TOM LEONARD charts the rise and fall of Siegfried and Roy

As one half of Siegfried and Roy dies at 75, the rise and fall of the Tiger Kings whose fame came back to bite them

They called it ‘The Rapport’ — the part of the show intended to demonstrate the incredible bond between man and big cat, as performer Roy Horn got a kiss and a hug from a 400lb Siberian tiger.

Mantacore, a seven-year-old male, had done this routine countless times. It was a showstopper and key to what made the Siegfried & Roy animal magic act the most successful in the history of Las Vegas (Siegfried Fischbacher was Horn’s partner and one-time lover).

Having led the tiger on stage, Horn would say ‘Let’s Dance!’, the cue for Mantacore to rear up and put its huge front paws on the German-born illusionist’s shoulders, giving him a kiss and getting a treat in return.

Horn boasted that he was so close to his animals, he could read their thoughts. But on this night in October 2003, that telepathic link failed him.

Roy Horn (left) and Siegfried Fischbacher (right) found fame from the late 1960s for a Las Vegas magic act featuring white lions and tigers

Mantacore wandered away from his mark on stage — and when Horn placed a microphone near the tiger’s mouth and asked if it wanted to say hello, it snapped at him and caught his shirtsleeve in its mouth.

Horn backed away, repeatedly saying ‘No’ and tapping the tiger’s nose with the microphone until it let go. Then the music stopped and the 1,500-strong capacity audience knew this wasn’t part of the act.

Horn retreated again, but this prompted the tiger to leap at him and, knocking him to the floor, sink its huge jaws deep into his neck before dragging him offstage.

By the time assistants had forced Mantacore to drop Horn, whose 59th birthday was that day, his windpipe was crushed and an artery to the brain was damaged.

He had suffered a stroke, paralysing one side of his body. In hospital he flatlined — his vital signs disappearing — at least once.

Horn survived, but with life-changing injuries, able to walk only short distances and speaking with difficulty. For some, the incident — to be the subject of a new Netflix documentary — was a grim but salutary lesson in the madness of trying to mix showbusiness with dangerous wild animals.

‘The Rapport’ was a part of the show intended to demonstrate the incredible bond between man and big cat. Roy Horn would get a kiss and a hug from a 400lb Siberian tiger

Horn’s death, at the age of 75, this week after ‘complications of Covid-19’ was a humdrum ending for a man who had been dubbed the ‘Original Tiger King’.

Horn and his partner Siegfried Fischbacher’s show had come to define glamour — or at least, the camp, glitzy Vegas variety. They were regularly described as ‘the ultimate showmen’ and dazzled visitors to ‘The Strip’ for 35 years with an act that included disappearing elephants, levitating tigers and Horn turning himself into a python.

‘From the moment we met, I knew Roy and I, together, would change the world,’ said Fischbacher, reacting to the death of his ‘best friend’ with characteristic braggadocio.

Their arrival in Nevada’s infamous ‘sin city’ in the early 1970s with a family show proved instrumental in transforming Vegas’s hitherto tawdry, Mafia-run image.

Vegas veterans had scoffed that magic acts would fail, especially those lacking the ‘raunch’ factor. But there had never been a magic act quite like theirs, a pyrotechnics spectacular with the production values of a Hollywood film, in which they could seemingly make animals disappear and reappear, change into women or fly through the air.

White lions and tigers became synonymous with the pair. Some white tigers — which are usually bigger than normal tigers — possess a recessive gene that means their fur lacks even a hint of orange. Others have a genetic condition that makes their stripes pale, too, so they look almost snow-white.

Horn was mauled and critically injured by a white tiger while performing onstage at the Mirage Resort October 3, 2003 in Las Vegas, Nevada

These animals were only a marginally more arresting sight than Siegfried and Roy themselves, permatanned and permanently stuck in the 1980s, with swept-back ‘big’ hair and a wardrobe big on spangles. Horn wore his white shirts open almost to the waist.

On stage, they sported two-inch heels and lifts inside their boots to disguise their small stature.

Although — at least in later years — they had separate sleeping quarters, they shared a 100-acre Vegas estate that included two homes, Little Bavaria and the Jungle Palace. The latter has a replica of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in the dining room. A local guidebook described the interiors of the homes as ‘opulent to the point of vulgarity’.

Their menagerie, which included elephants, donkeys and scores of big cats, had the virtual run of the place, with their own Olympic-sized pool and air-conditioned accommodation.

Horn would sleep with a tiger, leopard or panther each night, crediting a training method he called ‘affection conditioning’ because he woke up in one piece every morning.

Roy clings to Siegfried above during what is believed to be the last time they were publicly pictured together in 2018

He believed the animals came to see him as one of their own. ‘I don’t have any battle scars,’ he bragged. ‘They lick me raw.’

Workaholics who did two shows every night for years, eschewed holidays and earned millions in the process, Horn and Fischbacher were raised in postwar Germany. Thanks to a family friend who was a founder of Bremen Zoo, Horn was a frequent visitor and became particularly close to a cheetah named Chico.

He met Siegfried when they were working on a German cruise ship in 1957. Siegfried, a steward, entertained passengers with magic tricks but Horn, a cabin boy, complained they were dull.

If he could make a rabbit or a dove come out of a hat, he challenged him, why couldn’t he do the same with a cheetah? According to Horn (a man not averse to exaggerated self-promotion), he had been given Chico by his zoo friend and smuggled him on board in a laundry bag.

One night, Siegfried discovered he could indeed make a big cat ‘vanish’ and their act was born.The pair went on tour, taking Chico around Europe, with mixed results until they performed at a 1966 charity ball in Monte Carlo, wowing an audience that included Princess Grace, Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. News of their act quickly spread in the right places.

They made their Las Vegas debut in 1967 and on their opening night Chico ran amok, stealing the toupee from the head of bandleader Ray Sinatra, cousin of Frank.

Siegfried sat vigil at Roy’s hospital room day and night as he battled the condition at Mountain View Hospital in Las Vegas 

By 1989, when businessman Steve Wynn opened a new glitzy Vegas hotel and casino, The Mirage, Siegfried and Roy were international stars who, on a tour of Japan, had become the highest-earning performers in the country’s history.

Wynn wanted a big act to pull punters into his big casino and gave them a $57 million five-year contract (worth about £100 million today). Their show, the most expensive in the world at that time, redefined Vegas excess.

Besides the wild animals — including an elephant that Horn would ride on stage — it featured a fire-breathing mechanical dragon and a 30ft high pyramid that Horn would climb before it exploded.

At its peak, their show made $45 million a year.

The pair obtained their first three white tiger cubs from a U.S. zoo in 1982 and acquired dozens more.

Billing themselves as ‘masters of the impossible’, they attracted celebrity followers including Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand and Bill Clinton. Michael Jackson, who sang the show’s theme song, couldn’t keep away, regularly pitching up at the pair’s Vegas estate.

The pair secured a lifetime deal to stay at The Mirage but the show was closed after the tragedy in 2003.

Insisting Mantacore should not be put down, Siegfried and Roy claimed the tiger had actually been trying to save Horn after he’d had a stroke.

But their reputation received another mauling last year when Chris Lawrence, one of Mantacore’s former handlers, accused the pair of lying about the attack to protect their brand. Lawrence said Horn had been spending less and less time in close contact with the big cats before shows.

On the fateful night, Lawrence said, he saw danger signs — the tiger’s ears were erect, its whiskers rigid and its pupils dilated.

Horn liked to give the impression that he worked with the animals alone but Lawrence said handlers were always lurking close at hand, while cables too thin for the audience to see usually kept the animals secured to the floor.

Reluctant to go on stage himself, Lawrence said he had to intervene when Horn made a series of handling mistakes, most crucially by failing to walk Mantacore to the correct position on stage. This made the highly trained tiger confused and rebellious, he said.

When Mantacore pounced, Lawrence — who had grabbed the tiger’s leash after trying to distract it by dropping meat on the stage — was dragged forward and onto the tiger’s back.

After Siegfried met Roy (pictured performing in 1983), they formed their animal and magic act and started on boats before moving to the European nightclub circuit. Once they incorporated tigers, promoter Tony Azzie asked them to come to Las Vegas in 1967

He thought he was about to die but Mantacore kept attacking Horn until another handler used a technique known as ‘fish-hooking’ to jam his index fingers into its mouth.

This made Mantacore bite itself painfully, releasing Horn long enough for him to be pulled to safety.

With its quarry gone, the tiger calmed down, said Lawrence.

Fischbacher and Horn rejected Lawrence’s account but it was supported by an official investigation.

Horn liked to say that ‘like everything with animals, you can take nothing for granted’. That night, he may have forgotten his own maxim.

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