Gebel-Williams first did the trick with an elephant named Nellie (male elephants are too aggressive for the act) breaking a piece of wood with her foot several thousand times before learning just the right amount of pressure to exert. In Baltimore earlier this season Nellie forgot herself, tromped the teeter-board extra hard and sent Gebel-Williams hurtling end over end into the rigging above the audience. "I think I am out of the building that time," he says.
The mixed act of elephant, horses and tigers, which appears slower and easier, also has had some off-days. Once a tiger slipped while mounting a horse, which moved the horse to go berserk, causing the elephant undue apprehension, not to mention a nervous tummy. Gebel-Williams says, "It took 14 days to calm everybody down."
Ladiesss and Gentlemen. Here's the man of the MOMENT, the man of the HOUR, the man of the YEAR. Here's GUNTHERRRRR...
And now Gunther Gebel-Williams commands an ENTIRE herd of ELEPHANTS and HORSES by his voice...ALONE.
The running gag around the tents used to be that the elephants and tigers were pieces of cake; it was Gunther Gebel-Williams' wives who were next to impossible to train. For several years after he came to Ringling Bros., Gebel-Williams supervised a three-ring Liberty horse act with Jeanette Williams on the left, Sigrid Gebel on the right and John Herriott and his wife in the middle. "When people asked who did the Liberties, I always said Gunther, me and our three wives," says Herriott.
Such a potentially explosive scenario seems a strangely quixotic venture for a man who has otherwise been in firm control of every facet of his life. The parties involved say the lineup was ordained elsewhere. Gebel-Williams had been betrothed to the only daughter of the Circus Williams at a time when he was its head honcho and she a clinging teenager. "It was a marriage always too pushed-in," he says today. Soon Jeanette became the foremost circus horsewoman in Europe and a valuable fixture in her husband's act. It was not unnatural that she stay on, even after they were divorced, even as the circus moved to America.
When Feld signed Gebel-Williams, he wanted his kit and caboodle, too—and he also wanted Sigrid added to the horse number. "Well, just look at her," a circus veteran muses, in thrall to Sigrid's majestic beauty. "Feld's in show biz. He wasn't about to pass up that."
It must have been difficult for a non-circus novice like Sigrid to perform with the skilled Jeanette only a whip and a call away. But Sigrid says no. "I knew exactly what Jeanette was," Sigrid says. "All you need for this act is to be beautiful and smart. I qualified. She was the same, only not as good even. Sometimes she was overweight in the thighs. She couldn't stand having me in the ring. To be honest down to my heart, it was not easy for any of us. It was lonely for Jeanette. She felt like No. 3, which she was."
Though the two women are on better terms now—Jeanette has since married aerialist Elvin Bale, joined his Giant Gyro Wheel act and moved to Ringling Bros.' blue unit, and their children, Oliver (Buffy) Gebel, 7, and Pinky Bale, 8, visit in the summers—the years of togetherness surely must have been fraught with tension as the rest of the circus watched and waited for the sparks to fly.
Jeanette lived in the other half of the Gebels' railroad car, for one thing. She and Sigrid tried to upstage each other in costuming, makeup and the like. When they spoke, it was only to address each other as "Mrs. Gebel" and "Mrs. Jeanette," the latter being Sigrid's way of refusing to acknowledge that her predecessor's maiden name was the same as her husband's adopted one.