I’m Shirley Griffith.
And I’m Steve Ember. Today, we tell about the famous circus performer, Gunther Gebel-Williams. He was known for his gentle ways of training wild animals.
((MUSIC: “THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”))
The lights of the circus shone brightly on Gunther Gebel-Williams as he stood in the center ring. Big tigers surrounded him. He spoke quietly to the animals. Then he said a few more words to horses that waited in a line nearby.
Thousands of people watched as the wild tigers climbed onto the horses’ backs to take a ride. It did not seem like anything that either a tiger or a horse would want to do. But they paraded under the shining lights. Some of the animals even looked pleased with themselves. The crowd under the circus tent in Boston, Massachusetts, shouted its approval.
Mister Gebel-Williams gave the tigers little pieces of meat and offered other food to the horses. “Thank you,” he told them.
Many people said the world had lost its greatest animal trainer when Mister Gebel-Williams died. He was sixty-six years old when he died of brain cancer in July of Two-Thousand-One.
Gunther Gebel-Williams and his animals traveled across the United States with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus for more than twenty years. He was the most famous circus performer in the nation.
Gunther Gebel-Williams started working with animals as a child in Germany. He became famous as a circus performer and animal trainer in Europe. Mister Gebel-Williams came to the United States in Nineteen-Sixty-Eight. He became an American citizen in Nineteen-Seventy-Six.
Gunther Gebel-Williams was wounded sometimes by his animals. But he gave about twelve-thousand performances without missing a show for injury or sickness. He retired from performing in Nineteen-Ninety. At the time he was working with about thirty-eight horses, twenty-two tigers and twenty-one elephants. Four zebras, three camels and a llama or two also took part in his performances. After leaving the show he remained with the circus as a trainer, officer and part owner.
Gunther Gebel-Williams never made a secret of how he got animals to do what he wanted. He said he built a special world around them. In this world he was the father. The lions, tigers and other animals were his children. His methods changed the way Americans train and treat performing animals.
((TAPE CUT ONE: CIRCUS NOISE: LIONS ROARING, ELEPHANTS TRUMPETING ))
The future circus star had a difficult childhood. Gunther Gebel was born in the eastern German village of Schweidnitz on September Twelfth, Nineteen-Thirty-Four. Gunther’s father was a carpenter who built things out of wood. Later he became a technical director for a theater company.
The father’s Socialist beliefs got him into trouble with Germany’s Nazi government during the war. The Army sent him to Russia. He and thousands of other German soldiers who were captured there were never heard from again.
During the final months of the war, Gunther, his mother and sister fled from their home in eastern Germany west to Cologne. Germany had lost the war, and the victorious Russians were moving in to take control.
After the fighting ended Missus Gebel found work with Circus Williams. A well known horse trainer, Harry Williams, owned it. Missus Gebel made and repaired clothes for this circus. She also got Gunther a job at the circus. He was about twelve or thirteen years old at the time. The boy had been in school for only a few years.
After a short time Missus Gebel left the circus. She left Gunther there. Gunther said later that he felt his mother gave him away. Harry Williams, however, was very glad to have the boy working for him. He immediately recognized that Gunther had unusual natural ability with animals.
Mister Williams began helping Gunther develop an act in which the boy did tricks while riding horses. Before long Gunther was getting all kinds of animals to do what he wanted. He especially loved the tigers. He praised their beauty, wildness and intelligence.
In Nineteen-Fifty-One, Harry Williams died after an accident in the circus. Harry’s wife asked Gunther to help her operate the circus. She also urged him to become a star performer. Gunther was seventeen years old at the time.
He began his new responsibilities by adding the Williams family name to his own name. Gunther Gebel became Gunther Gebel-Williams. He wanted to demonstrate that Harry Williams and his circus had been a family to him. In Nineteen-Sixty, Mister Gebel-Williams married one of the Williams daughters.
((MUSIC BRIDGE: CIRCUS MUSIC))
Gunther Gebel-Williams and his big tigers, elephants and other animals became famous all over Europe. He won three major awards for his performances. In Nineteen-Sixty-Eight, an owner of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in the United States bought Circus Williams. The owner, Irvin Feld, did this mainly to get Gunther Gebel-Williams as a performer.
Mister Gebel-Williams was an immediate success in the United States as he travelled with the circus. His leopards jumped through circles held by tigers in their teeth. His elephants walked calmly and carefully down busy streets. People in cities across the country praised his bravery in his acts with the animals. His performances were different from anything that had been seen in circuses before.
For many years Clyde Beatty had been the most famous animal trainer in the United States. Mister Beatty was an American circus performer known for his “fighting act.” In this act he controlled forty lions and tigers. Mister Beatty also performed with dangerous mixes of tigers, lions, leopards, pumas, hyenas and bears. His act demonstrated how fierce the animals really were. He used chairs and whips to get the animals to obey his commands. Sometimes he even used guns.
Mister Gebel-Williams had high praise for Clyde Beatty’s bravery and skill. But Mister Gebel-Williams made his own animals perform by being friendly to them. He said he wanted to work with happy animals. He did not believe in making them fear him.
Training by Gunther Gebel-Williams began and ended with kindness. He never had an animal operated on to make it safer for him. All his big cats kept their hard, sharp claws on their feet. He spoke to animals in the same soft voice each time he worked with them. When they performed well he gave them special foods. When they failed to obey he expressed mild displeasure. He never used chairs or whips or guns.
One of the most unusual things about Mister Gebel-Williams was the way he got animals to perform well together. For example, elephants and horses naturally fear tigers. He would take as long as two years to get the elephants and horses to let tigers ride on them. Traditional enemies like leopards and zebras also performed together in his acts.
Mister Gebel-Williams especially liked working with a panther named Kenny. This big cat weighed more than thirty-four kilograms. Kenny enjoyed sitting on the neck and shoulders of his trainer. People liked to say the animal was probably thinking great thoughts as he rested on Mister Gebel-Williams.
But Gunther Gebel-Williams never forgot the danger involved in his work. He could not have forgotten it if he wanted to. From time to time an animal would become wild for no apparent reason. Mister Gebel-Williams’ face was covered with old healed wounds that sometimes made it difficult for him to talk.
Even when animals attacked, Gunther Gebel-Williams did not become angry. After Kenny died, Mister Gebel-Williams was performing one day with a panther named Zorro. Zorro weighed two times as much as Kenny. Suddenly Zorro started making a threatening noise. Then he bit his trainer deeply in the neck. But Mister Gebel-Williams would not go to the hospital until he calmed the animal and got it back in its cage.
The marriage of Mister Gebel-Williams and his first wife ended. His second wife, Sigrid Neubauer, became a circus performer. They had been married thirty-three years when Mister Gebel-Williams died. They raised a daughter and a son. The son, Mark Oliver, now serves as a star trainer of tigers with a Ringling circus company.
Friends say Mister Gebel-Williams was a loving husband and father. Yet they add that his deepest relationships probably were with his animals. He called animals dependable and honest although he sometimes suffered from their attacks. Gunther Gebel-Williams once said he liked animals more than most human beings.
This Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. Our studio engineer was Keith Holmes. I’m Shirley Griffith.
And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.