Las Vegas Illusionists

In October 2003, a white tiger attacked magician Roy Horn onstage at Las Vegas's Mirage Hotel-Casino, nearly killing him and subsequently ending the storied careers of Horn and long-time partner Siegfried Fischbacher. After nearly 6,000 shows at the resort, the duet billed as Siegfried & Roy had proved a point by erasing a long-held misconception about the potential Strip success for the art of grand illusion.

"Magic will never work in Las Vegas," a disembodied voice would sarcastically echo through the custom-built theater during each Siegfried & Roy performance. Smoke rings from an unseen entertainment director/agent floated across the stage for visual emphasis. The show's stars merely chuckled as they surveyed the lavish surroundings. Hotel owner Steve Wynn built their showroom as part of $57.5 million deal that brought the former production show specialty act to headliner status with a full-blown Las Vegas spectacular of its own. The room featured over-sized sets, massive special effects, and more than a hundred support cast and crew.

"Going back to the 1960s, the (magician's) goal was to work in a production show or as an opening act for a headliner," recalls Lance Burton, today a headliner with a self-titled show at the Monte Carlo Hotel-Casino. "In production shows you would work in front of the curtain while the crew would reset the stage for the next big production number."

Burton landed a gig with Les Folies Bergere in 1982, performing a twelve-minute act twice nightly, seven days a week, in the Las Vegas-styled production show. Meanwhile, Fischbacher and Horn, having started a career on cruise ships, worked their way from similar slots in production shows to headlining status in Lido de Paris with a show-closing thirty-minute set.

The duo and their trademark white tigers garnered a show of their own with the 1982 opening of Beyond Belief at the Frontier Hotel. Suddenly, magic began to hold its own as a focal point of productions. Burton eventually followed as the star of Fire & Ice at the Hacienda Hotel, imploded in 1996 to make way for the Mandalay Bay Hotel-Casino. Since 1996, he has performed at the Monte Carlo in a custom-built venue. Today, as Burton notes, "there's more diversity in magic then there's ever been in Las Vegas." The city has become the world's unofficial capital of magic.

Traditionalists can turn to Burton, whose show is decidedly kid-friendly. They can also turn to comedy magician Mac King's afternoon performances at Harrah's Las Vegas. Nathan Burton Comedy Magic follows in the same vein with afternoon and early evening shows at the V Theatre in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort-Casino—formerly the Aladdin. A separate theater in the resort is home to Steve Wyrick's Real Magic. Rotating magicians showcasing everything from close-up magic to larger stage illusions are part of the World's Greatest Magic Show in the Star Theatre at the off-strip Greek Isles Hotel-Casino.

Fans of off-beat approaches to the ancient art of illusion can turn to Penn & Teller, now in its sixth year at Rio Las Vegas, or the dark-hearted comedy/magic of The Amazing Johnathan in the Congo Room at the Sahara Hotel-Casino. Both offer shows aimed more at adult audiences although neither relies on nudity for effect.

Perhaps because of the tragedy involving Siegfried & Roy and ongoing protests by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), few shows still use exotic animals as a drawing card. Two exceptions are Extreme Magic Starring Dirk Arthur, afternoons at the Tropicana, and The Magic of Rick Thomas at the Orleans Hotel-Casino. Both use exotic cats in their acts although more stringent tethering of the animals is geared at preventing potential harm to audiences.

Burton uses a gaggle of trained geese and his trademark white doves as part of his award-winning production. He's proud of the progress magic has made in Las Vegas and is confident about its future. "It has moved from being a novelty to becoming a mainstream part of Las Vegas," he says. "There's more magic here than anywhere else."

"Remember," Burton adds, "that the ancient Egyptians were paying to see magicians more than 5,000 years ago. I think people will still be lining up for tickets long after Las Vegas is gone."

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