Articles about Ben Robinson
Even in Magic Acts, Tigers and Bullets Can Be Lethal
By NEIL STRAUSS
Published: October 8, 2003
LAS VEGAS, Oct. 7 — "I think they have to be the most beautiful animals on the face of the earth," Rick Thomas said during his magic act at the Tropicana here on Monday. He was talking about white tigers (he uses five in his stage show), the kind of animal that on Friday night critically injured Roy Horn of the longstanding Las Vegas act Siegfried & Roy. But in Las Vegas, as on Broadway, the show must go on.
None of the audience members interviewed after the show said they were afraid of the tigers, though the thought that something could happen did cross their minds after the attack on Mr. Horn. On Tuesday he was in critical but stable condition at the University Medical Center here. Several people, like Ivy Carter, 34, of Washington, said they had chosen to see Mr. Thomas's show precisely because of the tigers. With Siegfried & Roy on hiatus indefinitely, Mr. Thomas has a monopoly on white tigers in magic shows here.
Meanwhile, at the Rio, the metamagic performers Penn & Teller do a trick known as the bullet catch. The feat, in which an illusionist seems to use his mouth to catch a bullet shot from a gun, has led to the death of at least 14 performers, said Ben Robinson, who has written a book on the subject.
The mauling of Mr. Horn and the shuttering of the Siegfried & Roy show signal two major changes in Las Vegas. One is the realization that beyond the dazzle and slickness, illusion is only illusion up to a point: the performers are indeed vulnerable to danger. The other is the potential end of an era of family-based acts that were ushered in with the debut of the pair's show in the early 1980's.
"Magic traditionally has always been a very dangerous form of entertainment," said Tony Hassini, chairman of the International Magicians Society, which has more than 37,000 members. "Taking a lady and suspending her on the edge of a sword or cutting her in half, although it seems so simple to the audience, always has a danger, especially when a buzz saw is used. Siegfried & Roy used a buzz saw every night, and that was not a very safe trick. I believe that there have been more magicians who have died on stage than any other form of entertainment."
The attack on Mr. Horn, many people say, will have many repercussions for Las Vegas. On a smaller scale, performers predicted, theaters will be reluctant to present wild-animal acts because of the liability involved, and those that do may have to erect barriers between the audience and the stage.
On a bigger scale, the incident comes just as Las Vegas seems to be snapping back to an era that predated Siegfried & Roy. Part of the significance of their original show was that although they came out of the Folies-Bergère at the Tropicana, they managed to persuade a hotel-casino, the Frontier, to put on a show that didn't have topless women and appealed to children as well as adults. It helped mark the changing of Las Vegas from a land where entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley come to be reborn to the capital of eye-popping, brain-numbing spectacle that it is today. Either directly or indirectly, the show led to a cavalcade of performances that have defined Las Vegas for 20 years, from knock-off shows like EFX to magic acts like Lance Burton to more modern spectacles like Cirque du Soleil.
A combination of the huge popularity of Siegfried & Roy shows and the chain reaction of family-oriented casinos set off by the initial success of Circus Circus changed the image of Las Vegas. Laura Deni, who runs the Web site broadwaytovegas.com, said the city went from "ladies in long gowns, men in tuxedos, Champagne, male crooners and sophisticated sex" to a land where you had to "watch out where you swing your arms in the casino or you'll hit a toddler in a stroller."
But that era seems to be ending, and Las Vegas is returning to its playground-for-adults image. Circus Circus has been in a revenue slide for several years. Treasure Island has removed its swashbuckling pirate show, renamed itself TI and will start a showgirl revue called "Sirens of TI" on Oct. 26. Other casinos that have opened in the last decade are focusing more on exclusive dance clubs, trendy superlounges and attracting touring pop-chart acts than on resident theater spectacles in the tradition of Siegfried & Roy. Even Cirque du Soleil has spun off an adult cabaret show called Zumanity, which opened two months ago. Ultimately, it seems, the casinos are realizing that the entertainers are here to please gamblers, and children can't gamble.
"The pendulum is swinging back to the all-encompassing motivator — sex," Ms. Deni said. "The style of dress may have changed, the music onstage may no longer be male crooners in tuxedos, but the buying public wants the sexy playpens and bedrooms."
Caught somewhere between family and adult entertainment are the magic and circus shows, which, thanks to Siegfried & Roy, have fully developed into a Las Vegas genre of their own. Magic and circus acts have always had a certain macabre appeal. Magicians and circus performers are often billed as death-defying, the man on the flying trapeze is daring, according to the song, and the thrill of the animal acts was that the performer's head could be bitten off by the gaping mouth of a lion. To paraphrase a quotation attributed to Houdini, nobody likes to see another person get killed, but they like to be nearby.
But the modern Las Vegas show, largely thanks to the work of Siegfried & Roy, altered the nature of the thrill show and spectacle. Danger was still present, but it was no longer recognized as such.
"Siegfried & Roy changed how people perceived wild animals," said Franz Harary, a magician who specializes in large-scale illusions. "In the circus, tigers were about danger. In their show, the tigers were cute and adorable. People think, `Look at those adorable kitties; I want to have them in my own home.' At the Mirage, almost every kid leaves with a stuffed white tiger."
According to Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller, who is a friend of Mr. Horn, circus performers have traditionally acted as if they "had superhuman ability to control the beasts of nature." But Mr. Horn made no such claim, depicting himself instead as simply a man who loved animals. (A show scheduled for next Tuesday was intended to benefit zoos in Toledo and Cincinnati.)
At the same time, Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas and trapeze and high-wire acts have been robbed of the element of the individual heroically jeopardizing his life at great heights. This has been replaced by seamless group choreography and eye-catching costumes in which no individual stands out and no danger seems to be present.
"I've been intimately involved with Cirque du Soleil over the last 10 years," said Mr. Robinson, an illusionist, magic historian and writer, "and one of their cardinal rules is, `Don't scare the audience.' That's a big shift in the world of the circus, which for the last 150 years was based on fear. What le Cirque has done is to take danger out of the equation and blast the audience's head out with fantastic innovation without the cheapness of the death thrill. And no one has done that before."
But the mauling of Mr. Horn removed several illusions from the world of Las Vegas. One is that the entertainment is as safe as the fantasy being presented onstage. "The audience is now aware that but for the grace of God, the tiger could have turned and jumped into the front row easily," Ms. Deni said, speaking to the attack on Mr. Horn.
Another illusion is that a Las Vegas audience is seeing something genuine. During the show the audience was told that it was the tiger's first time onstage. After the accident it was revealed that the tiger had been in the show for six and a half years. "The audience is now clued in to how illusion-filled the whole show really is," Mr. Robinson said.
Many performers and casino executives interviewed said that the shuttering (be it temporary or permanent) of the Siegfried & Roy show felt like the end of an era. Mr. Hassini credited them with struggling against the odds to make magic a Las Vegas entertainment staple, paving the way for every other magician headlining there today.
Ms. Deni, who covered Las Vegas for Billboard in the 1970's and 80's, said that they were among this city's few homegrown superstars.
"Siegfried & Roy, who never had a hit record or television show, did something in this town that has never really been done," she said. "They came from nowhere, with a seven-minute act, and worked themselves into this superstar entity. Next to Vic Damone, you won't find anybody else who came from a lounge act or subordinate status and worked themselves up to a Vegas headline act."
Mr. Jillette, who has the Penn & Teller show at the Rio, said that he considered the Siegfried & Roy show the only true spectacle in the city.
"The closest thing you have to answer Siegfried & Roy is what I call the glitzy tractor-pull show, where you're mostly applauding for machinery," he said. "As successful as Cirque du Soleil is, there's no humanity. You don't even need performers. It's just big machines and costumes and gymnastics. But Siegfried & Roy touched people."
As for his show, Mr. Jillette said, "There hasn't been any clamoring to do topless, though we'd be happy to do it."