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Siegfried & Roy's return in '20/20' spotlight

It's a comeback and a likely finale as the famed Vegas show duo steps back in the near-fatal tigers' den once more.

March 06, 2009|Richard Abowitz

LAS VEGAS — In a city that is usually impossible to shock, the savaging of Roy Horn on Oct. 3, 2003, onstage and in front of a live audience at the Mirage, created one of those rare moments where all locals can say where they were when they heard the news.

Steve Wynn, who spent millions to have the theater at the Mirage customized for the "Siegfried & Roy" show, remembered his first reaction in an interview this week: "I could not believe one of Roy's cats attacked him."

Media from all over the world had surrounded the hospital by the time Wynn arrived and, inside, Horn had already had a stroke and died on the table. Wynn said: "I was standing there looking down at him with the breathing tube, stitches in his shaved head; his head was caved in from back to front because the doctors had removed part of his brain. They said that he would never be able to do anything below his head again. I just stared and could not believe."

The idea that Horn would even be able to stand up was more than anyone could possibly hope for in those days immediately after the attack as he fought for his life. Setting foot onstage again wasn't even a consideration. But, as a television audience will see on ABC's "20/20" today at 9 p.m., he -- along with Siegfried Fischbacher -- appeared as a duo Saturday for the first time in more than five years, and likely for the last time ever, during a benefit at the Bellagio. In addition to showing that event, the "20/20" episode will include co-host Elizabeth Vargas' interview with the partners at their home, discussing Horn's painful recovery and their lives since the tiger attack.

After that October night in 2003, Wynn said, the surgeon concluded that the beloved Vegas icon had no chance of walking again. Wynn, noting the willpower it takes to train lions, felt otherwise but remembers the doctor saying: " 'Steve, it is not a question of his determination. We took a third of his brain out and it's empty. He was going to die.' "

Mirage moves on

Roy Horn, of course, did not die. But the Siegfried & Roy show, after 13 wildly successful years at the Mirage, closed at once. The hotel and casino reinvented itself by getting a Cirque du Soleil show, the Beatles' "Love," as well as a hipster nightclub, Jet, and some new restaurants with celebrity chefs. It made its famous volcano bigger, flashier and louder. This was no longer the Mirage of Siegfried & Roy.

It wasn't that they were entirely forgotten: Their Secret Garden at the Mirage continues to attract visitors, and tourists regularly pose for photos in front of a statue of the duo on the Strip. But mostly, the image of Siegfried & Roy, covered in rhinestones and wearing codpieces, quickly became a symbol from the distant Las Vegas past.

Horn, meanwhile, in the years after the attack, was engaged in a constant effort at physical rehabilitation, with Fischbacher always by his side. He has managed to recover far beyond what the doctors originally thought possible.

Wynn recalled the first time he saw Horn walk after the mauling, which he did with the aid of a cane. It was along a 240-foot stretch of red carpet at the opening of "Spamalot" at his Wynn hotel in April 2007. "It was unbelievable," Wynn said. "Siegfried had tears in his eyes. I watched it, and all I could think was, 'Where is that surgeon? I want to talk to him.' There it is, Mr. Horn walking down the hall."

Less than a year after that night, the announcement was made that Siegfried & Roy would do a special farewell performance at the 2009 "Keep Memory Alive" charity dinner and auction, which has become mandatory for Vegas elites. The annual event -- held last Saturday -- supports the creation of the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, to be housed in a Frank Gehry-designed building in downtown Las Vegas. Dedicated to fighting brain diseases, it will be staffed in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic. After 13 of these dinners, each raising millions, the building is set to open by the end of this year.

Tickets for tables inside ranged from $15,000 to $75,000 for dinner, the auction and to view the under-10-minute performance. In an interview at the event, Mayor Oscar Goodman surpassed his usual gift for hyperbole by calling the night of Siegfried & Roy's comeback performance "the most important night in Las Vegas history." He continued, "Siegfried & Roy are the iconic showmen who really put Las Vegas on the map, and to have them come back for the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute is so unbelievably special."

Even outside Vegas, the return of Horn to the stage was major news. Vargas, the "20/20" co-host, said, "They are so iconic. I think everyone in the country knows them."

And Larry Ruvo, the Las Vegas businessman behind the brain institute bearing the name of his late father, noted, "I am sure we would not have gotten anything like this attention from the media without Siegfried & Roy."

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