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"Handlers in Europe were no good workers," Gebel-Williams says. "I was only peoples there who work 12 months a year. No time for bars or dancing or playing around. I worked. Absolute. I hear about Clyde Beatty in America being great with lots of noise and rough stuff. Amazing, tough fellow. But I watched horse trainers in Europe. Elegant, you know? Big cigar, hat, long coat, umm, umm. I try classy way like that with tigers. When I go to Italy I do 25 elephants. Twenty-five. I try training only by voice. Spread the elephants out. Make three rings and everything. Maybe go here, go there, sit down, go a little further, always talking to elephants. Unbelievably hard because elephants so smart. They know when I am far away, they can fool around and not get smacked. So I come back and smack. Then I give elephants the carrots."
Back then Gebel-Williams was aided by three men who remain with him to this day: Ben Salem (Papa Ben) Said, 68, a former Algerian acrobat who looks like George Raft impersonating Anwar Sadat and who taught the boss bareback stunts when he was 14; Helmut Schlinker, a balding dwarf who goes by the name of Piccolo and who reportedly has consumed more beer per square inch of himself than any sane human in the history of the Rhineland; and Henry Schroer, a scion of the Althoff family and a nephew of Carola Williams, who was born in a show wagon three months after Gebel-Williams joined the Circus Williams.
Schroer, 30, who as GG-W's chief assistant works the tiger-horse-elephant act for Ringling Bros., speaks with fondness about the old tent shows. "You work the circus in Europe, you work 20, 21 hours a day," he says. "Two and three days straight. Naps for 30 minutes. No sleep. But you love it anyway. Sometimes the mud is up to your neck. You worry about storms. The animals get sick. If you belong to a circus family, you do everything. If you not get tough, you leave crying. Gunther was the toughest one. He work like nobody else. He do the work of three men. Never stop."
By the same token, Schlinker has always been accustomed to drinking enough for three full-size men. Never stop.
"Piccolo was my baby-sitter at first," says Schroer. "Later we cage boys used to wait next to the elephant tent and set our watches for when Piccolo got caught sleeping off an all-night drunk in the hay. When he came flying out of the tent, we knew it was 9 o'clock sharp."
Piccolo still likes to sleep in the elephants' hay, but nowadays he appears to leave the tent of his own volition. Recently, he was asked which thick, German lagers he preferred.
" Budweiser," he rasped. "Light."
As Gebel-Williams' fame spread, so did his horizons. John Ringling North was the first to approach him about transferring his animal acts to America, but the timing was wrong. "I was too young," Gunther says. "When Irvin Feld came, I was somebody."
By then he had divorced Jeanette Williams and married Sigrid Neubauer, a striking young widow and fashion model from Berlin, and he began putting together a much more hazardous combination than tigers and elephants—a three-ring Liberty horse act featuring both his present and former wives.
Loyalty to Carola Williams and to what was, in effect, his own circus contributed to Gebel-Williams' hesitancy about moving to America. "To go over the big water with all the animals to a different country with different language—I didn't understand," he says. "Who knows what goes on there? But I was working hard all my life. Over 20 years I am working for somebody else and I am feeling, you know, for what? For nothing? Absolute. Mrs. Williams was past 60. I say to her she don't have to sign papers and sell' circus, but I am thinking I want to be little bit free."