Where you start with a story involving the counter-terrorism police, doing background checks on a tiger, having its roots in the mental problems of Nazi soldiers and including an investigation into whether a beehive hairstyle can be used as a weapon? What’s more, weaving in and out of all this, there are two German magicians in mullets and shiny suits who are apparently capable of floating around in the air, one of whom almost dies on stage after a white tiger bites clean through the throat.
This was the problem for Emmy-winning filmmaker Steven Leckart, who had long felt that the extraordinary story of Siegfried and Roy, whose performance with exotic animals electrified Las Vegas, deserved a proper narrative. The result is Wild Things, an eight-part podcast that describes how Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn achieved international star status with an entire zoo’s worth of performing jungle cats, and then effectively ended their live careers when a tiger named Montecore attacked Roy on stage, almost killing him.
“As a child of the ’80s,” says Leckart, speaking via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, “Siegfried and Roy have always been great to me. And no one has ever researched their story – or the attack – in depth.” It was a mighty task to do so: Over the course of 50 years, Siegfried and Roy performed 30,000 shows for 50 million people, generating over 1 billion. USD in ticket sales. Their action fused gigantic, astonishing illusions with the most exotic animals on earth, triggering an explosion in families coming to Vegas shows at a time when bills were dominated by topless showgirls.
The duo suspended tigers over the crowds on flaming disco balls and made elephants disappear into thin air. After their shows, they hung out with their jungle cats in their suite at the Mirage Hotel before returning to their $ 10 million. Moroccan villa, Jungle Palace, or their 100-hectare residence Little Bavaria, where German marching music played through hidden speakers.
Their well-known celebrities included Michael Jackson (who wrote a theme song for them), David Lee Roth (who gave them goats) and Pope John Paul II (who gave them a fragment of St. Francis of Assisi’s shins). In 1998, then-US President Bill Clinton joined them after a show in which his intelligence snipers trained their weapons on the Tigers. A Saturday Night Live spoof prompted them to introduce a special Night of a Thousand Tigers.
“They were overly manifested,” Leckart says. “Everything about them was bigger, was louder, was called 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 developed their show. . “
Wild Things takes listeners through this journey, which has surprisingly sad origins in Germany. Both Siegfried and Roy’s fathers were violent, furious 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 and taught himself tricks from books after watching an entertainer swallow razor blades in a town square.
The budding illusionists met as teenagers on a German cruise ship, where Roy worked as a piccolo after fleeing his family, and Siegfried was a steward with a magic show in the evening. Unimpressed by the sight of rabbits disappearing from hats, Roy decided to scale things up and get him a cheetah instead, so he smuggled one out of a zoo. It marked the beginning of their signature fusion of magic and jungle cats. Legend has it that a furious captain kicked them off the ship, but Leckart tells a different story: “I heard the captain was really angry about it, but the audience loved it so much that he let them continue.”
In 1966, the duo’s big breakthrough came when Grace Kelly (AKA Princess Grace of Monaco) invited them to perform at her annual Red Cross gala in Monte Carlo. Their cheetah, Chico, fled through a celebrity-filled crowd, right past Kelly and into the kitchens. When Siegfried casually jumped from the stage, the audience assumed it was all part of the plot. A standing ovation and newspaper headlines followed.
Within a few years, the regulars were performing in Vegas before gaining a headline spot with the city’s first full-length magic show. Eventually, a rival hotel would poach them in a flamboyant stunt in which they were helicoptered in to sign a $ 57 million contract. Their new venue had 1,500 seats and it sold out twice a night for a decade.
When you listen to Wild Things – the first two episodes have just been released – you wonder: “Isn’t some of this cruel to animals?” We hear lively stories about the magicians who remove baby tigers from their mother. A supposedly humorous anecdote involves a panther blowing up a waterbed after being locked inside a bedroom during a party, while a quiet anecdote about two tigers being stolen rather skips over that they had been left outside a delicatessen locked in the back of a truck. It’s not all right, can it? “We go – in depth – into the issue of animal welfare and safety in a subsequent episode,” says Leckart. “What we are revealing is not just shocking, but really disturbing.”
Initially, however, Wild Things worries about the tiger attack in 2003. When it happened, Siegfried and Roy had performed with exotic animals for 44 years and repeated the same show every night for an entire decade. It was so routine that – when the cast left Roy on stage to deliver a spotlighted monologue to the seven-year-old white tiger Montecore – they knew every word and every gesture that was to come. Or so they thought.
Montecore bites Roy through the neck, cuts his vertebrae and cuts an artery across that cuts off the blood to the right side of his brain. He pulls Roy around and covers the stage with so much blood that a spectator says, “I think to myself, ‘he’s gone. He’s not going to make it, man.’ This was hell on earth. ” Another shocked voice says, “It took four men and a firefighter to get the tiger off him.”
In the ambulance, Roy gasps: “Montecore is an amazing cat. Make sure Montecore is not harmed. “Soon he is in the hospital and the Mirage parking lot is filled with praying, crying fans. Police enter the hotel to find drinks left on tables and a scene still rubbed with blood The media spotlight is so intense that the police decide to use officers who are usually associated with terrorist cases.The question is: was the tiger attack a crime?
And this is where the podcast, which had been compelling enough, seriously shifts to another gear. It would be unfair to give away his many surprises, but (spoiler alert) Leckart’s team discovers that the investigation entered a really bizarre territory, including animal activists, homophobes in the crowd, ultrasounds and a woman near the scene with a large beehive hairstyle. Montecore’s background is also being investigated.
“That’s why we called the podcast Wild Things,” says Leckart. “We just wanted to find new and wild bits of information with each turn. What’s even more bizarre is the USDA’s separate investigation into animal cruelty. The twists and turns that go are bananas.”
Roy was left partially paralyzed on the left side of the body. He claimed that Montecore did not actually attack him, insisting that he had had a stroke and the tiger was trying to bring him to safety. He continued to live with Montecore until the death of the jungle cat in 2014. To this day, there has been no widely accepted explanation for the incident that led to Mirage closing the show.
Leckart, however, believes he has succeeded where the counter-terrorism detectives failed. “We are definitely resolving the issue of what happened to the attack,” he says. “We come to a very clear conclusion. My view of the cause changed through the creation of the series. But you do not want to leave the podcast without forming an opinion about what happened.”
Roy died of Covid in May 2020 at the age of 75. Siegfried succumbed to pancreatic cancer the following January. He was 81. Both had retired from show business a decade earlier.
Siegfried and Roy were the highest paid magicians Vegas had ever had, and a statue of them now stands outside the Mirage. They performed extraordinary stunts night after night, but their greatest illusion was eventually, and tragically, revealed: the idea that these beautiful, exotic creatures could be tamed. “A wild animal is always a wild animal,” we hear early Roy say. “Never forget it.”