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Roy Horn, half of the big-cat illusionist team Siegfried & Roy, dies at 75 of coronavirus

Roy Horn, left, and Siegfried Fischbacher with their rare white tigers in 1987.
Roy Horn, left, and Siegfried Fischbacher with their rare white tigers in 1987. (Scott Mckiernan/AP)
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Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy, the duo whose extraordinary magic tricks astonished millions until Mr. Horn was critically injured in 2003 by one of the act’s famed white tigers, died May 8 at a Las Vegas hospital. He was 75.

The cause was complications of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to a statement released by publicist Dave Kirvin.

Mr. Horn was injured in October 2003 when a tiger named Montecore attacked him onstage at the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Mr. Horn sustained severe neck injuries, lost a lot of blood and later suffered a stroke. He underwent lengthy rehabilitation, but the attack ended the long-running Las Vegas production.

The darker-haired of the flashy duo, Mr. Horn first joined Siegfried Fischbacher in 1957 with a magic act in their native Germany. Mr. Horn, who cared for a cheetah at a local zoo, sneaked the animal out of the zoo and introduced it as part of the duo’s act.

After several years of struggling to find success, the pair began to perform in Las Vegas in the late 1960s and became an institution. They became headliners in 1978 at the Stardust hotel, then in 1981 moved to the Frontier for seven years, setting records for the longest-running show in Las Vegas.

In 1987, Siegfried & Roy signed a contract with owner Steve Wynn to perform at the new Mirage on the Las Vegas Strip. The deal, guaranteeing the duo a minimum of $57.5 million over a five-year period, was called the largest contract in show business history by Variety magazine.

The Mirage built a $40 million performance space for their show and provided them an $18 million sanctuary for their animals. During the construction of the Mirage theater, Siegfried & Roy toured Japan for almost a year and had a sold-out, four-week run at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

“Their show is so fast-paced the viewer has time only to gasp before the next dazzlement,” an Associated Press reviewer wrote in 1989 when they brought their act to New York.

“A white car drives onstage — as Liberace used to do — bringing a mother white tiger and three cubs. Roy rides an elephant, which disappears, then reappears. At the end, a 650-pound white tiger climbs atop a globe. With Roy on his back, they’re pulled into the air.”

Siegfried & Roy began performing at the Mirage in 1990. They consistently attracted sellout crowds to their extravaganzas, featuring elaborate illusions with lions, horses, an elephant and several white tigers, an endangered species they obtained in a special breeding program arranged with zoos.

When they signed a lifetime contract with the Mirage in 2001, it was estimated they had performed 5,000 shows at the casino for 10 million fans since 1990 and had grossed more than $1 billion.

During a performance on Oct. 3, 2003, Mr. Horn was alone onstage with Montecore, a 7-year-old tiger, when it suddenly lunged at him, fastening its jaws around his neck and then dragging him offstage. It was Mr. Horn’s 59th birthday.

Until then, he said he had never been injured during a performance or training session — “not a scratch, not by an animal,” Bernie Yuman, the pair’s longtime manager, said at the time.

An investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture explored a variety of theories but was unable to reach a conclusion on what caused the tiger to attack. In its final report, the USDA said the show’s producers had failed to protect the audience because there was no barrier separating the exotic animals from the crowd.

Mr. Horn nearly died due to loss of blood from his injuries. He also suffered two strokes and was paralyzed on his left side. To save his life, he had to have a delicate operation in which part of his skull was cut away to release pressure from swelling on the brain.

Siegfried & Roy returned to the stage in February 2009 for what was billed as their one and only comeback show, to raise funds for a new Cleveland Clinic center for brain health in Las Vegas. The brief performance, which included Montecore, became the basis of an episode of the ABC television show “20/20.”

Roy Uwe Ludwig Horn was born Oct. 3, 1944, in Nordenham, Germany. He was raised by his mother and an abusive, alcoholic stepfather.

He often escaped the house to spend time outdoors with animals. He worked after school at a nearby zoo, feeding and cleaning the cage of a cheetah. Mr. Horn was working as a youthful cruise-ship steward when he met Fischbacher, an aspiring magician who was also working as a steward.

“I told Siegfried if he could make rabbits come out of a hat, why couldn’t he make cheetahs appear?” Mr. Horn told People magazine in 1993. “I wanted to be a part of his act, and I wanted to be with my cheetah again.”

Mr. Horn smuggled the cheetah, named Chico, out of the zoo and onto the cruise ship. The pair used a large laundry bag as part of the disappearing illusion, eliciting applause from the passengers but a reprimand from the captain.

Siegfried & Roy began working throughout Europe and saw their career take off after impressing Prince Rainier and Princess Grace at a performance in Monaco. In addition to animals, the duo incorporated elaborate costumes and staging effects into their shows.

Both Mr. Horn and Fischbacher became U.S. citizens in 1988. They lived on an expansive estate outside Las Vegas, where their animals exercised.

For years, the pair were actively involved with wildlife conservation efforts around the world. They were closely involved with a white-tiger breeding program at the Cincinnati Zoo. Mr. Horn once cared for a premature white lion cub by feeding it with an eyedropper.

“The greatest thrill in life, for me, has been the opportunity to be there and be part of the birth of the cubs,” Mr. Horn told Cats magazine in 1995. “Nothing could possibly match that moment of miracles.”

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