Roy Horn—the iconic illusionist who, alongside creative partner Siegfried Fischbacher, established one of the most essential acts to dazzle the Las Vegas Strip—has died due to complications caused by coronavirus. Horn was diagnosed with the virus on April 28. Per The Hollywood Reporter, Siegfried confirmed the death in a statement: “Today, the world has lost one of the greats of magic, but I have lost my best friend. From the moment we met, I knew Roy and I, together, would change the world. There could be no Siegfried without Roy, and no Roy without Siegfried. Roy was a fighter his whole life including during these final days. I give my heartfelt appreciation to the team of doctors, nurses and staff at Mountain View Hospital who worked heroically against this insidious virus that ultimately took Roy’s life.” He was 75 years old.
Born in 1944, Horn grew up in post-World War II Germany, reflecting in at least one interview that “he had no childhood” due to the harsh living conditions in which he was raised. Even so, he gravitated to animals early in life, foreshadowing a multi-decade career that would see him incorporate numerous fascinating beasts into his and his partner’s act. That love for tigers, elephants, and more all fueled the sense of spectacle that was Siegfriend & Roy’s stock in trade—other magicians working the Las Vegas Strip might be more adroit with comedy, or more technically devout. But nobody went bigger or flashier than the German duo, helping to define the image of Vegas entertainment for decades to come.
Despite that, and depending on the sources, Horn appears to have all but stumbled into the world of magic, meeting Fischbacher on a ship where Horn was employed as a waiter during the middle of the century. (In a recent write-up of their career, ABC News reports that Horn was also supposedly keeping a cheetah in his cabin at the time that they met; the two worked the animal into their nascent act.) The two quickly became inseparable, working their way from cruise ships to the European night club circuit—where they first began formally incorporating tigers into their show. A move to Monte Carlo introduced them to the world of the rich and famous, which swiftly saw them transplant themselves to what would turn out to be their natural home: Vegas.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Fischbacher and Horn worked tirelessly to establish Siegfried & Roy as the default faces of Vegas magic, performing permanent shows at Bally’s and the New Frontier Hotel and Casino—and defying standard Vegas protocol at the time by not including topless women in their revue. Regulars on the talk show circuit, and major celebrities in the world of magic, they achieved true dominance in the city in 1987, when Steve Wynn signed them to a $57.5 million, five-year contract for his Mirage casino; when Siegfried & Roy opened at The Mirage in 1990, it was reportedly one of the most expensive stage shows ever assembled. It also introduced something rarely-before-scene into the ecosystem of the Strip, a powerful and ultimately triumphant beast: Family entertainment.
On a professional level, the move also firmly locked in the duo’s working personas, with Fischbacher as the magic-focused technician, and Horn as the animal handler and “dreamer.” Their act hinged on both, and on going as big as humanly impossible—with the disappearance of an elephant as one of their signature tricks. They also embraced elements of hinted-at danger; not just with the tigers, but also stunts that would see Horn suspend himself by one arm from a rope and then swing out over the watching crowd. Performing thousands of shows, they became a part of the city’s DNA. Critics might have called their work cheesy, or even camp. But they could never claim that Siegfried & Roy weren’t giving Vegas audiences exactly what they’d come there to see—the sort of high-impact wonder you could take back home and describe to your friends with awe.
All of which ended on October 3, 2003—Horn’s 59th birthday, as it happened. During a regular part of their show titled “The Rapport,” built around displaying Horn’s close relationship with the various white tigers who were a signature part of the duo’s act, one of the animals, Mantacore, bit him—first on the sleeve, and then in the neck. The stated causes for the unexpected attack vary wildly. Horn always contended that Mantacore was trying to save him after he suffered a stroke on stage, while at least one of the animal handlers present that night has alleged that human error was at fault. Either way, the end results were severe: Horn’s spine was reportedly severed, along with numerous other injuries, and he would never regain the mobility he had before the attack. (Even so, he was quoted as saying in the ambulance, “ Mantacore is a great cat. Make sure no harm comes to Mantacore.”)
But while Horn survived the incident, Siegfriend & Roy would not. The attack marked, for all intents and purposes, the end of their performing careers—although they did return to the stage in 2009 to claim a “true” finale show. (And if we can be allowed a brief but bizarre pop culture digression, it also had a very odd knock-on effect: Turning Fox’s animated sitcom Father Of The Pride into one of the strangest single-season oddities in recent memory. Based on the supposed lives of some of the animals in S&R’s act—and executive produced by the duo—the cartoon was developed by Jeffrey Katzenberg in 2002, but didn’t debut until a year after the near-fatal attack, in 2004. It was essentially doomed from the start.) Fischbacher retired alongside his partner, providing full-time care to Horn, who lived out most of the rest of his life on their sprawling “Little Bavaria” Vegas estate, playing chess, walking with the numerous animals on the grounds, and seeming, by all accounts, to thoroughly enjoy his life. They also continued to operate Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden, the Mirage animal sanctuary where many of their animals are still housed.
Roy Horn changed Las Vegas. In a city built on sin, he and Fischbacher made a credible case that it could be just as beguiling for families as singles, helping to transform the city into the high-wattage theme park form it exists in to this day. One of the most dedicated performers in the world of magic, he performed thousands of shows for millions of fans, while also dedicating his life to working with some of the most beautiful animals on the planet. He is survived by Fischbacher, and numerous animals who were in their collective care.