In order to clear the air right away, it should be understood that the one thing Gunther Gebel-Williams, the famous lion tamer, is not, is a lion tamer. As a matter of fact, Clyde Beatty, the late and irate lion tamer, was not a lion tamer, either. "The only man I ever heard of who could tame a lion was Daniel," Beatty used to say, "and he had Divine Intervention." Old Clyde, he knew his Bible. At least Beatty put a pride of lions in there with him in the cage. But those were lions he had trained. Not tamed. There is a difference. You could have looked it up. Right there on Clyde's arms, both of which had to be sewn back together a few hundred times.
In truth, lions are fairly cheesy customers in an animal trainer's top 10. A group animal with hardly a mind of its own—thus comparatively easy to teach—lions cost about $200 to $250 apiece.
"A lion is all a big show—'rrrrr, grrrrr,' then nothing," says Gunther Gebel-Williams. "When peoples watch me, I want to make it look easy. A lion person has to make noise. Absolute."
The rush a man gets, then, from training a cheap, unchic, out-of-date noisy lion can't exactly equal going over Niagara Falls on a skateboard. So when you hear an interviewer, who has not bothered to catch his act, ask Gebel-Williams, "What do you feed your lions?" or when you see the ladies go ga-ga over Gebel-Williams' dashing matinee-idol looks and shout, "Look, there's the blond lion guy," remember they've got it all wrong. Also, they are probably insulting the man.
Gunther Gebel-Williams training a lion would be the same thing as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar taking a two-hand set shot. Superfluous, to say the least. The other day Gebel-Williams was heard to mutter, jokingly, "I got to get some goddam lions so when they call me goddam lion tamer, at least I look like goddam lion tamer."
Being slow afoot, bulky and not all that bright, the lord of the jungle would change the pace and alter the style of Gebel-Williams' show. This performance, which you may have seen or heard about if you are among the 10 million or so Americans who went to a circus in the past year, includes GG-W's amazing multiple tiger act, his incredible leopard, panther and puma act, the unbelievable elephant, tiger and horse mixed routine he conceived and now entrusts to an assistant, and the stupendo-fabuloso-socko, stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-on number in which Gebel-Williams bounds across three rings barking commands while combinations of 18 various size elephants stand up, sit down, run around in circles, dance on tubs, play on teeterboards, roll over and balance on their heads, lift, carry and bounce their master on their backs to ultimately consummate the 107th edition of Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus, The Greatest Show on Earth.
"With this I need lions?" Gunther Gebel-Williams says.
In recent history the circus has produced a mere handful of names that endure. Clyde Beatty, himself, of the whip and chair and crackling pistol. Emmett Kelly: sad clown, hobo of our dreams. The Wallendas: tragic, star-crossed flyers. And now a golden-maned hero. Gunther Gebel-Williams will be a star forever.
Everyone in the circus predicts this. In his nine years of performing in the U.S., this slightly built Teuton has shown enough to be called the most exciting, charismatic and versatile performer the circus has ever known. Irvin Feld, the president of Ringling Bros., says Gebel-Williams is "a mind-boggling human being." Kenneth Feld, who co-produces the circus with his father, says, "We shall never see his like again." And Lou Jacobs, the gnarled old clown who himself came over from Germany more than 50 years ago and was the first circus performer to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp, says, "This guy, Goonter, he is the next stamp."
If it were put to a vote of circus people, GG-W would replace the American eagle on the 13� stamp. In jeans and work shirt, he pounds stakes and lifts canvas, toiling with his 30-man work crew as they raise the animal tents. He feeds his cats, rakes hay for the horses and gives pedicures to the elephants. A workaholic, GG-W is up at 8 a.m. with "the guys," as he calls his four-legged friends, and he puts them to bed at night. The man even shovels the manure (calling to mind the story of the circus dung-remover who, when asked why he didn't find a better job, replied, "What? And leave show biz?"). Then Gunther Gebel-Williams cleans himself up, whips on his spangled vests and skintight pants and sprints inside to the three rings to flash his teeth and captivate another audience.