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Remembering Roy Horn

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Siegfried & Roy & Weatherford, circa 2002

By the time a tiger bite ended Roy Horn’s career and almost his life, he was starting to seem like a real person to me.

This surely went against his very grain. Like all good magicians, Siegfried & Roy liked to maintain the illusion,and didn’t allow too many peeks behind the curtain.

Undoubtedly, those much closer to Roy will be shaking their heads to read this. He had friends, a lot of them, after living in Las Vegas since 1967. But his real life became more private after that 2003 accident and subsequent stroke, which left him partially paralyzed and moved the battle offstage for the long fight that ended May 8, when COVID-19-related complications finally took his life at age 75.

But reporters were different. In Siegfried & Roy’s universe, the press existed to promote the legend. These were circus men, or at least worked for one — Ringling Bros. impresario Kenneth Feld — and hyperbole was the everyday vocabulary. Press events at their “jungle palace” of caverns and waterfalls in an otherwise ordinary neighborhood near the Las Vegas Golf Club would confirm a standing joke to co-workers: If Siegfried & Roy ever went to the supermarket, they would be accompanied by assistants carrying a diorama of Tahiti behind them, and lugging potted ferns in front of them.

It took years to see beyond what they wanted you to see — the crazy haircuts, the crazier get-ups, and, of course, the white tigers — and get the sense that you were talking to actual people, not cartoon characters reciting talking points.

But don’t confuse “real” with “regular.” Or worse, “average.” Just because their reality wasn’t ours, it doesn’t mean that the answer to the question Who are these guys, really? wasn’t right there in front of you. No illusions there. Two guys who were born in Germany during a grim era (1944 for Roy). They became rich and famous gradually, not overnight, and proceeded to transform their corner of the desert into a fantasy world — one that fused the “piss elegant” camp of Liberace, a fellow Las Vegan and obvious influence, with the Neverland of Michael Jackson, their friend and eventual theme-song composer.  

The night the tiger bit Roy in the neck and dragged him from the stage — the specifics beyond that, and the reasons why, will forever be debated — I waited with Lance Burton, Bobby Baldwin, and a lot of other anxious people outside UMC’s emergency room to see whether Roy would live or die on the operating table. I was thinking about how I had a front-row seat for the biggest chapter in their career, the 13-year run of Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage. And as I got to know the two a bit over the years, it was easier to sort out where their reality and the real world intersected. The interviews got more comfortable on both sides, such as Roy shrugging as he held an ice pack to an injured knee: "The pain and drama and all that comes with the territory. That’s irrelevant,” he said. Audiences "come to forget their problems. They don’t need to hear about ours.” Or he and Siegfried shushing their motormouth manger, Bernie Yuman, when they got wound up and really did have something to say, and Yuman tried to steer them back to the hype.

But even the ballyhoo came from a real place. German pride, and a little frustration that all the jokes from all the comedians didn’t give them their due when it came to the astonishing numbers they chalked up over the years (the Mirage years were said to gross more than a billion dollars), their work ethic, and the number of people who had jobs because of them. Their favorite story was that when they first arrived in town in 1967, the Tropicana’s Kell Houssels told them, “Magic don’t work in this town.”

But they grew as the city did, leaping from a specialty act in Hallelujah Hollywood’at the MGM Grand to the specially billed stars of the Stardust’s Lido de Paris from 1978 to 1981. Under Feld’s oversight, they blended the end of the topless showgirl era with circus magic in Beyond Belief at the Frontier, and then helped Steve Wynn and the Mirage launch the new Vegas in 1989. The way that show ended eclipsed the way it began. It’s easy to forget how much $30 million bought back then; especially the stunning first half-hour, when the talents behind Broadway’s biggest spectacles brought mechanical dragons and Wagnerian sci-fi to the Strip.

But after 5,570 shows at The Mirage? The “lifetime contract” breathlessly announced in early 2001 gave the duo a 2004 out clause. Who knows if they would have extended, but they seemed ready for some grand finale. They were tired, yes, but also more relaxed, secure in their legacy, and more accepting of Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas takeover.

It was Siegfried I tended to see more on the show scene, enjoying his role as magic’s elder statesman. But the night of that hospital vigil at UMC came less than two months after talking to Roy — an actual chat, not an interview — following the soft opening of Cirque’s Zumanity. It was the second of two such encounters at opening nights that year. At the Mandalay Bay opening of Mamma Mia!, everyone was hanging out in the lobby. Roy asked if I wanted a drink. Sure, I shrugged. He sent one of his guys to the bar for a round. My friend was still laughing later: “Roy just bought you a drink.” For someone so much larger than life, a normal little thing like that was, as they say, beyond belief.

Of course, I’m happy that Roy got another 16 years out of life, even if I never saw him again outside a public appearance. But it's been a long time since Siegfried & Roy were synonymous with Las Vegas, and I have mixed emotions about the way those years allowed the sparkly legend to fade, at least a little.

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