Fear and lay-offs in the showbiz jungle

An on-stage mauling by a performing tiger has sent shockwaves through a lucrative corner of the entertainment industry. Andrew Buncombe reports from Las Vegas
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On Las Vegas Boulevard, beside the rush of traffic and amid a garish neon sprawl that can be seen by astronauts, a vigil of sorts is taking place for one of the city's most famous, and most unlikely, icons.

There are flowers and balloons, candles and handwritten messages, the kind of sentimental but genuine mush that usually gets left in memory of the recently deceased. This time, they are being placed for a man still alive, though barely, and accompanied by a wish that he soon get back to doing what he has done in this city for more than three decades.

The latter wish is unlikely to be realised. Roy Horn, half of the illusionist duo Siegfried and Roy, lies partly paralysed and critically ill in the city's University Medical Centre, unable to speak and with his doctors using words such as "miracle" when discussing why he is not dead. Even now it is still far from clear that the 59-year-old will pull through, or in what state he will be if he lives.

For anyone who has not been to Las Vegas in the past 30 or so years it is possible that the names of Siegfried and Roy, and their sell-out illusion and magic stage show involving white tigers and lions, are unfamiliar. But in Las Vegas it is hard to avoid them.

Astonishingly camp images of the two performers, shirts undone to the waist, hair swept back like 1980s rock stars, and their large white cats are everywhere: on billboards, on T-shirts, on posters, in gift shops and, most prominently, on a huge neon hoarding outside the MGM Mirage casino and hotel where they have been performing since 1990.

Last Friday night at the Mirage, Horn was attacked by one of the famous white Bengal tigers, 45 minutes into the duo's 5,750th performance, seized at the throat and dragged along the floor like a "rag doll". While many in the audience thought it was part of the act, stagehands desperately tried to force the seven-year-old tiger, named Montecore, to let go of Horn. They finally succeeded by spraying it with a fire extinguisher. Paramedics and staff used ice to stem the blood pouring from Horn's injuries as he was rushed to hospital. He lost a huge amount of blood, and he had to be resuscitated during surgery. He suffered a stroke, and on Saturday he had further surgery. "I can tell you people did not realise he is such a tough cookie," his personal physician, Dr Stephen Miller, says. "He's a fighter."

Fighter or not, the management at the Mirage quickly realised the seriousness of the situation. On Monday, they said the Siegfried and Roy Show was being cancelled indefinitely and the 270 dancers, performers, stagehands and other staff associated with the show were being laid off with one week's severance pay.

What are Horn's chances of performing again? "Not very good," admits Alan Feldman, a spokesman for the Mirage. The cancelling of the show, he says, represents the end of an era. "They are icons of our city," he says as he leaves the hospital, having visited Horn in his fourth-floor room. "But more than that, they are entwined with the fabric of the community."

This community is a bizarre, self-contained world within the wider world of the entertainment business. The financial rewards for playing a Las Vegas hotel are of a size comparable to a national record deal. Take Celine Dion. She will perform 600 shows at the Colosseum Theatre in Caesar's Palace over the next three years and receive $100m (£60m) for her trouble. (Elton John will fill in on her days off and pocket $54m over two years.) Last year, Sir Paul McCartney was reputedly offered $4m to play one night. A host of other stars, many considered superannuated in the wider entertainment world, still draw big crowds every night in Vegas, and big cheques to match. But even by these standards of other-worldly excess, Siegfried and Roy are something special.

HORN AND his partner Siegfried Fishbacher arrived in Vegas in the 1960s, having met on a cruise liner where Horn was performing tricks with doves, making them disappear. "I said that was very good, but could we do it with a large cat," Fishbacher said. "At that time I had a cheetah."

For many years the couple were more than business partners, sharing a large house in the desert close to a lake where they lived with their exotic animals, which they bought from zoos around the world. Years ago they split, agreeing to continue as business partners but living separately. The arrangement seemed to work: two years ago they signed a "lifetime contract" with the Mirage, showing no indication they intended to stop performing soon.

But to focus simply on their longevity fails to provide the full idea of what Siegfried and Roy represent to Las Vegas and this cheesy niche of the entertainment business. There are, after all, others who have been around as long, or almost as long, and who still return to Vegas: Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Gladys Knight, and even that other "master illusionist" and sometime aficionado of strange haircuts, David Copperfield. But what the self-styled "Magicians of the Century" do is, in many people's opinion, unique, combining as it does both illusion and exotic wild animals. "I think there are better shows in town," says Chris Maurer, a Las Vegas resident signing a large "Get Well" message pad outside the Mirage this week. "But no one else who does what they do."

Those who have actually seen Siegfried and Roy perform on stage are rarely disappointed. Mr Feldman claims the duo raised the standard of what a Vegas show could be with their combination of lighting, music, precision and professionalism. He claims that there are similarities between their performances and the Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde.

"I don't want to keep on about Wagner," he says, a little unexpectedly for a casino spokesman, "but I have seen reviews that talk about their shows and the contrast between black and white, light and darkness, life and death. They are far more sophisticated, far more artistically rooted than you might imagine."

For other people, the duo's longevity is the key. In recent years, some observers say, the city has increasingly focused on "adult" entertainment to draw visitors, opening multimillion-dollar strip clubs. Against this trend, Siegfried and Roy have been prized more than ever as stalwarts of family entertainment.

Hal Rothman, a professor of history at University of Las Vegas and author of Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the 21st Century, rejects this analysis: he believes that Las Vegas has always been good at providing many different "niches" to many different markets. But he agrees Siegfried and Roy have become a Vegas institution. "They became really became big when they went to the Mirage," he says. "The Mirage is a place of illusion and they fit perfectly in there. They are master illusionists but there is also a fear factor. These are big cats under control and there is a vicarious pleasure in watching whether they will stay under control."

Indeed, it is the exotic animals that most people mention when they talk of the appeal of Siegfried and Roy. "It's the white tigers, I think," says Pat Eller from North Carolina, who travelled to Vegas hoping to catch the Siegfried and Roy show and had to make do with having her picture taken next to a large statue of the pair.

It is no surprise that, in the aftermath of Friday night's attack, much attention has also been paid to Horn's errant co-star, Montecore. Although it appears Horn cannot yet speak, a friend of his, Amy Fink, claims that when he was stretchered away by paramedics his thoughts were for the tiger. "When they wheeled him out, he said, 'Don't kill the cat'," she says.

Mr Feldman says the cat is being held at the casino's compound, and is required by state law to remain in quarantine for 10 days. Quite where Montecore is being held is not clear. A tour of "Siegfried and Roy's Magic Garden", where $12 buys a walk past a series of small cages containing various white cats, throws little light on that.

Akasha and Kumma, two bored-looking white tigers, are lying on a large tree, Manchu the snow leopard is hiding from the fierce Nevada sun in the corner of his pen, but of Montecore there is no sign. "I have not allowed anyone to take pictures of him since the incident," Mr Feldman says.

But a walk through the garden guided by an audio tour recorded by Siegfried and Roy, their German accents not softened one jot by their decades in the US, does give a little insight into their somewhat imprecise method of training the animals.

"I call it affection-conditioning," Horn reveals. "There are no books you can turn to learn out to earn its trust. [But] when an animal gives you its trust you feel you have been given the most incredible gift in the world." The rest of the recording is in the same vein: of man's need to respect nature, of the need to connect with "something real".

Given that all the animals in the compound were born in captivity and spend their lives in pens, being brought out to take part in on-stage illusions, that sentiment is ironic. "Perhaps Friday's frightening incident will make you realise a brightly lit stage with pounding music and a screaming audience is not the natural habitat for tigers, lions or any other exotic animal," Dan Matthews, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), wrote in a terse "get well soon" letter to Horn.

Fair treatment or not, Siegfried and Roy and their exotic coterie have been sell-outs at Las Vegas. For thirteen and a half years they have performed an average of six shows a week, 45 weeks of the year, to capacity crowds of 1,503 people, each paying an average of $110 for their ticket.

This brings in $45m a year in pre-tax revenues, and analysts have already said that Horn's almost certain retirement will be a significant blow to MGM. "Closing Siegfried and Roy will have an impact on entertainment revenue, food and beverage revenue and gaming revenue," Andrew Zarnett, a casino debt analyst for Deutsche Bank, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "We've seen from the Celine Dion show [at Caesar's Palace], when you're able to generate 4,000 incremental guests a night you pump up revenue from food and beverage and gaming. There has to be a short-term impact."

The overarching reason for Siegfried and Roy's success, it seems, is simple. Those who think Las Vegas represents a splash of glamour are as wrong as those taken in by the idea that the city's tackiness gives it an anti-cool chic. The reality is that in Las Vegas the common denominator is blandness. It is, more than anything else, a city of holidaymakers in T-shirts, white socks and shorts with mobile phones clipped to their belts, looking for something different. But not too different.

In this environment of eat-all-you-can buffets, where gluttony matters more than taste, Siegfried and Roy's "safe exoticism", rare white cats, unbuttoned shirts and highlighted hair, found a perfect market.

None of this cynicism and humbug, of course, is of any interest to Horn's friends and family as the entertainer lies in the city hospital. They say he has been buoyed by the thousands of messages of support he has received, including ones from Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, Arnold Schwarzenegger and former president George Bush.

And he will certainly have appreciated the presence by his bedside of Fischbacher, who reported in a television interview on Wednesday night that he and his partner had developed a code in the past few days, with one gesture for "yes" and another for "no". "So we talk - and also with eye contact," he said. "He understood exactly what I was saying. I could see it in his face."

"He is totally aware he is fighting for his life," Siegfried and Roy's manager, Bernie Yuman, says. "The outpouring of love and prayer domestically and globally is touching to us."

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG MONEY LAS VEGAS IN FIGURES

* About 36 million people visit Las Vegas each year, generating $31.5bn in revenue;

* Las Vegas has more hotel rooms than any other city in the world, and the airport is the eighth busiest;

* Over three years, Celine Dion will earn $100m for performing five nights a week, 40 weeks a year at the custom-built $95m, 4,100-seater Colosseum at Caesar's Palace.

* In 1995, Wayne Newton (aka Mr Las Vegas) signed a 10-year contract to perform at the Stardust 40 weeks a year for $25m a year;

* After drawing an audience of 101,500 at the International Hotel over four weeks in 1969, Elvis Presley was given a $1m a year contract to perform there for eight weeks a year;

* There are 176,995 slot machines in Nevada.

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