By Dominique Jando
From 1968 to 2001, Gunther Gebel-Williams was, in the United States, the most celebrated circus performer of his generation—a true media star whose only equivalents in the twentieth century had been Alfredo Codona and Lilian Leitzel. An extremely talented and charismatic performer, he was also, for circus enthusiasts and circus professionals around the world, one of the greatest animal trainers of the second half of the twentieth century.
Born Into Show Business
Günther Gebel (1934-2001) was born in the German town of Schweidnitz in Lower Silesia (today Swidnica, in Poland) on September 12, 1934. His father, Max Gebel, was a scenic carpenter and his mother, Elfriede, a theater seamstress. If young Gebel was born into show business, it was by no means the glamorous side of it; in fact, he would keep a lifelong dislike of the theater world—the world into which he was born. His father was a stern authoritarian and a heavy drinker, a bad combination if any: Max Gebel was a violent man, not averse to beating his children (Gunther had an elder sister, Rita, born in 1928) or his wife when he returned home after a round of the local bars. Needless to say, Gunther's early childhood was far from happy, and the advent of World War II would further tear apart his already dysfunctional Gebel family.
The year was 1947. German circuses were hitting the road again, and one of the first to do so, Circus Williams, had established a permanent wooden construction in Cologne. Elfriede took Gunther to a matinee performance: To Gunther, it was an epiphany! As fate had it, on their way out, they saw a sign announcing that Circus Williams was looking for a seamstress: Elfriede took the job, and Gunther Gebel, age thirteen, entered the world of Circus Williams—where he would spend the next two decades of his life.
Harry and Carola Williams
Circus Williams had been created right after the end of the war, in 1946, by the German-born British equestrian Harry Williams (1902-1951), and his wife, Carola, née Althoff (1903-1987). Harry Williams held a British passport, and the Althoffs (Carola and her brothers, Franz (1908-1987) and Adolf (1913-1998)) had shown an exemplary attitude during the war (from the Allies' perspective), hiding notably many Jews—performers or not—within their family’s traveling circus; the post-war Occupation authorities had had no problem delivering Harry and Carola Williams a permit to operate a circus again.Jeanette, and Holdy Barley, Carola’s son from a first marriage with Harry Barley.
Circus Williams was to become one of Germany’s preeminent circuses; in the immediate post-war period—a golden era for European circuses—it boosted a collection of eighty horses and its well-stocked menagerie included a group of five elephants. Harry Williams was an excellent and respected all-around equestrian; he had been a good acrobat on horseback, and was a fine liberty trainer and high school rider. One of his specialties was a spectacular Roman chariot race that he performed at breakneck speed at the end of the show. The first thing Gunther learned with his tutor was how to take care of the horses.
Circus Williams also employed at the time two young performers who would make their mark in the circus world as outstanding cat trainers (and, for the second, as a circus director as well): Charly Baumann and Gerd Siemoneit. Both had started their career there as jockeys, and Gunther would soon follow in their footsteps. Circus Williams also traveled with an important menagerie, and Gunther began to develop an interest in big cats—as he did, actually, with all the animals in the circus: his job was to take care of them. He began to feel at home in his new life, which, in spite of its itinerant style, brought him the stability and comfort of mind he had longed for.
For the 1950-51 Christmas season, the Williamses were hired by Tom Arnold for his annual circus production at the Harringay Arena in London. But it was to be a fateful engagement: On December 22, 1950, Harry was violently ejected from his chariot during his signature Roman race; he died of his injuries three weeks later, on January 10, 1951. It was evidently a tragedy for the extended Williams family, but Gunther reacted to the terrible accident as the true professional he already was: Right after the performance, he quietly walked the horses around the ring as Harry had taught him to do after every show, whatever the circumstances.
Carola Williams found herself alone at the helm of Circus Williams. For the 1951 season, she leased her circus to her first husband, Harry Barley, and she sent Gunther to her brother, Franz Althoff. Circus Franz Althoff was, along with Circus Krone, Germany’s largest circus; Franz had a herd of thirteen elephants, which he presented as one group in the vast hippodrome of his giant big top, elegantly directing them from the center of the arena with the sound of his voice and the tip of his chambrière, the same he used for his liberty acts. Gunther began learning elephant training with Franz Althoff, whose singular style he would adopt in his own elephant acts.
Carola resumed her management of Circus Williams the following season, and she began to give Gunther more responsibilities. (Her children, Alfons and Jeanette, were getting a “normal” education, and were not traveling with the circus at the time.) Carola’s younger brother, Adolf, whose own circus had gone bankrupt, also came to help her; he would manage the enterprise conjointly with Carola until 1956. Adolf, who was a very good elephant trainer, continued Gunther’s education in that chapter. When Adolf eventually left Circus Williams, Gunther took over its growing herd of elephants. He would soon be noted as an outstanding elephant trainer, especially when he added to his act a teeterboard sequence, in which he was propelled by one elephant onto the back of another, while still directing his charges himself.Enders brothers, excellent equestrian acrobats who will remain with Circus Williams for many years. The jockey act was relatively dangerous, however, and Carola asked Gunther to stop performing the jump with the sulky. (It would eventually become Jacob Enders’s trademark.)
In 1955, Circus Williams hired a young Dutch cat trainer, Tini Berman, known to the business as "Miss Yvonne," who presented a group of lions from Circus Knie trained by Ladislav Ira. Gunther fell head over heels for her, and his interest for big cats grew exponentially. To his delight, he was eventually asked to replace her in the big cage for one performance: This was his first experience working with cats in the ring, and he liked it. Yet the experience didn’t do anything to bring him closer to his paramour: Tini was happily married.
By the time Adolf Althoff left Circus Williams in 1956, Gunther had practically completed his circus education. At twenty-two, he now helped his surrogate mother, Carola, in the day-to-day management of the circus. He would continue to learn animal training by watching Circus Williams’s very capable trainers, notably its Master Equestrian, Fred Petoletti (the son of the illustrious Master Equestrian of the legendary Circus Sarrasani), who had put together the pride of Circus Williams's stables, its beautiful group of twenty-four Lipizzaner horses, which he presented together in one ring in a superb liberty display—an act that Gunther and Jeanette would later take over.
But cats now fascinated Gunther, and working with them was his next goal. He eventually conceived an act with a young tiger he trusted, Bengali, paired with a young African elephant, Kongo. The act, which quickly became a sensation, made its debut at the Spanischer National Circus—a title Circus Williams adopted for a joint venture with Spanish impresarios Manuel Feijóo and Arturo Castilla from 1962 to 1966. Gunther’s tiger and elephant act would later include a second elephant, and then two more tigers.
Enter Gunther Gebel-Williams
In the winter of 1960-1961, the young couple performed at the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, where Circus Williams had contracted its animal acts. The lineup included the twenty-four Lipizzaner horses and a mixed group of horses, camels, and zebras presented by Fred Petoletti; Yvonne Berman and her lions; Gunther and Jeanette in their high school act; and Gunther presenting his group of eleven elephants, with its teeterboard finale. They obtained a great success with the Parisian press and circus aficionados.
Gunther and Jeanette would return to the Parisian circus in the winter of 1965-66, where Gunther presented the group of Lipizzaner horses, as well as Bengali and his two partners, Kongo and Thaila, and his herd of 11 elephants. In this program, which was particularly rich in star acts, the legendary tiger trainer Gilbert Houcke shared the bill with Gunther.
Houcke had entered his new "Pirate" period (following his "Tarzan" period), and had staged a groundbreaking act, in which the cage was free of requisits, beside eight low stools distributed around its perimeter to mark the place of his tigers. Houcke presented his tigers like a liberty act, chambrière in hand, and using only the natural movements of his charges. A particularly striking image was that of the eight tigers marching abreast in a perfect line around the cage, like the arm of a clock whose axle would have been their trainer.
Gunther was indeed familiar with the work of Gilbert Houcke, who had been a major circus star in Europe since the 1950s, and had worked extensively in Germany. But he had now the opportunity to observe his work closely for a full month. Houcke had a great elegance in the ring, and a quiet and soft manner with his tigers. Although he had an extraordinary charisma as a performer, he always gave the spotlight to his feline partners, leaving an impression of connivance between him and them. His acts always had nice little touches of humor, too, and every now and then, the tigers looked as if they made fun of their trainer. There is no doubt that Gilbert Houcke was a major influence in Gunther’s subsequent style as a cat trainer.
In 1968, Gunther purchased a group of eight tigers, with which he put together an act in the elegant style popularized by Houcke, and Charly Baumann after him—a style that would remain prevalent in Europe. But European circuses were entering a period of crisis; in the burgeoning age of television, they had a hard time finding a new voice. The lucrative post-war period was over, and running a major circus had become a very complex and expansive proposition indeed, whose financial rewards were quickly shrinking.
Gunther in America: Circus Super Star
By 1967, John Ringling North, the owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, had lost interest in his circus. On November 11, 1967, he sold it, lock, stock, and barrel, to a syndicate formed by arena promoters Irvin and Israel Feld, and the flamboyant Texan businessman and sports personality, Roy Hofheinz. The Felds, who were in charge of the new operation, decided to launch a second unit of The Greatest Show On Earth, for which they wanted to create a new star. Gunther Gebel-Williams, whose reputation had grown considerably in Europe, was an ideal candidate: Beside his obvious talent, he had large animal acts, notably elephants, which could form the animal basis of their new unit.
The Felds put in motion a publicity machine that would have made P.T. Barnum proud. Irvin transformed Gunther into a well shaven (in Europe, Gunther sported a goatee), bleached-blond Siegfried in spangled costumes, designed by the flamboyant Ringling costumier, Don Foote. Gunther’s talent and charisma, and his sheer joy of performing, did the rest. Gunther was rather short in stature, but in the ring, his well-proportioned features and muscular build made him appear much taller. Gunther Gebel-Williams was on his way to becoming an American show business super-star.
Although his work in the ring would lose some of its precision in America (notably in the horse department), it became more spectacular, a style dictated by the large arenas where Gunther would perform for more than three decades. His remarkable ability to adapt to and connect with his new audience was not his lesser talent. He would also incessantly improve on his acts, and create new ones; Gunther Gebel-Williams was a workaholic who enjoyed what he did—but this would later have consequences on his health.
His tiger act would grow with time, reaching seventeen animals at its peak. Although Gunther, now performing two or three shows a day, had less time to prepare new acts than he had had at Circus Williams, he would found the time to put together a superb small feline act for the 1977 season—after three years of preparation. The group included fifteen leopards, two cougars, and two black panthers. Such an act had not been seen since Alfred Court, and it would be remembered as one of the greatest small feline acts of all times. It was also Gunther’s favorite act.Mark Oliver Gebel.
In time, Gunther Gebel-Williams became vice-president in charge of animals for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. He was now a wealthy man, but the hard work had taken its tool. Gunther began to have health problems, and he decided that it was time for him to retire from performing. The 1989-1990 production of The Greatest Show On Earth marked Gunther’s widely advertised Farewell Tour. He gave what was heralded as the last of his 11,697 performances in the United States on November 18, 1990. The number, of course, doesn’t include his years performing with Circus Williams.
Gunther returned to the ring, however: Once to replace his successor in the cage, Tyrone Taylor, then for a series of performances in ten U.S. cities in 1994, followed by a CBS-TV special, The Return Of Gunther Gebel-Williams. His last public appearance occurred September 27, 1998 at Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he replaced his son, Mark Oliver, in the big cage, to allow him to be present at the birth of his own son.
After his official retirement in 1990, Gunther had written his autobiography (with Toni Reinhold), Untamed, which was published the following year. In 1996, Gunther had to undergo heart surgery. Then, in July 2000, he had another surgical intervention, this time to remove a brain tumor, followed by sessions of chemotherapy. But the cancer did not remit; Gunther Gebel-Williams died in his home, in Venice, Florida, on July 19, 2001.
Gunther Gebel-Williams had become an American citizen in 1976. He and his wife Sigrid had two children, Mark Oliver, born in 1971, and Tina, Sigrid’s daughter, born in Berlin in 1962. Both became circus performers and animal trainers. Mark-Oliver, who succeeded his father in the big cage, left the circus in 2004; Tina married the acrobat Eddie DelMoral. On December 5, 2005, a statue of Gunther Gebel-Williams in full circus regalia was unveiled in Rollins W. Coakley Railroad Park, in his hometown of Venice, Florida.
- Video: Gunther Gebel-Williams, tiger and elephant act, at the Spanischer National Circus (Circus Williams), 1963.
- Video: Gunther Gebel-Williams, elephant act, at the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris (1966)
- Gunther Gebel-Williams and Toni Reinhold, Untamed (New York, William Morrow & Co, 1991) - ISBN 0688086454
- Hans-Jürgen & Rosemarie Tiede, Die Hohe Schule der Raubtierdressur (Kaufbeuren, Freizeit News Verlag, 1997) - ISBN 3-928871-04-8