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[The Strip Sense]

Real magic

Roy Horn’s moment onstage was an emotional watershed; too bad it couldn’t escape the past

Image
Siegfried and Roy take a bow at the end of their Saturday-night finale performance.
Curtis Dahl Photography

Forget for a moment whether the white tiger on the stage really was Montecore. Forget whether it really was Roy Horn under the mask for the entire 10-minute performance at the Bellagio last weekend. And forget, even, that Siegfried and Roy and their managers have spent the better part of five years telling ridiculous tales about what actually happened between Montecore and Horn that awful night at the Mirage, despite the fact that there were 1,500 horrified witnesses.

We’ll get back to all that shortly. But let it all go for a moment.

A message to Siegfried & Roy on October 8, 2003.

A message to Siegfried & Roy on October 8, 2003.

I did. It was the only way to take in one of the most genuinely emotional events in the history of Las Vegas. Many speculated afterward that much of the show may have been fake, staged. But the awkward, bittersweet smile on Roy’s face when he and Siegfried peeled off medieval gothic masks and soaked up the adulation of a teary-eyed, standing crowd at the benefit for the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Research?

That part was real. That part, when a man who was not supposed to be alive—much less ever walk or utter a syllable again—was up there enjoying a last bow? That was real. The evident and deserved satisfaction of enjoying one last hurrah after redefining Vegas entertainment and spectacle and delighting untold millions of people in their careers?

No illusion. All real.

What a shame, then, that there were so many skeptics. But the fault for that belongs solely with Siegfried, Roy, MGM Mirage and their handlers.

Stars Support Siegfried and Roy

It’s never easy, as a journalist, to let go of the tricky past. Those of us who covered the attack on October 3, 2003, have long memories of how this story was handled, what lines of baloney were being fed to the public and how something tragic became needlessly controversial.

For me, that night sits alongside the where-were-you-when tales people tell about when they learned of the 9/11 attacks, the Challenger explosion, the first O.J. Simpson verdict. I had emerged from a terrible local production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which happened to also be attended by John Wilson, then the head honcho of the local ambulance company. Wilson turned on his phone and got a message that Roy had been attacked by a tiger on stage. The enormity of it didn’t hit me for another 20 minutes; I was at dessert with friends when the very concept kept rolling through my mind until the lightbulb finally went on. I got up and left without even saying goodbye.

As I headed first to the Mirage and then, when that appeared fruitless, to UMC, my cell phone started to ring like mad. This was it, the first major national story to occur since I had set up shop as a freelancer. I’d always wondered what I’d do in this circumstance, and now I had People, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, Newsweek and others begging for my services. (I did Newsweek and USA Today and, in fact, ended my affiliation with People over the gossipy way they insisted on covering it all.)

Trouble was, there wasn’t that much to report after the initial event. A wall of secrecy descended the way it might around the mechanics behind the greatest magic tricks. Usually when a famous person is in medical peril, teams of doctors hold press conferences to explain what’s happening. In this case, we had to rely on a leak from cuckoo ex-lieutenant governor Lonnie Hammargren, a neurosurgeon who said he helped with some sci-fi-like surgery in which part of Roy’s brain was stored in his abdomen while the skull swelling went down.

I’m not sure any of us really expected what came next: the obfuscation. Several hundred people saw the tiger lunge at Horn, saw him try to beat the animal off with the microphone, saw the illusionist be gripped and shaken like a rag doll, saw the copious amounts of blood. Cast members told similar stories. People were there. It made everyone wonder what they would have said had there not been hundreds of witnesses.

And yet first it was Steve Wynn claiming he heard the tiger got distracted by a lady with a beehive hairdo in the front row. This made no sense; in 5,750 performances there had never been anything distracting or startling in the front row before?

Overheard

Overheard at the Keep Memory Alive gala, featuring Siegfried & Roy
“You know, man, I’ve always appreciated their style onstage. They are very, very Vegas.” –Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell
“I am trying to find my wife. She is shopping.” –Dr. Zaven Khachaturian, head of the medical team at the Lou Ruvo Center, after being separated from his wife during the event’s highly expensive silent auction
“This doesn’t look like Cleveland.” –Cleveland Clinic Chief Executive Toby Cosgrove, in the purple-and-red-draped Bellagio ballroom.
“The best thing we can do is be empathetic right now and take care of each other. That’s what I have been telling our people.” –MGM Mirage Chairman and CEO Jim Murren, on the recession
“Invest in Tums and Rolaids.” –Former Gov. Bob Miller, on his advice for those concerned about the state’s economic woes
“PETA needs to get a clue.” –Sen. John Ensign, a veterinarian, defending Siegfried & Roy’s handling of big cats (PETA protested outside the Bellagio)
“It makes us a world-class city. We are now in the major leagues.” –Mayor Oscar Goodman, on the impact the Ruvo Center will have on the image of Las Vegas
“The spirit of Siegfried & Roy has left the building.” –Unidentified voice, as the curtain closed on Siegfried & Roy’s brief performance

Then came Siegfried’s claim to Larry King that Montecore sensed Roy was in danger and was bringing his master to safety. And this ridiculous notion, debunked by every single tiger-behavior expert interviewed after the incident, continued to persist last weekend, when manager Bernie Yuman told Norm Clarke, of Montecore: “He saved Roy’s life.”

Federal investigators, called in because of the public-endangerment aspect of the situation as well as for animal-welfare concerns, spent 18 months investigating and came to no specific conclusion in a 233-page report. But as Associated Press writer Adam Goldman wrote in 2005: “Nowhere do investigators conclude the tiger was trying to aid the entertainer after it knocked him down—despite the claims of Horn and others that the animal was only helping him.” Goldman and others tried and failed to view the critical piece of evidence, the video of the incident. Sen. Harry Reid himself helped suppress it on behalf of MGM Mirage and Siegfried and Roy.

It’s never been clear why these illogical explanations were promulgated, but it has sadly overshadowed much of Siegfried and Roy’s legacy. Why not acknowledge that these are dangerous wild animals and not pets? That as intimate and meaningful as the human-tiger bonds were in the S&R household, a tiger still has certain natural instincts that don’t go away? It wasn’t as though they were ever going to perform a regular show again, anyway; there was no reason not to be honest and forthright.

If they had, I doubt anyone would be questioning what they witnessed on Saturday night. (I’ve been approached or e-mailed by more than a half-dozen quizzical people.)

And that brings us back to the real magic trick of the night, the fact that it succeeded despite all that. Roy Horn, however he was injured and regardless of whether he actually did anything more than stand and wave, proved himself an inspiration just by showing up and by working so hard to overcome his injuries. He and Siegfried were visibly moved by the reaction of the crowd and grateful to retire before an admiring audience, not a traumatized one.

Yes, that moment was indisputably real. But because of all the rest of the baggage, it was also fleeting. And that is almost as tragic as the horrifying event that led to it.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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