(Alexi Duggins’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/17; ‘No one has ever properly examined their story – or the attack – in depth’ … Siegried, left, and Roy onstage with one of their jungle cats. Photograph: Willi Schneider/REX/Shutterstock.)
Their exotic animal show was a Sin City sensation – until one of their white tigers attacked. But why were counter-terrorism police called? New podcast Wild Things tackles an enduring mystery
Where do you start with a story that involves counter-terrorism police doing background checks on a tiger, has its roots in the mental health problems of Nazi soldiers, and features an investigation into whether a beehive hairdo can be used as a weapon? What’s more, weaving in and out of all of this, there are two German magicians in mullets and shiny suits seemingly capable of floating around in the air, one of whom nearly dies on stage after a white tiger bites clean through his neck.
This was the problem facing Emmy-winning film-maker Steven Leckart, who had long felt that the extraordinary story of Siegfried and Roy, whose performances with exotic animals electrified Las Vegas, deserved a proper telling. The result is Wild Things, an eight-part podcast detailing how Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn rose to international stardom with a whole zoo’s worth of performing jungle cats, then had their live career effectively ended when a tiger called Montecore attacked Roy on stage, nearly killing him.
“As a child of the 80s,” says Leckart, speaking via Zoom from his Los Angeles home, “Siegfried and Roy have always loomed large for me. And no one has ever properly examined their story – or the attack – in depth.” To do so was a mighty undertaking: over the course of 50 years, Siegfried and Roy performed 30,000 shows to 50 million people, generating over $1bn in ticket sales. Their act fused gigantic, mind-boggling illusions with the most exotic animals on earth, sparking an explosion in families coming to Vegas shows, at a time when bills were dominated by topless showgirls.
The duo suspended tigers above crowds on flaming disco balls and made elephants vanish into thin air. After their shows, they would hang out with their jungle cats in their suite at the Mirage hotel, before returning to their $10m Moroccan-style villa the Jungle Palace, or their 100-acre residence Little Bavaria, where German marching music played through concealed speakers.
Their celebrity acquaintances included Michael Jackson (who wrote them a theme song), David Lee Roth (who gifted them goats) and Pope John Paul II (who gave them a fragment of Saint Francis of Assisi’s shinbone). In 1998, the then US President Bill Clinton joined them after a show, his secret service sharpshooters training their weapons on the tigers. A Saturday Night Live spoof had them introducing a special Night of a Thousand Tigers.
“They were hyperbole manifested,” says Leckart. “Everything about them was bigger, was louder, was dialled up to 11, which is a deliberate Spinal Tap reference. But what kept them going for so many years was their incredible skill and the way they progressed their show.”
Wild Things takes listeners through this journey, which has surprisingly sad origins in Germany. Both Siegfried and Roy’s fathers were violent, rage-filled alcoholics, scarred by years of fighting as Nazi soldiers. Roy’s lifelong love of animals started when he adopted a stray dog that protected him and his mother from his father’s fists. Siegfried sought refuge in magic, teaching himself tricks from books after watching an entertainer swallow razor blades in a town square.