Siegfried Fischbacher, who has died of cancer aged 81, was the blond half of the Siegfried and Roy duo whose high-camp magic show, involving Liberace-style costumes and white lions and tigers, became an institution on the Las Vegas strip for 35 years before a tiger called Mantecore brought a premature end to their careers.
Siegfried Fischbacher was born in Rosenheim, near Munich, Germany on June 13 1939, the son of a painter who served in the Wehrmacht and emerged from a Soviet prisoner of war camp a deeply traumatised man.
Like his younger showbusiness partner and fellow countryman Roy (real name Uwe Ludwig Horn), Siegfried had an unhappy home life, and while Roy found solace in the company of animals, magic was Siegfried’s refuge. “When I was small, I’d walk past this book store on the way to school, and I saw this magic book in the window,” he recalled. “I thought, I can solve all my problems at home with this book. I found five marks in the street which, at that time, you never did ... so I felt there was a spiritual power at work.
“I learned a trick to show to my father, and it was the first time I had a conversation with him . . . he noticed me. He said, ‘How did you do that?’”
He met Roy Horn in 1957 on a German cruise ship on which Roy was working as a bellboy and he as a steward who also performed magic tricks for guests, including a disappearing act involving a rabbit and a dove. One day Roy asked him whether he could make a cheetah disappear, explaining that he had a pet cheetah in his cabin called Chico which he had smuggled on board in a laundry sack.
The pair went into business, charging passengers $2.50 to have their photographs taken with Chico; a passenger who owned another cruise company invited them to perform on his ships and Siegfried and Roy began developing a magic act that would incorporate large animals disappearing and reappearing. They took their act on the road in Europe, performing in nightclubs.
In the late 1960s, during an appearance at the Sporting Club in Monte Carlo, they caught the eye of a talent spotter who booked them to appear at the Folies Bergère in Paris. In 1967 they landed a gig at Las Vegas’s Tropicana.
They decided to stay, and over the next 30 years, as they moved from one glitzy Las Vegas venue to another, accumulating awards along the way, they developed their show into a pyrotechnics spectacular on a Hollywood scale of excess. Featuring dozens of dancers and some 60 wild animals including more than 30 exotic cats, corralled and presented by the two permatanned “Liberaces of legerdemain” with their stiffly coiffed 1980s-style “big” hair and spangly costumes, the show attracted huge audiences. It was credited with helping to transform Vegas’s tawdry, Mafia-linked image into something more family-friendly.
In 1989 they were signed by Steve Wynn to a $57 million five-year contract to perform six shows a week, 44 weeks a year, at his new Vegas hotel and casino, The Mirage. Their show, the most expensive in the world at that time, became even more of an extravaganza, featuring, beside the wild animals and dancers, a fire-breathing mechanical dragon and a 30ft high pyramid that Horn would climb before it exploded. One of Siegfried’s most famous tricks was an act where he would mysteriously turn Roy – on stage inside a Plexiglas container – into a huge roaring tiger.
By the time they signed a lifetime contract with the Mirage in 2001 they had performed an estimated 5,000 shows at the casino for 10 million fans, grossing more than $1 billion.
In 2003, however, a white tiger called Mantecore attacked Roy during a live performance and hauled him offstage as Siegfried frantically rushed to help. The animal was eventually pacified, but Roy was left partially paralysed, causing the show to be closed.
Siegfried clung to the hope that Roy would recover enough to resume the show, but it took until 2006 before he could walk and talk. They returned to the stage in February 2009, for a comeback performance (featuring, in a spirit of forgiveness, Mantecore) to raise money for a new brain clinic, but retired shortly afterwards.
It was an open secret in the entertainment industry that Siegfried and Roy had been lovers when they first met, but their relationship became that of best friends. They shared a 100-acre Vegas estate that included two homes, Little Bavaria and the Jungle Palace, the latter boasting a replica of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and a menagerie of wild animals given the virtual run of the place with their own Olympic-sized pool and air-conditioned accommodation.
The pair gained international recognition for helping to save rare white tigers and white lions from extinction – the result of a preservation programme that began in the 1980s. They obtained their first three white tiger cubs from a zoo in 1982 and acquired dozens more over the years.
Mantecore survived until its death of natural causes in 2014 aged 17. Roy died of Covid-19 on May 8 last year.
Siegfried Fischbacher, born June 13 1939, died January 13 2021