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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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In the fall of 1968 Gebel-Williams flew to San Diego to see The Greatest Show on Earth for the first time. He remembers noticing how fat the elephants were, how they seemed to enjoy being inside the buildings and the train cars. It was good that nobody was skinny, he thought. Everybody was well fed. When GG-W returned to Germany, Schroer remembers him sitting down and thinking for a long time. Finally he stood up and said, "It is O.K. We go."

Considering the fact that his right arm had been nearly ripped off by an angry tiger upon his return from California; that only half a dozen handlers plus his wife accompanied the 52 carnivores and pachyderms on their voyage; that the Swedish liner Atlantic Song took 14 days in heavy storms to reach the new world while GG-W was almost continuously seasick—considering all this, it was a. miracle that on the morning the ship was—berthed in New York, Gebel-Williams had recovered enough to smile resolutely and pose for pictures in the hold amid his bellowing animals while Feld choreographed a publicity picnic.

"None of us believed it would happen," says John Herriott, a performance director and veteran trainer for Ringling Bros. "But there was the picture in all the newspapers. There was the famous Gunther Gebel-Williams and there were all the animals safe and sound. Feld had done it. Noah's Ark had arrived."

Ladiesss and Gentlemen. Once again in the great cage.
MAGNIFICENT Bengal tigers trained and exhibited by the most EXCITING figure in show business today.
GUNTHERRR...GEBELLL...WILLIAMSSSS.

Contrary to popular opinion, the most fearsome creature in the circus may be the darling little chimpanzee that rides a motorcycle, bangs the cymbals and scratches himself a lot. If dressing-room gossip can be relied upon, the roaring Bengals are caged beauties incapable of doing harm, the huge elephants gentle souls. Chimps? Chimps would just as soon tear your face apart.

"Clear the aisle, chimps coming through," a man screams in the runway, as if mass murderers are on the loose. As the chimps of Rudi and Sue Lenz make their way from the circus ring, Nan Wylder scatters to the wings like all the other terrified showgirls. "I'd like to strangle every one of those vicious sons of bitches," she says.

While resenting the implication that his apes are anything other than cuddly cuties, Dutchman Rudi Lenz does admit that, when left to their own devices, his chimps would go right for the jugular. For example, there was the case of Wolfgang Holzmair, a lion trainer who was attacked by a chimp from another act in last year's circus. "Wolfgang, he cover up in fetal position until help come," Lenz says. "Wolfgang know from experience. Wolfgang tangle with little chimp in Austria several years ago. Little chimp put Wolfgang in hospital for a month." If nothing else, this helps put to rest the canard that circus animals are sedated or otherwise tampered with to make them more tractable.

Cleveland Amory, talking with Barbara Howar last spring on CBS's Who's Who, zeroed in on Gebel-Williams by suggesting that his charges had been so domesticated that they were little more than house pets. And were unhappy, besides. But the image of Gebel-Williams feeding his elephants Valium-flavored peanuts and/or lacing his cats' steaks with Librium is preposterous. There is no way a dopehead animal could be taught as well as an alert one, to say nothing of being able to perform the astounding tricks Gebel-Williams' pupils do. And certainly no evidence exists that the animals were tranquilized on those occasions when they smashed the 5'7�", 135-pound Gebel-Williams against walls, trampled him, gnawed at his flesh and clawed him to the tune of more than 200 stitches on his arms alone. If GG-W didn't abhor doctors and hospitals, if his macho style did not make him pretend he was perfectly O.K. when he could barely move without excruciating pain, Gebel-Williams would lead the league in emergency-room appearances.

"These ones from tigers, these ones leopards, these ones zebras," Gebel-Williams says, pointing out the jagged tracks up and down one arm. This was just before a week in late July when he slipped off an elephant, dislocating a thumb, then moved too close to the tigers during their roll-over number, whereupon he got numerous wicked slashes around an elbow that required 40 stitches to close. Rushed from the Los Angeles Forum to the hospital and back, Gebel-Williams did not miss a performance.

"What we've got here is a wild man who knows no fear," says Feld. "This is not so good." Among other things, Feld has outlawed Gebel-Williams' dangerous Roman post riding act and limited his motorcycle trips on a sinister 1000-cc black Honda to cruises between the circus train and the arena.

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