Where do you begin with a tale that involves counter-terrorism officers doing tiger background checks, has origins in Nazi troops’ mental health issues, and includes a probe into whether a beehive hairstyle may be used as a weapon? Furthermore, there are two German magicians with mullets and glossy costumes who seem to be able to float about in the air, one of them almost dies on stage when a white tiger fangs him straight through the neck.
This was the challenge confronting Emmy-winning filmmaker Steven Leckart, who had long believed that the incredible tale of Siegfried and Roy, whose exotic animal shows enthralled Las Vegas, needed to be told properly. The result is Wild Things, an eight-part podcast that tells the story of Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn, who rose to worldwide fame with a zoo full of performing jungle cats, only to have their live career cut short when a tiger named Montecore attacked Roy on stage and almost killed him.
“Siegfried and Roy have always loomed large for me as a child of the 1980s,” says Leckart, chatting via Zoom from his Los Angeles home. And no one has ever really investigated their narrative — or the assault.”
Siegfried and Roy performed 30,000 concerts in front of 50 million people over the course of 50 years, grossing over $1 billion in ticket sales. Their performance combined massive, mind-boggling illusions with the most exotic animals on the planet, resulting in a surge in families flocking to Vegas shows at a period when topless showgirls dominated the bill.
The team used burning disco balls to hoist tigers over people and made elephants disappear into thin air. After their performances, they would relax in their Mirage hotel room with their jungle cats before heading to their $10 million Moroccan-style mansion, the Jungle Palace, or their 100-acre estate, Little Bavaria, where German marching music was blasted over hidden speakers.
Michael Jackson (who composed them a theme song), David Lee Roth (who gave them goats), and Pope John Paul II (who donated them a portion of Saint Francis of Assisi’s shinbone) were among their famous contacts. After a performance in 1998, then-US President Bill Clinton joined them, his secret service sharpshooters practicing on the tigers. In a parody on Saturday Night Live, they announced a special Night of a Thousand Tigers.
“They were hyperbole in action,” Leckart adds. “Everything about them was bigger, louder, and turned up to 11,” says the narrator, referring to Spinal Tap. But it was their great talent and the way they developed their act that kept them going for so long.”
Wild Things takes listeners on a trip that begins in Germany and ends with a shockingly tragic ending. Siegfried and Roy’s dad were both aggressive, rage-filled alcoholics who had been traumatized by years of combat as Nazi soldiers.
Roy had a lifetime love of animals after adopting a stray puppy who defended him and his mother from his father’s punches. After seeing an entertainment swallow razor blades in a town square, Siegfried found sanctuary in magic, practicing himself acts from books.
After abandoning his family, the young illusionists met as adolescents on a German cruise ship, where Roy worked as a bellboy and Siegfried was a steward with a magic performance in the evening. Roy, unimpressed with the sight of rabbits disappearing from hats, decided to take things a step further and sneak a cheetah out of a zoo.
It was the beginning of their trademark blend of magic and jungle cats. According to legend, an angry captain threw them off the ship, although Leckart claims otherwise: “I heard the captain was furious about it, but the crowd loved it so much that he let them continue.”
Grace Kelly (AKA Princess Grace of Monaco) requested the pair to perform at her annual Red Cross gala in Monte Carlo in 1966, which gave them their big break. Chico, their cheetah, dashed through a throng of celebrities, right past Kelly and into the kitchens.
When Siegfried leaped off the stage casually, the audience believed it was all part of the show. Following that, there was a standing ovation and media headlines.
They became frequent performers in Vegas within a few years, before landing a headlining position with the city’s first full-length magic performance. They were eventually poached by a competing hotel in a flashy maneuver in which they were helicoptered in to sign a $57 million deal.
For a decade, their new facility, which had 1,500 seats, sold out twice a night.
When you listen to the first two episodes of Wild Things, you have to wonder: “Isn’t some of this cruel to animals?” We hear exciting tales of magicians separating newborn tigers from their mothers.
A reportedly amusing narrative depicts a panther bursting a waterbed after being trapped in a bedroom during a party, while a pacy anecdote about two tigers being taken conveniently ignores the fact that they were left outside a deli locked in the back of a vehicle. Isn’t it obvious that this isn’t going to work out?
“In a later episode, we do go – in depth – into the question of animal welfare and safety,” Leckart explains. “What we find is not only shocking, but also extremely disturbing.”
Initially, though, Wild Things is preoccupied on the tiger assault of 2003. Siegfried and Roy had been performing with exotic animals for 44 years at the time it occurred, putting up the same performance every night for a decade.
It was so formulaic that the actors knew every word and gesture that would be delivered when Roy departed the stage to give a spotlit speech to seven-year-old white tiger Montecore. So they reasoned.
Montecore bites Roy in the neck, slashing his vertebrae and severing an artery, cutting off blood supply to his right side of the brain. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘He’s gone,” one witness says as he pulls Roy across the stage, which is covered in blood.
‘Man, he’s not going to make it.’ This was the fucking pits of torment on earth.” “It took four men and a fire extinguisher to get the tiger off him,” another astonished voice adds.
Roy manages to exclaim in the ambulance, “Montecore is a fantastic cat.” “Make certain Montecore is safe.” Soon, he’ll be in the hospital, and the Mirage parking lot will be filled with praying, grieving admirers.
When the cops arrived at the hotel, they saw alcohol on tables and a blood-splattered stage. The police have decided to utilize policemen who are generally devoted to counter-terrorist investigations since the media attention is so strong.
The issue is whether the tiger assault was illegal.
And it’s at this point that the podcast, which had already been engaging, really kicks into high gear. It would be dishonest to reveal all of the plot twists, but (spoiler warning) Leckart’s team discovers that the inquiry descended into extremely odd area, complete with animal activists, homophobes in the audience, ultrasonic devices, and a lady with a huge beehive hairstyle near the stage. Montecore’s past is also investigated.
“This is why the podcast is called Wild Things,” Leckart explains. “At every turn, we’d find new and strange bits of information.” What’s further stranger is the USDA’s separate inquiry into animal abuse. The twists and turns that thing takes are insane.”
On the left side of his body, Roy was partly paralyzed. He stated that Montecore did not attack him, but rather that he had had a stroke and that the tiger was attempting to rescue him. He stayed with Montecore till the jungle cat passed away in 2014.
There is still no commonly accepted explanation for the event that resulted in the Mirage shutting down the performance.
Leckart, on the other hand, believes he’s succeeded where the counter-terrorism cops failed. “We have definitively answered the question of what occurred during the attack,” he claims.
“We’ve reached a clear conclusion.” Throughout the production of the series, my perspective on the issue shifted. However, you will not be able to leave the podcast without having formed an opinion on what transpired.”
Roy died of Covid in May 2020, when he was 75 years old. Siegfried died of pancreatic cancer in January of the following year.
He was 81 years old when he died. Both had left the entertainment industry a decade before.
Siegfried and Roy were the highest-paid magicians in Vegas history, and they are commemorated with a monument outside the Mirage. Night after night, they pulled off incredible tricks, but their biggest deception was exposed: the notion that these gorgeous, exotic beasts could be domesticated.
Roy says early on, “A wild animal is always a wild animal.” “Keep that in mind at all times.”
Thanks to Alexi Duggins at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.