Sunday, January 15, 2017
Biggest Star like the King of Ringling Circus...
Gunther Gebel-Williams, who taught lions to ride on the backs of skittish horses, leopards to jump through flaming hoops held by the gleaming teeth of tigers, and elephants to take calm, leisurely walks through roaring traffic in the nation's busiest cities, died 2001 at his home in Venice, Fla. He was 66.
The cause was cancer, said Daniel Hupart, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment.
Mr. Gebel-Williams, who for many years was the unrivaled star of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, had surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor in July 2000.
An internationally celebrated animal trainer, Mr. Gebel-Williams starred with Ringling Brothers from 1968 to 1990, when he retired from performing and became vice president for animal welfare for the circus and a part owner of it as well.
From 1947 to 1968 he worked as a self-taught animal trainer for Circus Williams in his native Germany. He came to the United States when Irvin Feld, then an owner of Ringling Brothers, bought out Circus Williams for $2 million, mostly to get Mr. Gebel-Williams to perform for American audiences. He gave about 12,000 performances and never missed a show because of illness or injury (and he was injured by his animals many times). He performed 1,191 times at Madison Square Garden alone.
Mr. Gebel-Williams was the principal heir-apparent to the tradition of Clyde Beatty, a dashing character who dominated the American circus scene in the mid-20th century by routinely walking into cages filled with huge cats. Beatty was usually armed with a chair, a whip and sometimes even a revolver so that cats would not doubt who was boss.
Mr. Gebel-Williams admired Beatty, but he had no use for chairs or pistols (loaded or unloaded) or anything else that would threaten or injure his animals. Whatever the animals did or tried to do to him, he did not regard himself as their boss. He communicated with them using his commanding presence in the ring (he was only 5 feet 4 inches tall), his voice and the bits of meat he gave to them to make sure they understood when he was pleased.
''Gunther single-handedly changed the face of animal training while setting the standard of performance for circus performers throughout the world,'' said Kenneth Feld, Irvin's son, who has run the circus since his father's death in 1984. ''He inspired an entire generation of Americans with his unique and special bond with animals, changing forever the relationship between animals and mankind.'' He did it without threats or brute force.
''I have never been stricken with the man-against-beast syndrome,'' Mr. Gebel-Williams wrote (with Toni Reinhold) in his autobiography, ''Untamed,'' which was published by William Morrow in 1991. ''Rather, I built a world around the animals with whom I worked, and in it I was their father and they were my children.''
He said he had ''a special kind of respect for my animals and it is mutual.''
''Respect is the foundation of my training style,'' he said. ''I worked with tigers as a trainer, never a tamer. I taught them to listen, but still be tigers. I never tried to break their spirits and so I did not use brutality. To train my animals I used words, always words. I'd say 'come here' to any one of the elephants and it would walk right over to me.''
When Mr. Gebel-Williams started his career as a boy in Germany after World War II and Beatty was at the peak of his fame in the United States, people thought of animal training and performance with dangerous animals as an admirable example of raw courage. By the time Mr. Gebel-Williams retired, society had changed its attitudes considerably, with many people believing the animals were exploited in the interests of show business.
Mr. Gebel-Williams, a self-taught animal behaviorist, did not become defensive when he heard these comments. He believed his animals loved him very much ''and were as attracted to me as I was to them -- we were part of a big family.''
Nobody ever questioned his love of animals. Mr. Gebel-Williams said more than once that he preferred their company to that of most of the adults he had ever met. He called animals dependable and honest.
''If you do right by them,'' he said, ''and do not become careless and lax, they will do the right thing in return. One can never be 100 percent certain about people.''
His beloved animals were, in fact, quite unpredictable and would, on occasion, turn on him or disobey him. His original teeth and their replacements were knocked out more than once. His face had been scratched so much by the claws of huge cats that his lips were covered with lumpy scars that in cold weather sometimes made it nearly impossible for him to speak.
And yet he continued to let his favorite panther, Kenny, who weighed 75 pounds, wrap himself around his neck and shoulders and lounge there, staring blissfully into space. After Kenny died, Mr. Gebel-Williams tried the same thing with a 150-pound panther named Zorro. Zorro became upset, hissed, and sank his teeth deep into his trainer's head. Mr. Gebel-Williams was bleeding profusely but insisted on getting an agitated, reluctant and confused Zorro back into his cage before allowing the ambulance to take him to the hospital.
Gunther Gebel was born on Sept. 12, 1934, and was never emotionally close to his parents. His father was an alcoholic carpenter who built sets for local theater and who worked his way up to becoming a technical director; he was drafted into the German Army in World War II and was a Socialist who had run-ins with the Nazis. His mother was a seamstress.
Gunther never finished grammar school and his future was unclear. When he was about 13, his mother got a sewing job with the Circus Williams and got her son hired as an usher. She quit shortly thereafter with instructions that Gunther remain with the circus. Mr. Gebel-Williams, who eventually modified his last name because the circus was so good to him, often said that as far as he could tell, she virtually gave him away.
The owner of the circus, Harry Williams, took a fatherly interest in Gunther and encouraged him to try to train animals and develop a bareback riding act. The boy found that he instinctively had the patience and skill to get all kinds of animals to do tricks that nature never intended.
He was enthralled with the big cats. He admired the tigers, saying he was taken with their beauty, wildness, intelligence, pride and dignity. Leopards, he thought, were as beautiful as they were troublesome, but he enjoyed being near them. With the lions, he marveled at their extraordinary social organization.
Mr. Gebel-Williams's life revolved around the animals. Although he was devoted to his family, it sometimes seemed that he would think up excuses to be with his animals, especially the cats.
Years ago he made a television commercial for American Express, in which the real star was Kenny, riding on Mr. Gebel-Williams's shoulders. After Kenny died, Mr. Gebel-Williams had a taxidermist preserve Kenny's skin; it and the skins of a few other great cats were given the place of honor on the floor of his living room. Nobody was allowed to walk on them. ''We walk around them out of respect,'' Mr. Gebel-Williams said, ''because they are not trophies but dear old friends.''
By 1990, when he was close to the end of his performing career, Mr. Gebel-Williams was working with 21 elephants, 38 horses, 22 tigers, 4 zebras, 3 camels and a couple of llamas.
He was married twice, first in 1960, to Jeanette Williams, whose parents, Harry and Carola, ran the Circus Williams. That marriage ended in divorce. In 1968 he married Sigrid Neubauer, a former model; in time, she became a circus performer, too. Their children are a daughter, Tina DelMoral, and a son, Mark Oliver, now the star tiger trainer with one of the Ringling circus units. They survive him, along with four grandchildren.
Mr. Gebel-Williams became an American citizen in 1976.
After more than five decades in training and performing with all kinds of animals, Mr. Gebel-Williams concluded that there was just one animal that might be close to being impossible to train: the house cat.
''They do as they please,'' he said.
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