It could be argued that Gebel-Williams helped save the circus. Or, rather, that Irvin Feld, who discovered and rescued the animal trainer from mere European immortality as the leading act of Germany's famed Circus Williams, enabled Gebel-Williams to help save it.
In the late '50s, when John Ringling North was employing 2,000 people, losing tons of money and contemplating folding his tents for the final time, Feld showed him he could survive by putting the circus in the huge new sports complexes going up in urban America. A Washington, D.C.-based circus buff and rock 'n' roll entrepreneur who first presented Chubby Checker and the Everly Brothers in concert, Feld had the arena contacts. North agreed to let him handle the bookings. In time North lost interest in the business. Feld, snapping a wad fashioned partly out of Let's Twist Again and Wake Up, Little Susie, bought him out in 1967, closing the deal in a terrific ceremony and flying to Rome to pose for pictures in the Colosseum.
So it was Feld who actually saved the circus. A free spender and innovator, he raised salaries, got rid of the sideshow freaks and founded a clown college to inject new blood into the grizzled ranks of circus funnymen. "We know our clowns can fall down," he said, alluding to their median age, "but do we know if they can get back up again?"
Feld also introduced what he called "democracy in the sawdust" by striking the words "center ring" from circus parlance. There were only Rings One, Two and Three, so performers could not demand contracts with "center ring only" and "I finish alone" clauses.
Feld also realized that Ringling Bros, needed a new personality, someone of enough magnitude to lead a second unit of the circus that would work the country concurrently with the first unit. This was another unheard-of proposition, which veteran circus hands knew could not work. There just weren't enough animals, acrobats and Bulgarian maniacs to staff two circuses.
But Feld remembered the Circus Williams—he had seen it for the first time in Cologne in 1965—and he especially remembered the magnetic animal trainer with shimmering star quality who virtually was the Circus Williams, and who had become so involved with it that he had taken its name and made it part of his own. In early 1968, accompanied by a translator, Feld stepped gingerly over some wooden planks in a muddy lot in Salerno and introduced himself to Gunther Gebel-Williams.
Six months and four transatlantic trips later, Feld was rewarded. He had to fork over an estimated $2 million and buy up the entire Circus Williams, but by so doing, Ringling Bros, had its new star.
Since that time Gebel-Williams has shaved off the beard he had then and let his hair grow and also, as his fellow troupers kid him, radically changed its color. In America he learned to speak English, added some sex appeal to his act—not to mention eight zillion different animals and tricks—and, with each succeeding season, spurred the circus to new attendance records.
While no one in particular is depicted on the poster of the Ringling Bros, "blue unit," Gebel-Williams' likeness dominates the "red unit" poster. His photograph is all over the souvenir program, on buttons, pennants, postcards and beer trays. He is a doll, in rubber and on a stick. People phone up to ask if the circus group appearing in town that week is "the one with the elephant man."
Feld has insured GG-W's life for $2 million. He has been interviewed by Johnny, Merv, Mike and Barbara Howar. During the coming Thanksgiving season he will co-host his own hour-long TV special with Tony Curtis.