Carola Williams And Her Circus
By Dominique Jando
To write a history of Circus Williams is tantamount to write a biography of its co-founder and, for most of its existence, sole owner, the remarkable Carola Williams (1903-1987). Heiress to the oldest and most important German circus dynasty, the Althoffs, she ran from 1945 to 1968 a very successful circus, which presented elegant shows with excellent artists and outstanding equestrian and animal acts, and was a breeding ground for three of the best animal trainers of the second half of the twentieth century: Charly Baumann, Gunther Gebel-Williams, and Gerd Siemoneit.
As in all circus families, Dominik Althoff’s children went through hard circus training under their father’s tutelage, and being the eldest, Carola had to set an example for her brothers and sisters. She made her circus debut at the tender age of three as an equestrienneA female equestrian, or horse trainer, horse presenter, or acrobat on horseback., billed as "Die kleinste Voltigeuse der Welt" ("the World's smallest trickAny specific exercise in a circus act.-rider"). From childhood, the Althoff children had inherited from their father a passion for horses, which they would pass on to their own children.
In 1931, Carola Althoff married Reinhold Kwasnik, better known in the circus business as Harry Barlay (1898-1989)—an acrobat on the horizontal bar. But it was not enough for the proud and strong-willed Carola to just be married to a circus artist, and in 1935, Harry and Carola (no doubt with some help from Dominik Althoff) acquired the equipment of the bankrupt Circus Alberty and founded their own circus, Circus Barlay. This apparently was fatal to their marriage: Carola quickly returned to the Althoff fold with their son, Reinhold, Jr., nicknamed Holdy. (Holdy Barlay (b.1931) would have a long circus career as an artist with a successful cowboy act.)
Thus in 1936, Carola had rejoined forces with her brother Franz to help their father manage his Circus. In 1939, Dominik Althoff decided to retire from management, and transferred his circus to Carola and Franz. The circus took the name of Franz Althoff. That same year, their siblings Adolf and Helene, wo had created together their own circus under the title Geschwister Althoff, parted company; they both resumed their tours separately, with enterprises that bore their own names. Therefore, at the outset of WWII, Dominik Althoff's children ran three different Althoff circuses.
The Nazi Regime And Word War IIKrone and Sarrasani reached their apogee at that time, it was not such a rewarding period for everybody.
Since the Middle Ages, there had been a great tradition of Jewish itinerant entertainers. Many of them originated circus dynasties, some of the most important of which had settled in Germany. The anti-Semitism that prevailed in Germany after WWI came to full fruition when Adolf Hitler began in earnest his quest for power, and the freedom and business opportunities Jewish circus families had hitherto enjoyed came to an abrupt end.
Two of Germany’s preeminent circuses, both owned by Jewish circus families, disappeared in the process. First, the venerable and, until then, wealthy and respected Circus Blumenfeld, which was forced into bankruptcy as soon as 1928. (Many members of the Blumenfeld family disappeared in the Nazi regime’s Concentration camps.) Then, came Circus Stassburger, which managed to survive just a little longer: The youngest generation, whose mother, Minna Kossmeyer, was Catholic, was technically not really Jewish—or at least, it could be so argued for a short while. But it didn't last: in 1935, the Strassburgers were practically forced to sell their mighty circus to Paula Busch, and they took refuge in Holland—where they would re-create their enterprise after the War, and become Holland’s First Circus Family.
In general, the European circus community, responding to an atavistic instinct of self-protection, took care of its own; many Jewish circus performers were able to find employment and protection in gentile-owned circuses in the parts of Europe that had fallen under German rule. In Holland, for instance, circus impresario Franz Mikkenie took care of the Strassburgers, and served as a front to their re-emerging circus activities. But it was much more difficult in Nazi Germany. Yet whereas circus luminaries such as Carl Krone, Hans Stoch-Sarrasani, Jr., and Paula Busch and her husband, Emil Wacker, like many other prominent German entrepreneurs, chose to join the NSDAP (Nazi Party) in a move of self-preservation, Carola, Franz, and Adolf Althoff acted quite differently.
When the Nazis took power, the Althoffs—and Adolf and his wife, Maria, in particular—began to harbor Jews in their traveling circuses, whether circus artists or people they took with them as simple employees. This was done very discretely, of course, and with the help of their other amenable employees—who were, after all, members like them of the international, tightly knit circus community. When he had to subject his circus to the many routine inspections conducted by the Gestapo and other Nazi authorities, Adolf Althoff was famously known to quietly fetch his Jewish wards and tell them to "go fishing…"
Half a century later, on February 20, 1995, Avi Primor, Israel’s Ambassador to Germany, honored the last surviving of the Althoff siblings, Adolf, with the title of Righteous Among The Nations, the highest honor bestowed upon a Gentile by the State of Israel.
Circus WilliamsHarry Williams (1902-1951), a talented English (and German-born) animal trainer and jockeyClassic equestrian act in which the participants ride standing in various attitudes on a galoping horse, perform various jumps while on the horse, and from the ground to the horse, and perform classic horse-vaulting exercises., who worked in her family’s circus. Together Harry and Carola Williams had two children, Alfons (1940-1960), who was born before their union was legitimated, and Jeanette (b.1942). During the war, Harry Althoff was, to put it mildly, in an awkward situation—but circus folks have never been very good with nationalities!
Franz Althoff and Carola Williams lost most of their circus equipment and animals in the chaos that preceded the end of the WWII. Nonetheless, Harry and Carola Williams were back in business as soon as June 1945 with their own Great Circus Williams Show—whose grand English title was indeed brand new, but whose equipment and big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) they had rented. Harry held a British passport and had no problem getting all the necessary permits from the Allied occupation forces. Furthermore, the Althoffs’ war record was pristine in the eyes of the Allies.
The postwar years were a booming period for the European circus industry, and Germany was no exception—at least as soon as the German circuses were authorized to work again. (The mighty Circus Krone, for one, which had had a dubious association in Munich with the burgeoning NSDAP, had to buy its way out of forced retirement.) Be that as it may, having started early in the game, the Williamses were already thriving, and soon able to purchase their own equipment.construction(French) A temporary circus building, originally made of wood and canvas, and later, of steel elements supporting a canvas top and wooden wall. Also known as a "semi-construction." at 116 Aachener Strasse in Cologne, the city where they had established their winter quarters. To find construction(French) A temporary circus building, originally made of wood and canvas, and later, of steel elements supporting a canvas top and wooden wall. Also known as a "semi-construction." materials in Cologne in these early postwar years was not easy, and Harry Williams traded elephant dung, a powerful fertilizer, for materials. Circus Williamsbau opened its doors in June 1947. With its 2,500 seats, it was the only large public meeting place in Cologne—a city that laid in ruins after the heavy Allied bombings of WWII. (In 1945, architect and urban planner Rudolf Schwarz, who would preside over the reconstruction of Cologne, called it the "world's greatest heap of rubble.") When Cologne decided to revive its famous Carnival in 1947, the event took place at Circus Williamsbau.
In 1946, Circus Williams hired fifteen-year-old Gerd Siemoneit to work as an animal keeper. Siemoneit learned the ropes of horse training under Harry Williams, before moving to Circus Hoppe in 1947, then to Circus Hollzmüller, and finally, in 1948, to Circus Barum—which he would eventually own. Heinz Geier, who would later become the Director and owner of Circus Busch-Roland, also started as an animal keeper with Circus Williams.
In 1947, Cologne’s Circus Williamsbau received the visit of a penniless Elfried Gebel, who came to the circus with her son, Gunther. Elfried was desperately looking for a job, and since Carola Williams had an opening for a seamstress, she offered her the position, while thirteen-year-old Gunther—to whom his visit to the circus was a revelation—went to help in the animal department. But Elfried didn’t like circus life, and she lasted only a few weeks. When she quit, however, she was glad to leave her son with the Williamses as an apprentice. Gunther, who had had a rather miserable childhood, was actually quite happy with his new condition. In time, the generous-hearted Williamses would consider Gunther as their own son.
At Circus Williams, Gunther Gebel met a fellow animal keeper, Heinz Baumann, who, as Charlie Baumann, would become a talented cat trainer(English/American) An trainer or presenter of wild cats such as tigers, lions, leopards, etc. and, like Gunther, a center-ring attraction(Russian) A circus act that can occupy up to the entire second half of a circus performance. with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States. Baumann found his true calling when he jumped to the rescue of the Dutch cat trainer(English/American) An trainer or presenter of wild cats such as tigers, lions, leopards, etc. Jean Michon, who was attacked by a lion while performing at Circus Williamsbau in 1947.
A New Era
For the 1950-51 Christmas season, the Williamses and their animals 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, during a rehearsal, Harry was violently ejected from his chariot while practicing Circus Williams’s signature Roman chariot race; he died of his injuries three weeks later, on January 10, 1951. It was evidently a terrible family—as well as professional—tragedy.
Left alone at the helm of Circus Williams, Carola leased it to her first husband, Harry Barlay, for the 1951 season. She sent Gunther Gebel to her brother Franz, who began to teach Gunther elephant training in his circus (Franz Althoff had a important herd of thirteen elephants); much too aware of the hazards of circus life, Carola also decided that her children, Alfons and Jeanette, would receive a proper academic education.Cirque Royal in Brussels. It was the last show given in the Belgian capital's old circus building: It would close for two years immediately after the run for important reconstruction work. Carola Williams would return to Brussels’s brand new circus building in the winter of 1954-1955, with a show produced in association with her brother Franz and Harry Belli.
Carola was definitely back at the helm of Circus Williams for its 1952 season, and Adolf Althoff came to lend a helping hand to his sister. Adolf and Carola would manage the circus conjointly until 1956. In the absence of Alfons and Jeanette, Carola also gave more responsibilities to Gunther Gebel, notably in the animal department. 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.
Gunther also completed his equestrian education with Carola’s father, Dominik Althoff, who trained him as a “jockeyClassic equestrian act in which the participants ride standing in various attitudes on a galoping horse, perform various jumps while on the horse, and from the ground to the horse, and perform classic horse-vaulting exercises.”, teaching him notably to jump from the ground onto a galloping horse, holding a light sulky in his hands! He began to perform as a jockeyClassic equestrian act in which the participants ride standing in various attitudes on a galoping horse, perform various jumps while on the horse, and from the ground to the horse, and perform classic horse-vaulting exercises. with the Enders brothers, talented bareback riders who will remain with Circus Williams for many years. The jockeyClassic equestrian act in which the participants ride standing in various attitudes on a galoping horse, perform various jumps while on the horse, and from the ground to the horse, and perform classic horse-vaulting exercises. act was relatively dangerous, however, and Carola eventually forbade Gunther to perform the jump with the sulky. (Adi Enders took over the trickAny specific exercise in a circus act., which became his trademark.) He could also polish off his equestrian education with Circus Williams's new Master Equestrian, the talented and highly respected Fred Petoletti.
In 1953, Circus Williams hired a young Dutch cat trainer(English/American) An trainer or presenter of wild cats such as tigers, lions, leopards, etc., Tini Berman, known to the business as "Miss Yvonne," who presented a group of lions from Circus Knie. Gunther Gebel 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 his longing for Tini didn’t go anywhere: She was happily married.)
Circus Williams continued to prosper under the management of Carola Williams and Adolf Althoff. On November 4, 1955, they received the first Ernst Renz Memorial Plaque, awarded to Circus Williams by the Gesellschaft der Circusfreunde e.V. (GCD), the German circus fans association—a testimony to the position that Circus Williams had reached in the German (and European) circus world.
For its 1956 season, Circus Williams toured Sweden in association with Kate Bronnett’s Circus Scott, under the title Cirkus Scott-Williams. For the month of December, Circus Williams was at Paris’s celebrated Cirque Medrano, presented under the title Le Grand Cirque d’Allemagne Occidentale. Adolf Athoff presented a group of ponies and an ensemble twelve horses at liberty"Liberty act", "Horses at liberty": Unmounted horses presented from the center of the ring by an equestrian directing his charges with his voice, body movements, and signals from a ''chambrière'' (French), or long whip.; Carla Barlay (Holdy’s wife) and Eduard Kastner, a high schoolA display of equestrian dressage by a rider mounting a horse and leading it into classic moves and steps. (From the French: Haute école) act; the Adi Enders Trio performed their jockeyClassic equestrian act in which the participants ride standing in various attitudes on a galoping horse, perform various jumps while on the horse, and from the ground to the horse, and perform classic horse-vaulting exercises. act; and Holdy Barlay did his “rodeo” show. The group of elephants was too big for Medrano’s confined quarters, and Gunther stayed with them in Germany.
The Spanischer National Circushigh schoolA display of equestrian dressage by a rider mounting a horse and leading it into classic moves and steps. (From the French: Haute école) rider, and Alfons was becoming a promising horse trainer. Gunther Gebel, now in charge of the elephants, added a teeterboardA seesaw made of wood, or fiberglass poles tied together, which is used to propel acrobats in the air. stunt to his act, which had reached eleven heads, including a young African elephant that became his favorite, Kongo. Always the horse enthusiast, Carola acquired a magnificent group of twenty-four Lipizzaner stallions, which became the pride of her stables, and were presented by Fred Petoletti.
Under its very recognizable oblong big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) with four poles in line (atypical among Germany’s traditional four-pole-in-square round tents), Circus Williams developed its tours out of Germany, whose circus scene had become crowded. As it did for its Swedish foray in 1956, it often toured abroad in association with major local circuses: It was indeed a clever and much safer way to visit uncharted territories. It was not a rule however: In 1958, Circus Williams did a successful Austrian tour on its own, with a long halt in Wien.
But sadly, tragedy struck again: In 1960, Alfons was killed in a car accident in Belgium, where the circus was touring. For a long time now, Carola Williams had considered Gunther as her second son; he entered the family quite officially in 1961, when he married Jeanette, and from then on, he would be officially known as Gunther Gebel-Williams. Unfortunately, the marriage was perhaps more the result of circumstances than true love; it lasted only six years. Nonetheless, Gunther remained with the circus that had adopted him, and of which he had become an essential constituent and partner. If he had divorced Jeanette, he remained, in effect, her adoptive brother…Meanwhile, in the winter of 1960-1961, the couple had 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; Tini Berman and her lions; Gunther and Jeanette in their high schoolA display of equestrian dressage by a rider mounting a horse and leading it into classic moves and steps. (From the French: Haute école) act; and Gunther with Circus Williams’s group of eleven elephants, with its spectacular teeterboardA seesaw made of wood, or fiberglass poles tied together, which is used to propel acrobats in the air. finale. Bougliones, a dynasty of animal trainers, are the owners of the Cirque d’Hiver), and in that relatively limited space, the line-up of the Williams elephants alongside the Bougliones’ resident group of four made for quite an impressive image.
In 1962, the Spanish impresarios Manuel Feijóo and Arturo Castilla decided to establish a version of their Circo Americano in Germany. At the time, Germany and Spain (then still under General Franco’s rule) had established important political and commercial relations, which led a great number of Spanish workers to immigrate to Germany. Thus Arturo Castilla entered into a partnership with Circus Williams, which, on March 23, 1962, began touring Germany under the title Spanischer National Circus.
Beside Circus Williams’s animals and horses, presented by Gunther and Jeanette, the show had a mostly Spanish cast, and a Spanish theme. The look of Circus Williams became very close to that of Feijóo and Castilla’s Circo Americano, and the tour was punctuated by diplomatic visits of political guests, the importance of which was duly amplified in the Spanish press. The Spanischer National Circus combine toured in Germany until 1966 with great success. It also helped establish Gunther Gebel-Williams as a major circus personality in Europe.
Cats had long fascinated Gunther, and working with them had been one of his ambitions. He eventually conceived an act with a young tiger he trusted, Bengali, paired with his young African elephant, Kongo. The act, which quickly became a sensation, made its debut with the Spanischer National Circus in 1962. In time, Gunther would add to the act a second elephant, Thaila, and later, he would purchase a group of tigers and build a tiger act.
The Last YearsJohn Ringling North was sending a touring unit of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to Europe. Seeing an obvious and dangerous competition, Arturo Castilla signed a contract with Ferdinando Togni, whose huge Circo Heros was Italy’s (and one of Europe’s) largest circus. Since the Ringling show was scheduled to play sport arenas, Castilla and Togni booked a winter tour of Castilla’s Circo Americano (which means, in Italian as in Spanish, "American Circus"), reinforced with the animals and casts of Circo Heros and Circus Williams, in major Italian sport arenas. (Chances that an American circus such as Ringling would visit Franco’s Spain were rather slim!)
The combination of Togni’s and Williams’s talented troupes and vast animal collections, along with Castilla’s flair for production and marketing, generated a show that was far better than what Ringling had planned for its European visit. The Circo Americano’s star-studded show ended with a spectacular display of twenty-six elephants working together in the vast hippodrome, under the guidance of Erwin Bauer, Henry Strassburger, Bruno Togni, and Gunther Gebel-Williams—an image against which Ringling’s hastily gathered herd of eleven elephants performing in three separate groups couldn’t match. Eventually, Ringling’s poorly planned tour proved a disaster, and it was quickly aborted.
In the winter of 1965-66 Gunther and Jeanette returned to Paris’s Cirque d’Hiver, where Gunther presented Circus Williams’s group of 24 Lipizzaner horses, his herd of 11 elephants, replete with the teeterboardA seesaw made of wood, or fiberglass poles tied together, which is used to propel acrobats in the air. finale, and his tiger Bengali with his two partners, the elephants Kongo and Thaila. The latter act was a sensation in Paris, and was duly heralded and praised by the savvy Parisian circus critics.
The Italian tour of 1963 had been an opportunity for the Williams and Togni families to create ties. When the association with Feijóo and Castilla came to an end, Circus Williams went to Italy during the winter of 1966-1967, in association with the Tognis, under the title Circo di Berlino. For the 1967 season, Circus Williams reverted to its original title, and embarked in what was to be its penultimate tour. In 1968, Gunther purchased a group of eight Bengal tigers that he added to his line-up of animal acts for the 1968 season—Circus Williams unofficial farewell tour.
John Ringling North had gradually lost interest in his circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, after it had moved from tours under canvas to sport arenas in 1956. On November 11, 1967, he had sold it to a syndicate formed by arena promoters Irvin and Israel Feld, and the Texan businessman 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 circus star. Gunther Gebel-Williams, whose reputation had grown considerably in Europe, was an ideal candidate: Beside his obvious talent and good looks, his family circus had large animal acts, notably elephants, which could form the animal basis of their new unit.
The Felds’ lease on Circus Williams was first extended to another four years, until the Felds finally purchased its animal assets. Carola and Harry Williams’s circus had definitely ceased to exist. The rest, as they said, is history. Gunther became an enormous star in the United States—the greatest circus star since Alfredo Codona. He spent the rest of his life with the Ringling organization, until he died of cancer on July 19, 2001. In 1972, Jeanette Williams married another Ringling star, the trapezist and daredevil Elvin Bale, and also settled in the United States. She divorced in 1982 and left the Ringling show, before finally establishing herself as a successful agent and circus impresario.
Carola Williams retired in her hometown of Cologne, where she passed away on December 11, 1987, at age eighty-four. In 1984, Bernhard Paul had bought the last remnant of the original Circus Williams in Germany, its winter quarters at Cologne-Mülheim, for his very successful Circus Roncalli. He refurbished the office building in his trademark "circus-deco" style, and installed there a small museum to house his impressive collection of circus artifacts. It was indeed a fitting revitalization for this noteworthy circus landmark.
The name Williams reappeared on the German circus landscape when Franz Althoff, Jr., Adolf Althoff’s son and Carola’s nephew, launched Circus Williams-Althoff in 1976. It was a revolutionary circus (in terms of equipment and logistics), with heavily mechanized systems, an innovative big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau), and the entire operation traveling by containers.
Then in 1991, Franz Althoff, Jr. made a deal with SoyuzGosTsirk, the old Soviet central circus organization, and his circus toured with Russian circus shows under the name of Moscow Circus until 1996. Meanwhile, that same year 1991, Jeanette Williams had created the German National Circus Williams-Althoff, Ltd., with which she initially toured in the United States, before limiting its activities to the production of punctual circus shows.
Jeanette Williams’s daughter, Caroline, returned to Germany and was educated at Warendorf, home of the German National Committee for Horse-Riding. She became a remarkable equestrienneA female equestrian, or horse trainer, horse presenter, or acrobat on horseback., and worked for several years with her cousin Franz Althoff, Jr. She is now (2013) living and working in the United States, and her son, Dominik Williams, born September 1, 2007, continues the Althoff-Williams lineage.
- Marlies Lehmann-Brune, Die Althoffs, Geschichte und Geschichten im die größte Circusdynastie der Welt (Frankfurt am Main, Umschau Verlag Breidenstein GmbH, 1991) – ISBN 3-524-69096-3
- Gunther Gebel-Williams and Toni Reinhold, Untamed (New York, William Morrow & Co, 1991) - ISBN 0688086454
- Video: Gunther Gebel-Williams, tiger and elephant act, at the Spanischer National Circus (1963)
- Video: Gunther Gebel-Williams, elephant act, at the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris (1966)
- Video: Jeanette Williams, High School Act, at the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris (1966)
- Biography: Gunther Gebel-Williams