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Menagerie a Deux

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TO GET TO THEIR SHOW YOU PASS A rain forest, a shark-filled aquarium and a volcano that erupts every 15 minutes after dark. But it’s inside the theater at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas that you see the real spectacle. There, two men in glitzy capes and sculpted hair fight off a 38-foot fire-breathing dragon amid exploding pyramids while performing their signature acts of wonder—turning women into tigers and making an elephant disappear before your eyes.

Siegfried and Roy, the Liberaces of legerdemain, have been a two-of-a-kind show-business phenomenon for more than 25 years. Longtime fan Liz Taylor flew in from Los Angeles for Roy’s birthday after her 1991 bridal shower, and Jay Leno calls their magical extravaganza—which cost $28 million to produce—”the greatest show I’ve ever seen.” The act, which costars many of the 36 exotic cats who live with Siegfried and Roy at their sprawling Vegas home, ends when Roy miraculously appears on the back of a snow-white tiger sitting on a mirrored disco ball; Siegfried and a dozen other beasts join them, and they all levitate to Vegas heaven. Despite a hefty $72.85 ticket price, the show is a sellout twice a night, six nights a week, 40 weeks a year.

Now the illusionists have cowritten Mastering the Impossible, a coffee-table book about their lives. But the tale it tells is more black than magic. Raised in poverty in postwar Germany, Siegfried, 53, and Roy, 48, both had unhappy childhoods. Siegfried Fischbacher was a shy, insecure child whose father fought with Hitler’s army in Russia, survived a prisoner-of-war camp there, then began drinking heavily when he returned to his family in the village of Rosenheim, outside Munich. Ignored by his parents, Siegfried spent solitary hours learning magic tricks from a book. He was 8 years old, he says, “when my father came to me after I mastered my first trick and said, ‘How did you do that?’ Those few words became the opening lines of my life. It was the first time I got attention from him and the first time somebody noticed me.”

Roy Uwe Ludwig Horn was raised by his mother and a once well-to-do stepfather who lost much of his money after the war. Hiding from his stepfather’s alcoholic outbursts, Roy found solace with animals. “They were the first ones who understood me,” says Roy, who roamed the fields near his home in Nordenham, near Bremen, with his half-wolf dog, Hexe. He also visited the local zoo, where he became fascinated with a cheetah named Chico, persuaded zoo workers to let him help clean the cage and soon became friends with the big cat.

Roy met Siegfried when he left home at 13 and became a bellboy on the Bremen, a German luxury liner. Siegfried, who had trained as a carpet designer, had signed on as a steward and was performing magic tricks at night. Roy asked to assist him one evening. “I told Siegfried if he could make rabbits come out of a hat, why couldn’t he make cheetahs appear?” he says. “I wanted to be part of his act, and I wanted to find a way to be with my cheetah again.” When Siegfried agreed to create an illusion using a large animal, Roy says he smuggled Chico out of the zoo and aboard ship, where a startled audience saw the cat appear out of a trunk a few nights later. Though the captain disapproved of the trick, the passengers loved it, and the new partners decided to make a career with snarling feline assistants. In 1964 the trio began performing in small clubs in Germany and Switzerland. Their big break came in 1966, when they performed for Princess Grace at a benefit in Monaco. They added a tiger to their show when they played Vegas in 1970 and soon started building a menagerie. In 1990, they began an exclusive, five-year contract at the Mirage, which guarantees them a minimum of $57.5 million.

At the locked gates to Siegfried and Roy’s home—which locals dub the Jungle Palace—two mastiffs stand guard, and jaguars and tigers often roam the eight-acre backyard. Set in the desert amid an oasis of palm trees, the Spanish-style house looks like a gilded shrine. Inside are Buddhas from Thailand and Chinese cloisonné Fu-dogs, as well as gifts from foreign dignitaries—some of whom have seen the show—including a prayer bench sent by the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, nightingales from the emperor of Japan and rosaries bestowed on Siegfried and Roy in 1986 by Pope John Paul II.

As five 3-month-old tigers frolic with four full-time attendants outside, Siegfried and Roy sit in their dining room surveying their kingdom and smoking Swedish cigars. “Roy is the fantasist and I’m the realist,” says Siegfried, who perfects the magic tricks while Roy oversees the animals. “We’re good as a team because I think a little bit old and Roy gets bored and needs changes. By himself, Roy would be too much, and I would be too little.”

But the duo don’t spend all their time together. Relatives visit from Europe, and Roy’s mother, Johanna, lives in separate quarters on the properly. In their book they talk of relationships with various women over the years. “Also, we live in completely different parts of the house and go on vacations alone,” says Roy, who prefers the Far East while Siegfried escapes to the Bavarian Alps or the beaches of Puerto Rico.

The only time the partnership came close to breaking up was 16 years ago, when Siegfried became dependent on Valium. “I took too many, and I got depressed, and I started hallucinating,” he recalls. One night at home he became incoherent and started crawling on the floor. After Roy persuaded him to get help, Siegfried instead holed up in an apartment in Puerto Rico and, he says, “weaned myself.” Now, they say, their relationship is stronger than ever.

Roy’s other best pals are those animals, and he devotes his life to pampering them. All born in captivity, the cats are conditioned enough to have the run of the house—though only Siegfried, Roy and trained attendants handle them, under the supervision of a full-time veterinarian.

Each day, the animals are driven to Siegfried and Roy’s 88-acre retreat outside the city for exercise, and they even get their teeth brushed three times a month. Roy insists his costars are never exploited. “An unhappy animal could not be onstage doing the things we do,” says Roy, who always travels with the animals and refuses to use drugs to tranquilize them. “In the wild, a tiger lives from 8 to 10 years, but here they live from 20 to 25.”

Before each show, Roy meditates for 20 minutes with one of the cats—he rotates them nightly—and at home either a snow leopard or one of the tigers sleeps with him in his bed. “My animals are the love affair of my life,” says Roy, who baby-talks to his pets and keeps the ashes of each of his deceased pals (among them Chico, who died in the early ’70s) in urns by his bed. “They are the first ones I talk to in the morning and the last ones I speak to at night.”

Meanwhile the Siegfried-and-Roy conglomerate keeps expanding. Last May they licensed their name to a skiwear line with Bogner, and an animated TV show is being prepared based on their work. The animals, of course, just keep on coming. Roy’s latest is a camel. A very lucky camel, if he happens to outlive his new owners. “Our wills are made out,” says Roy. “Everything we have goes to our animals. They are our legacy.”