The childhoods of Siegfried & Roy were more black than magic. Who knows where fact ends and fable begins? Surely not Siegfried or Roy: They've told and retold their tales far too many times. We can be fairly certain that both were products of broken homes, and that magic became a way of escaping the drudgery and brutality of their postwar lives.
The story goes that Siegfried's father was a soldier in World War II who survived a Russian POW camp, then began boozing when he returned home. Left to amuse himself, Siegfried learned magic. When he perfected his first trick—making a coin disappear in a glass of water—his distant dad exclaimed: How did you do that? "It was the first time my father had ever spoken to me," says Siegfried. "Those words became the opening line to my life."
Roy's youth was equally miserable. He was raised in Nordenham, outside Bremen, by his mother and an abusive drunkard of a stepfather. Roy found solace in the love of animals, beginning with a half-wolf dog named Hexe. It was while cleaning cages at the Bremen Zoo that young Roy befriended Chico, a cheetah he later "liberated." "I was 13 when I ran away from home to be a bellboy on a German luxury liner," says Roy.
"Nein, nein, nein!" says Siegfried. He sighs, exasperated. "You were 15,1 was 21." Siegfried was a ship's steward and its resident magician. He entertained guests by swallowing razor blades and making rabbits vanish. Roy was enlisted as the sorcerer's apprentice. One night Roy popped the question: "If you can make a rabbit appear and disappear, could you do the same with a cheetah?"
Siegfried replied haughtily, "In magic, anything is possible." That was all Roy needed to hear. Before their next voyage he sausaged Chico into a sack and smuggled him aboard. When they were safely out at sea, Roy let the cat out of the bag, and, as Yuman says, "the course of stage magic was changed forever."
It wasn't an unfettered ascent. A packed ballroom of passengers nearly leaped overboard when Siegfried's rabbit was replaced by a cheetah. Though the captain wanted to have them hung from the yardarms, Siegfried & Roy knew they were on to something big. Jumping ship, they played just about every cabaret and strip joint from Lausanne to Madrid. Their big break came in the mid-1960s in Paris. Performing with the Folies-Berg�re and the Lido, Siegfried & Roy honed what would become their trademark shtick: a rapid and relentless accretion of illusions with big cats. In '70 they moved their act to Vegas. "We were told, 'Magic don't work here,' " says Siegfried. They didn't listen. Siegfried & Roy put tops on their showgirls and encouraged gamblers to bring their kids. Magically, over the next 20 years, Vegas was transformed from gambling mecca into family amusement park. And for mat, as Yuman tells it, Siegfried & Roy deserve the lion's share of the credit.
The magicians now share the largest private collection of big cats in the world. Fifty-eight tigers, 19 lions, two black panthers, two jaguars and a snow leopard, as well as an elephant, ramble free at their two Animal Hauses: the Jungle Palace compound in west Las Vegas, and Little Bavaria, a 100-acre retreat in the foothills of nearby Mount Charleston. Among them are the exceedingly rare white lions of Timbavati, bred jointly with the Johannesburg Zoological Gardens in South Africa. Their white tigers are bred in conjunction with the Cincinnati Zoo, which gave Roy his first white tigers in 1982. Curiously, Siegfried is no cat lover. "I'm allergic to them," he confesses. "They're just not my cup of tea."
"But they are my bowl of cherries," says Roy. He has an almost transcendental rapport with the world's deadliest creatures. He contends only love, kindness and filet mignon will tame the savage beast. "These cats are the love affair of my life," he says. "I'm their father figure, their guru, their guide through the world."
The felines are less jungle cats than backyard kitties, chasing, clawing and nipping him with affectionate regularity. Roy treats them the way other people treat their children. He swims laps with them, sleeps with them and meditates every morning with a Bengal named Mantra. Ashes of departed companions—including the long-dead Chico—are kept in urns in his bedroom. Though Roy has been scratched and scraped, the only time he felt in real danger was while playing hide-and-seek with a 650-pound white Siberian named Sahara, who suddenly pounced, pinning him to the ground and changing the game to bite-and-chew. "For a moment she stared at me like I was lunch," Roy says. "When I saw that look, my instincts took over: I bit her on the nose. After that, everything was fine."
The idea of two Germans propagating a race of Aryan carnivores may be a bit discomfiting. In reality, however, the prospects of white tigers are burning brighter these days because of Siegfried & Roy. Without their intervention and financial support, nature's disappearing act could have eventually rendered the cats extinct. The real endangered species may be Roy himself. Not long ago he was rumored to have died of AIDS and been hastily replaced by a twin brother named Ray. Asked about this scuttlebutt, Roy cracks a smile as mysterious as the Death-Defying Crystal Chamber. "All I'll say is that a good magician should be in many places at the same time."