Take Two #21: Siegfried & Roy
But first, a prologue: A belated Mission Statement
When I conceived of and began writing Take Two last October, I did not present an explicit mission statement for the project. But recently I have been increasingly discovering some concrete support of my original concept, so perhaps it’s time for me to acknowledge my intentions. I see Take Two as an exercise in art appreciation. We are accustomed to reading and studying art appreciation, in school and in the world at large, about many art forms, including music, theater, painting, cinema, dance, and many more, static or performing arts alike. But we rarely if ever come upon insightful looks at variety arts in general, and magic in particular. Take Two was conceived as a project of art appreciation and video curation, each week posting two or more videos of performance magic, accompanied by an essay that examines the particular form, style, individual performer, or even, specific illusion. It is intended as a guide to the art, to its many aspects and elements, technical and aesthetic, as well as to its history. And while I realize that the majority of the audience will likely be comprised of magicians, along with magic fans, in the back of my mind I also had a vision, imagining that I was writing these pieces for non-magicians—"laymen," as we magicians often term them—who might not possess any knowledge of magic, nor in fact perhaps even much of any prior interest. Regardless if such an audience ever began to follow the series, with that idea in mind I have tried to write these essays as free of jargon as possible, explaining the occasional jargon term when appropriate or necessary to invoke it, and avoiding any technical explanations of methods.
The magician Garrett Thomas (whom I featured in Take Two #15) commented in an interview on the Magical Thinking podcast, hosted by Elliott Terral, that when a child, or anyone for that matter, expresses an initial interest in magic, the response from those around them, supportive parents or friends, is typically to buy them a magic trick. If that same child or adult expresses an interest in a style of music, or a particular artist or band, we would not immediately turn around and hand them a book of sheet music or a musical instrument. Rather, we would give them that music. We would give them a recording, or take them to a concert. We would not immediately seek to turn them into musicians, but rather, we would encourage and support them in becoming music appreciators.
Take Two is presented in the hopes of supporting magic appreciators. And recently, a number of non-magicians have responded on social media, and in email to firstname.lastname@example.org, indicating that there is an audience of non-magicians who have been following and enjoying the series. This is very satisfying proof of concept, as a mere idea now begins to bear fruit as a reality. Thank you to all for sharing and re-posting these essays, for writing and commenting, and above all, for viewing and reading the work. Oh, and by the way, my hope and intention is to do 52 of these, a full year's worth, if I can survive it. After that, I may continue, but certainly at a slowed and more reasonable pace.
SIEGFRIED & ROY: Masters of the Impossible
In thinking about inexplicable mysteries of magic that might warrant attempts at explication to the public, it occurred to me recently that a worthy topic might be the phenomenon of Siegfried & Roy. For people who don’t get it, or don’t know much about it … well, how exactly does one go about trying to explain Siegfried & Roy?
It’s difficult for most people outside of Las Vegas and the world of magic to fully understand the tremendous impact that Siegfried & Roy had on that showbiz city. They were the first magic act to headline their own show on a Vegas marquee, and they hold the all-time box office record for a single attraction in Las Vegas. At the Mirage, their final performance residence from 1989 until 2003, through much of their run they did two shows a night, six nights a week, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales at that venue alone. Yes, that's hundreds of millions.
Back in the nightclub era, live acts became superstars, and then performed in Las Vegas—headliners like Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack, Liberace, Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles and more, names known the country and the world over. As show business changed, and night clubs and cabarets became (with the exception of comedy clubs) a thing of the past, Vegas headliners often developed within Las Vegas itself, perhaps jumping from cruise ships (another isolated performance circuit) without being known elsewhere. Siegfried & Roy rarely toured nationally, and did little television, and so through much of their career, as legendary as they were in Vegas, they remained almost unknown to a lot of the general public, often serving as little more than the punch line to a joke, until much later in their career when their fame finally broke at least somewhat beyond the Vegas city limits.
But their impact cannot be exaggerated. They made Las Vegas into a destination city for magic. At its height, Las Vegas featured headline magic shows that included Siegfried & Roy, Penn & Teller, Lance Burton, David Copperfield, and countless other magic acts featured in smaller stand-alone shows, and performing feature spots in legendary revues like Jubilee and Spellbound. At one point in 1996, when Lance Burton moved his show from the Hacienda to his own theater at the Monte Carlo along with a record 13-year contract, there were 14 magic shows and acts performing nightly in Vegas, and Caesars Palace debuted its own magic specialty venue, Caesars Magical Empire. But just as Doug Henning’s success in “The Magic Show” on Broadway paved the way for a national magic renaissance in the 1970s, it was Siegfried & Roy who blasted the doors off of Las Vegas to make way for the revolution in magic’s popularity there.
Their first run in Sin City began in 1967 with a three-month stint in the Folies Bergère show at the Tropicana. For the next decade they would work internationally, including three years at the Stardust Lido in Paris from 1970 till 1973, and again from 1978 to 1981. But once they came back to Vegas with their ground-breaking headline show, “Beyond Belief” at the Frontier, they would forever be identified with Vegas, culminating in their record-shattering run at the Mirage from 1989 until 2003.
They had met on board a cruise ship, on which Roy was working as a steward, and Siegfried was working as a bartender, and was given the opportunity to perform magic, and one night he solicited the help of another steward to assist him on stage. That was Roy—who, it turned out, had a pet cheetah at home. With Roy making a pitch to bring the big cat into the show, during a return to port, Roy retrieved the cheetah and snuck it on board, rendering its presence a secret and its eventual magical appearance a complete shock to all present. While that surprise also got them both fired, it also ignited the basis for an unprecedented collaborative career.
As they went on to develop the act in night clubs, at first there was a clear division of labor between the two budding performers—Siegfried did magic, Roy handled the wild animals. But as time passed, those distinctions gradually ebbed and blurred. Also, while early on-stage circus-like interactions with the apparently snarling and clawing felines emphasized their danger, eventually Roy’s almost spiritual notion of a “peaceable kingdom” relationship with the animals increasingly permeated and characterized their presence. Siegfried & Roy were known to live in an idyllic estate, shared with dozens of jungle felines, featuring their white tigers. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, numerous imitators would perform on Vegas stages, stuffing white tigers into illusion boxes, for better or worse.
What initially inspired me to write this piece was that I became aware of a video of the early cruise ship act, featuring Siegfried’s original dove act, then added to with the assisting presence of Roy, and finally the appearance of his pet cheetah. Although I have previously seen clips, I had never seen the entirety, and it’s fascinating to watch. Siegfried’s bird work is really excellent—surprising and magical—and one can only try to imagine how shocked that cruise ship audience must have been when, out in the middle of the high seas, a full-grown cheetah suddenly appeared on stage. What a moment!
So without further ado—expand the browser, turn up the sound, and please do put the smart phone aside for the entire duration—now please watch and enjoy the origins of the historic act that would eventually become known as Siegfried and Roy.
I don’t pretend to know these gentlemen. While we share a number of mutually close friends and colleagues, I am not one of those who can tell of having dinner at the house, while an African lion casually strolled through the dining room (but I’ve heard plenty of those tales from friends). I only met Roy once, backstage after seeing the show at the Mirage, and I stood all but speechless with them, feeling like I was walking amongst aliens. I say that not in judgment (or perhaps in self-judgment if at all), but they lived in a world so different than my own, that at that encounter it seemed like we had nothing even remotely in common. We inhabited different planets, or perhaps even different universes.
There is a great deal of video available of Siegfried & Roy in performance. Here are four brief clips that capture elements of their live show. While there was a significant amount of magic in the show, which ran about a hundred minutes, along with an equally astonishing array of wild animals, one could not leave the theater thinking one had seen anything akin to a magic show. Rather, the word “spectacle” is what invariably came to mind, the one word I always use in trying to describe the experience. The scale of the show was remarkable. Everything in it was literally spectacular. This brief clip shows one of my favorite and most memorable moments.
The next, longer clip provides a more extended sense of the scale and size of the show, and the interplay between the large illusions and the big cats.
And here is a routine unifying several classic illusions, demonstrating strong magic without the use of wild animals. The woman is Lynette Chappell, Siegfried & Roy’s longtime colleague, and a feature performer in their live shows for many years (that's also her portraying their on-stage nemesis in the Lady to Tiger).
Finally, I believe this video was a segment of a Siegfried & Roy television special, incorporating narration from both of them. It’s big and grand and hyperbolic, but it’s true to them at the same time, and captures a taste of what appealed to so many of their fans.
In later years I’ve had the pleasure of being around Siegfried on multiple occasions, and one night in Vegas a few years ago we sat together watching a magic show, as I marveled at the surreal extremes of my life, chatting with him during and after the show. He’s a pleasure to be around, and unfailingly charming; simultanouesly accessible and self-deprecating while remaining invariably larger than life. Whatever that is exactly, there seems an ever-present glow that emanates from him. Call it star quality.
But mostly, I have viewed them from afar. And yet the night of the tiger incident, with Roy literally dying three times during emergency care and then surgery, suddenly that separation vanished. When I learned of the tragedy, all that distance I had felt when standing right next to them backstage fell away, and suddenly the differences between us seemed to mean nothing. Instantly, we were just colleagues, performers who tried to create works of imagination and wonder on stage, and in the pursuit of that ideal, one of us had fallen, and might be dying. To my own surprise, I cried for them.
Of all the conversations I had in the few days immediately following, the most memorable, and emotional, was with Lance Burton. I called him and he recounted to me how he learned of the event backstage of his own show, how it fell upon him to have to inform Siegfried’s dear friend, Irene Larsen, who had by chance attended Lance’s show that evening, and how they rode together to the hospital. Lance told me of the hours spent at the hospital, late into the night, keeping the chain-smoking Siegfried company, waiting for word while Roy was in surgery, listening to Siegfried recount tales of his and Roy’s early days together, and the early years in Vegas. And Lance described how strange those hours felt to him, sitting and listening to this man who was an icon to Lance, himself by then performing nightly in his own theater, his own name on the marquee of a major hotel and casino on the Vegas strip, but thinking and feeling how Siegfried & Roy had always seemed giants to him, distant emblems of impact and success that he could only dream of as he rose in the ranks of magic and show business. Yet there they sat reminiscing, trading memories in a hospital waiting room, while Siegfried’s longtime partner lay near death a few doors away.
Much has been made of what happened that night, and it’s not my interest to explore or exploit that here. Rather I would like to focus on what Siegfried & Roy accomplished—in essence for others as well as themselves—what impact they had, and how beloved they were and remain. I was in the showroom at the Las Vegas magic convention where Roy made his first public appearance alongside Siegfried since the incident, and as I rose with the crowd to cheer him, tears streamed down my face uncontrollably. I can’t quite explain all that to you, but I have tried to communicate at least a bit of the reasons why. SARMOTI—Siegfried & Roy, Masters of the Impossible—long may they reign, long may they stay magic.
For enthusiasts, here are a few optional extras that I’ve selected of interest from the quantities of video and other material that can be found online.
Similar to the Lido de Paris video above from 1968, this is a black-and-white film of the Sub Trunk with the cheetah.
In the 1970s, Siegfried and Roy made what appears to be their first American television appearance in an HBO magic special hosted by Dick Cavett. You can see how the Sub Trunk routine and follow-up has evolved; among other things, the cage has been enlarged to produce a huge male lion, in place of the cheetah. “Showmanship” is a vague and overused term, but their work here smacks of it, and how it would serve them in their road to superstardom. I love Siegfried’s head-snapping bows here, as he virtually wills the audience into their applause and adulation.
On March 6, 2009, the television magazine show, 20/20, aired an episode devoted entirely to Siegfried & Roy, and their one-time retirement farewell appearance on stage. Although some of this is baldly exploitive, and some of it just plain badly written (on the show’s and host’s part), nevertheless this 41-minute program begins with a good overview of their career, some nice vintage footage and images, and includes enough interview footage that you really can begin to get some sense of who these guys are, the power of the personal bond and history they share, and as well, the remarkable extent to which Roy has come back from his devastating injuries.
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