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Illusionist’s Condition ‘Grim’ After Tiger Attack

Times Staff Writers

Illusionist Roy Horn, who with partner Siegfried Fischbacher parlayed big-production magic and disappearing white tigers into one of the most successful and longest-running shows on the Las Vegas Strip, remained in critical condition Saturday after being attacked onstage by one of the show’s veteran animals.

Horn’s condition showed no improvement Saturday after overnight surgery to repair a life-threatening bite to his neck that stunned a Friday night showroom filled with 1,500 people.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Sep. 04, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Siegfried & Roy -- Articles in various sections of The Times have been in conflict about the weight of the tiger that mauled illusionist Roy Horn on Oct. 3. Times reports have given its weight as 300, 550 and 600 pounds. Siegfried & Roy’s publicist and Las Vegas animal control officials said the tiger weighed about 380 pounds.

Horn, who turned 59 on Friday, suffered a major loss of blood. Mayor Oscar Goodman described Horn’s condition as “grim.” But the hospital offered no official comment Saturday on Horn’s condition; it was hotel officials who described Horn’s condition as critical but stable.

Friday’s attack occurred about 45 minutes into the pair’s 7:30 p.m. performance, when Horn -- the dark-haired partner -- stood alone on the huge stage and introduced Montecore, a 7-year-old royal white Siberian tiger. He told the audience that it was the cat’s first appearance onstage -- a line he delivers at every show to elicit oohs and aahs from the audience. In fact, the tiger -- one of about 60 white tigers owned by the show and 20 that are used any given night -- had performed onstage for several years.

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On Friday, Horn instructed the tiger to lie down, but the animal balked. Horn tapped the animal on its nose with his microphone to get the cat’s attention, and Montecore grabbed the illusionist’s arm.

As Horn stumbled, the 550-pound animal lunged at his neck, knocked him to the ground and pulled him offstage.

Many in the audience thought the scene unfolding before them was part of the show, but sitting in the third row, Dagmar Rethmann and Karl Heinz Wunschmeier knew better. The two are cofounders of Siegfried & Roy’s fan club, and Rethmann had seen the show at least 15 times.

“At the moment the tiger didn’t lay down like Roy told him to, we knew something was wrong,” Rethmann said.

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While some in the audience laughed at what they thought was a gag, others froze in terror. Fischbacher and stagehands dressed in black ran across the stage after Horn and the tiger, and shouting could be heard from backstage. Someone grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed the animal -- as crew members had been trained to do -- until the tiger released its grasp.

A shaken Fischbacher returned to the stage and announced that the show was canceled. “God bless Roy,” he said and then left.

Paramedics arrived within 10 minutes and struggled to staunch the bleeding by applying direct pressure to Horn’s neck while he was driven to the hospital less than two miles away.

Clark County Fire Department spokesman Robert Leinbach said it was all paramedics could do to stop the bleeding from the left side of Horn’s throat without shutting down the performer’s ability to breathe. Paramedics didn’t notice whether Horn’s arm had been wounded in the attack. “There was massive blood loss, and that’s what their priority was,” Leinbach said.

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Horn was conscious and talking to paramedics en route to the trauma center, Leinbach said, and was rushed immediately into surgery.

The animal was quarantined in a cage at the Siegfried & Roy Secret Garden, part public exhibit of their animals and part working facility where the performing animals are kept.

On Saturday, local celebrities, entertainers and politicians visited University Medical Center, but none were allowed close to Horn’s room on the hospital’s fourth floor.

In a prepared statement, Fischbacher -- who first teamed up with Horn on an ocean liner when they were teenage crew members -- thanked fans for their “continued prayers and reflections.”

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“For more than four decades, I have had the great privilege of standing at the side of this remarkable man, and I will continue to do so during this very challenging time,” he said.

In a town nonplused by celebrity, S&R;, as they were known, had broken all the records. After playing at three other hotel showrooms for years, they settled in at the Mirage in 1990, just after it opened as one of a new generation of themed resorts and where they were asked to eschew bawdy, adult-themed entertainment in favor of high-production family fare.

Their popularity quickly rivaled the success of such Vegas standards as Elvis Presley, the Rat Pack and Wayne Newton.

At the Mirage, the act’s position as a Las Vegas icon was firmly cemented; since 1990, they had filled a 1,500-seat showroom for 5,750 performances, and in 2001 were granted by Mirage a “contract for life.”

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But for now, the show is canceled indefinitely, and at least through Christmas, hotel officials said.

Terry Lanni, chairman of the board of MGM Mirage, called the duo the heart of the resort.

“Throughout the history of Las Vegas, no artists have meant more to the development of Las Vegas’ global reputation as the entertainment capital of the world than Siegfried & Roy,” he said.

Horn was the primary handler of the animals, and enjoyed telling the story over the years about how an animal saved him as a young boy growing up in Germany. When Horn found himself stuck in swamp muck, his half-dog, half-wolf pet Hexe ran for help to a nearby farm.

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Horn and Hexe became partners as the young boy would run away from his abusive father. Horn also befriended a cheetah named Chico at a nearby zoo.

According to their book “Siegfried & Roy’s Magic for the Ages,” Fischbacher, also German, and Horn met aboard a cruise ship in 1957. Fischbacher, 18, was a steward but entertained guests with magic tricks involving doves and rabbits. The 13-year-old Horn had gotten himself hired on board as a bellboy and had managed to bring Chico on board after “liberating” the animal from the zoo.

Horn was fascinated by Fischbacher’s magic, and challenged him to perform the same tricks -- but with Chico as the star. The serendipitous shipboard pairing launched their career, but they won only lukewarm reception at various European theaters.

In 1966, their star began to rise after a performance before Princess Grace of Monaco, and soon they were sharing the marquee at Paris’ Lido and Folies Bergere clubs.

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They arrived in Las Vegas in 1970, sharing the stage with other acts at the Tropicana and the Stardust, and finally booking their own theater at the Frontier Hotel in 1981.

To snazz up their act, the pair acquired their first three white tiger cubs from the Cincinnati Zoo, offering to help breed them on the zoo’s behalf. In the ensuing years, with Fischbacher standing admiringly and cautiously in the background, Horn has bred several dozen white tigers at the pair’s compound, the Jungle Palace, in North Las Vegas.

The entertainers also maintain another animal refuge, called Little Bavaria, near Mt. Charleston outside of Las Vegas. One of the entrances to the Mirage features a white tiger enclosure, slowing tourists who will watch the animals bask in the sun or dip in the water as a videotape loop plays on monitors above them, showing Horn tussling with the animals.

The tiger that attacked Horn, Montecore, was purchased from a litter of three cubs born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and acquired by the illusionists when the cubs were about 3 weeks old. Montecore was raised at the Secret Garden.

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While Fischbacher and Horn have traded on the animals’ popularity, using their images on every type of souvenir merchandise, Horn has never minimized the importance of breeding the animals and the danger of training them.

While injured countless times because of stage mishaps, he had never before been harmed onstage by one of his animals, but recalled in his book a close call at his home, playing with a tiger named Sahra.

“After rolling around in the grass together, she suddenly laid on top of me and pinned me down,” Horn said.

“Our eyes met and I realized she was no longer playing -- she was about to bite me. Trusting my instincts, I raised my head and bit her nose as hard as I could.”

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The animal jumped off him, Horn said.

“We can always solve our arguments in an understanding way,” Horn said of his relationship with white tigers, “because I respect them and they respect me.”

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Times staff writer Tom Gorman contributed to this report.

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Siegfried & Roy

German-born illusionists Siegfried & Roy have been a fixture onstage in Las Vegas for three decades. They performed six times a week, 44 weeks a year, and have been seen by an estimated 20 million patrons. Here are some key facts:

* Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn met in 1957. Fischbacher was performing magic tricks on a cruise ship, and Horn suggested making a cheetah disappear. Horn smuggled aboard a cheetah named Chico from a German zoo to use in the act.

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* The pair performed throughout Europe in the 1960s, including Paris’ Lido and Folies Bergere clubs. They had made their way to Las Vegas by 1970, sharing billing with other acts at the Tropicana before receiving their first star billing as the headliners of the Stardust’s “Lido de Paris.”

* Their show “Beyond Belief” opened at the Frontier in 1981 and continued for an estimated 3,500 performances over seven years.

* Siegfried & Roy received a $57.5-million guarantee in 1990 to perform for five years at the Mirage. In 1995, the Theatre Mirage became the Siegfried & Roy Theatre, and in 2001 the duo signed a lifetime contract to continue at the Mirage.

* Siegfried & Roy’s zoo inside the Mirage officially opened to the public in 1997. It includes six rare animal breeds: white tigers, white lions, Bengal tigers, an Asian elephant, a panther and a snow leopard. The pair has been recognized by National Geographic for their efforts in saving and protecting endangered animals, particularly white tigers, which are now extinct in the wild.

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Sources: Associated Press; Times reports

Los Angeles Times


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