Erhard and Christiane Samel
By Dominique Jando
Erhard Samel was born in 1940 in what would become, from 1949 to 1990, the German Democratic Republic—or East Germany. He started his association with the circus as a keeper, and later, handler of wild animals for the Staatszirkus der DDR, East-Germany’s state circus organization. He graduated to performing in 1966 with a mixed group of lions and leopards. The following year, Erhard formed his own group of three tigers, two lionesses, a leopard, a cougar, a polar bear, with a brown bear and a Himalayan bear who worked as… prop handlers. Later, when he began to work with his wife, Erhard would add two ligers (a cross between a lion and a tiger), a black leopard, and finally, a boa to this rather varied jungle family.
Christiane Samel, Erhard’s wife, was born in 1944, and was destined to become an optician. Instead, she joined the circus in 1963, after marrying Erhard. She worked as a cashier at Zirkus Busch-Berlin, where she and her husband, worked, and became increasingly involved with the care of their animals, until she eventually became part of Erhard’s act in 1968.
The Samels’ amazing cage act(English/American) Act performed in a cage, such as lion or tiger acts. toured extensively in the Eastern Bloc’s countries—before becoming the first East-German act to be featured in the United States with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1974-1975. They also toured in France, with Cirque Jean Richard, which had invited an East-German circus production in 1978. Erhard and Christiane Samel left the Staatszirkus der DDR in 1980, and began presenting, as independent artists, a group of chimpanzees they had acquired in the United States.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the reunification of Germany, the circuses of the former DDR went under the management of a new State organization, the Berliner Circus Union. Christiane Samel took the management of the former crown jewel of the East-German circus, Zirkus Aeros, from 1993 to its closure in 1997. (Soon after what, the Berliner Circus Union ceased to exist.) The Samels had three children, Annette Samel, Radu Knut Samel, and Yvonne Claudia Samel, who have all become animal trainers.
- Video: Erhard & Christiane Samel, cage act, at Zirkus Busch-Berlin (1973)