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THE NATION

End of the Line for True Vegas Icons?

October 05, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — At $110.50 per ticket, Siegfried & Roy were neither the hottest act on the Strip nor the most economical.

And yet, such was their iconic status that people kept paying to see their shows at the Mirage hotel and casino, even as the explosion of Cirque du Soleil spectaculars cut into business and made their tigers and magic act all the more dated. There was simply no better way to mint one's Las Vegas experience than to say you had seen Siegfried & Roy.

On Saturday, as Roy Horn lay in critical condition, mauled by the same tiger whose image is among those on postcards, calendars and T-shirts sold in the gift shops here, a Vegas entertainment franchise threatened to come to a shocking end.

Siegfried & Roy have been operating under a lifetime contract at the Mirage, a renegotiated deal from the reported $57.5 million that the original Mirage owner, Steve Wynn, gave the duo to secure their services when he opened the hotel in 1990.

By then, Siegfried & Roy had gone from Vegas novelty act (they previously worked at the Tropicana, the Stardust and the Frontier) to headliners writ large, their billboards and their tagline, "magicians of the century," looming over the Strip.

"They were the beneficiary of Steve Wynn's vision," said Hal Rothman, a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That vision, a hotel called the Mirage, signaled a cultural shift from gaming to the consumption of entertainment, Rothman said.

"The way the Mirage was set up was so conceptually different; it was about illusion and removing a place from time and space.... Siegfried & Roy fit into that perfectly. [Their show] was about spectacle and excitement, but it also has this vicarious sense of danger because of the tigers," Rothman said.

Onstage, Siegfried Fischbacher is the showman (scared of the animals, it is said) while Roy Horn is the lion and tiger tamer. In the act, tigers disappear, but they also come into physical contact with the performers.

Appearances have helped turn them into camp figures; both are well-coiffed and with their fame have become the butt of countless jokes -- about their sexuality and the surreal place that the pair occupy in the entertainment world.

Recent years have seen their competition increase with the arrival of big-name stars like Celine Dion at Caesars Palace and more Cirque shows.

But Siegfried & Roy have endured.

Survival has meant not fighting their kitsch appeal but embracing it.

"As much as professionally I have to make fun of them, personally I'm very fond of them," says Penn Jillette, one half of the magic act Penn & Teller.

What Jillette admires, he says, is the longevity of their career.

Even after Friday's frightening event, the Siegfried & Roy marketing machine continued to churn Saturday. Tourists paid $12 a person to wander through the pair's lion and tiger zoo, and in the gift shops they perused the many trinkets from refrigerator magnets to stuffed tigers.

Somewhere between the souvenirs and animal sanctuary exist two entertainers who have been together for more than three decades. And that, Jillette says, makes them a rarity in showbiz today.

"Here's two guys who decided they could work together better than separately. Gilbert & Sullivan couldn't figure that out," Jillette said.

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