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The Greatest Showman on Earth
Gurry Kirkpatrick
September 26, 1977
He is Gunther Gebel-Williams, the star of the circus, a lion tamer who does not tame lions, a man so brave he put both his wives in the same act
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September 26, 1977

The Greatest Showman On Earth

He is Gunther Gebel-Williams, the star of the circus, a lion tamer who does not tame lions, a man so brave he put both his wives in the same act

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The circus runs for two hours and 50 minutes. Gebel-Williams appears seven times for a grand total of 43 minutes. He works two and sometimes three shows a day, six days a week, about 48 weeks a year in some 90 cities coast to coast. At age 43 and winding up his ninth season, Gebel-Williams is approaching his 5,000th performance with Ringling Bros. For his effort, he has received the Ernst Renke-Plaskett Award, the circus Oscar, an unprecedented three times.

"I could leave all this," he says, "for truck driver, for test pilot, for anything else. Absolute. As long as I love my life, it's not a job. But I am here now. In this life I never know what is happening next. Big mystery. My life is peoples and animals. I love my life. Absolute."

Ladiesss and Gentlemen. In the great cage you are about to witness an act that is UNEQUALED in the HISTORY of mankind. The most DARING man of our times with 20 dangerous LEOPARDS, PUMAS AND PANTHERS: GUNTHERRR...GEBELLL...WILLIAMSSSS.

Kit Haskett, a young Rollins College graduate who briefly dug ditches before becoming a circus ringmaster, says Irvin Feld coached him for an hour and a half on most of the ringmaster announcements; the Gunther Gebel-Williams opener was not one of them. "I had seen his act and I got the announcement perfect first time out," says Haskett. "It just came naturally."

After just one observance of Gebel-Williams' performance it is difficult not to remember the man, or even say his name, in anything but the pear-shaped tones and drawn-out final syllables with which Haskett adorns his intros.

That GG-W would be so flamboyantly heralded could hardly have been foretold from his background. In contrast to many of his fellow performers, his parents were not circus people. He was born Gunther Gebel in 1934 in Schweidnitz (now part of Poland), the son of a theatrical set designer whom he wasn't particularly close to during the few years they lived together. "My father never care what I am doing," Gebel-Williams recalls. In 1944 the elder Gebel was captured by the Russians and disappeared. Up to that time, Gunther says, his life "was very rough. Never time to sit or sleep or go to play. Never football. Never friends. Work all the time. Absolute no fun."

After the war he discovered the circus. He convinced his mother she should answer an advertisement asking for a seamstress to travel with the Circus Williams. When she did, the 12-year-old Gunther became involved with acrobatics and horses, specializing in bareback and Roman post riding, in which the performer straddles two galloping horses. After a while Mrs. Gebel left the circus, but Gunther stayed; the owners, Harry and Carola Williams, took him in as their own and began teaching him to become an animal trainer. "At first I did not like it at all," he says. "So much work. So slow. I thought I would never get finished." As it turned out, he never has.

When Gunther was 16 a tragedy occurred of the type that seems to plague circus families. Riding in an exhibition chariot race in London, Harry Williams was thrown from his chariot and was crushed by another driven by his stepson, Haldy Barley. Gunther, who witnessed the accident, says it was "just like Ben Hur. Mr. Williams seemed like he was doing O.K. Then he go to hotel, but his mind never come back."

With the death of Williams 14 days later, his wife and various relatives took charge of the circus. But Carola was interested in little but paperwork, Barley was a cowboy-tricks performer with no organizational ability, and an assortment of aunts and uncles were operating their own shows, notably the esteemed Circus Althoff. In his mid-teens Gunther Gebel suddenly was thrust into what he called "being boss of everything."

As the years went by he became the chief trainer, the star act and the general manager of Circus Williams. Along the way he added the name of his foster family to his own, married the Williams' daughter, Jeanette, and became the most renowned circus performer on the Continent. In 1956, while in Sweden, he started training elephants. In 1963, while in Italy, he added tigers to his repertoire. He even combined those two natural enemies in the same act, breaking a law of the jungle.

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