE KEPT
IN URNS IN HIS BEDROOM