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The rush a man gets, then, from training a cheap, unchic, out-of-date noisy lion can't exactly equal going over Niagara Falls on a skateboard.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.
It could be argued that Gebel-Williams helped save the circus. Or, rather, that Irvin Feld, who discovered and rescued the animal trainer from mere European immortality as the leading act of Germany's famed Circus Williams, enabled Gebel-Williams to help save it.
In the late '50s, when John Ringling North was employing 2,000 people, losing tons of money and contemplating folding his tents for the final time, Feld showed him he could survive by putting the circus in the huge new sports complexes going up in urban America. A Washington, D.C.-based circus buff and rock 'n' roll entrepreneur who first presented Chubby Checker and the Everly Brothers in concert, Feld had the arena contacts. North agreed to let him handle the bookings. In time North lost interest in the business. Feld, snapping a wad fashioned partly out of Let's Twist Again and Wake Up, Little Susie, bought him out in 1967, closing the deal in a terrific ceremony and flying to Rome to pose for pictures in the Colosseum.
So it was Feld who actually saved the circus. A free spender and innovator, he raised salaries, got rid of the sideshow freaks and founded a clown college to inject new blood into the grizzled ranks of circus funnymen. "We know our clowns can fall down," he said, alluding to their median age, "but do we know if they can get back up again?"
Feld also introduced what he called "democracy in the sawdust" by striking the words "center ring" from circus parlance. There were only Rings One, Two and Three, so performers could not demand contracts with "center ring only" and "I finish alone" clauses.
Feld also realized that Ringling Bros, needed a new personality, someone of enough magnitude to lead a second unit of the circus that would work the country concurrently with the first unit. This was another unheard-of proposition, which veteran circus hands knew could not work. There just weren't enough animals, acrobats and Bulgarian maniacs to staff two circuses.
But Feld remembered the Circus Williams—he had seen it for the first time in Cologne in 1965—and he especially remembered the magnetic animal trainer with shimmering star quality who virtually was the Circus Williams, and who had become so involved with it that he had taken its name and made it part of his own. In early 1968, accompanied by a translator, Feld stepped gingerly over some wooden planks in a muddy lot in Salerno and introduced himself to Gunther Gebel-Williams.
Six months and four transatlantic trips later, Feld was rewarded. He had to fork over an estimated $2 million and buy up the entire Circus Williams, but by so doing, Ringling Bros, had its new star.
Since that time Gebel-Williams has shaved off the beard he had then and let his hair grow and also, as his fellow troupers kid him, radically changed its color. In America he learned to speak English, added some sex appeal to his act—not to mention eight zillion different animals and tricks—and, with each succeeding season, spurred the circus to new attendance records.
While no one in particular is depicted on the poster of the Ringling Bros, "blue unit," Gebel-Williams' likeness dominates the "red unit" poster. His photograph is all over the souvenir program, on buttons, pennants, postcards and beer trays. He is a doll, in rubber and on a stick. People phone up to ask if the circus group appearing in town that week is "the one with the elephant man."
Feld has insured GG-W's life for $2 million. He has been interviewed by Johnny, Merv, Mike and Barbara Howar. During the coming Thanksgiving season he will co-host his own hour-long TV special with Tony Curtis.
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.
"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."
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.
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 5'7½", 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.
Allen Bloom, a Ringling Bros, vice-president, says, "The thing is that Gunther is so good and establishes such a rapport with the animals that they become docile, and nobody believes they're real. Audiences love the threat of violence and blood, but if Beatty was still around wearing his pith helmet and firing those blanks, the humane society would lock him up. Gunther has a love affair with those cats out there and nobody appreciates it."
Dwayne Cunningham, a black clown who rides one of the elephants in the show, concurs. "We have heard all the crap about the animals," he said, "and I've often wondered what would happen if I got in that cage with those cats. But I'm not about to find out. What the man does is provide art, beauty, a personal relationship. Sure, the tigers aren't wild anymore. They're tame. Seventeen huge, roaring mothers tame. But tame only for him. Let the critics jump in that cage and see how tame they are. Those cats be on somebody's case fast."
Gebel-Williams speaks with eloquence about animal happiness. "Most animals are born in some sort of cage," he says, "whether in bushes or behind trees or in zoos or something. Their dream is not to be in jungle and live free. If tigers go out of tent and get loose, they want back in cages right away. They are lost. Absolute. Part of all animals' life should be working and training. Zoo animals have nice life but they have nothing to do but lay down and stare at peoples. And peoples stare back. Jungle animals have nothing to advance themselves. My animals have more excitement, more things to do.
"Training is beautiful thing, I think," he goes on. "When animal's brainpower enhanced, life becomes more natural, easier, more pleasant. To get inside the head of animal and communicate, that is wonderful. That is what I live for. Absolute.
"I don't mistreat my animals. I don't fake anything. Everybody have claws and teeth. Very easy to make them mad, but a mad animal doesn't want to train in cage. If I hit them, hurting them, I lose relationship. All of our hits are light, they only hurt the animal's pride. The ASPCA has a right to look at circus and inspect us. I welcome this. If I am doing something wrong, tell me, I change it. If any other peoples handling animals bad, take it away from them. Boom. Absolute. But I don't think I do anything wrong. I give animal feeling for joy and fun."
Among the many routines Gebel-Williams performs and supervises, the mixed cats—an act that took two years to perfect, and has been described by the ancient clown, Lou Jacobs, as "an act like an Italian dinner I never saw before"—is the most complex. It consists of leopards, pumas and panthers climbing up and over one another while balancing on parallel ropes. There is also a lot of jumping through flames and rolypoly rough-housing in the ring while Gebel-Williams shouts orders in a forceful mixture of German and English before emerging with one leopard draped over his shoulders. Gunther then swats Papa Ben Said on the head with the leopard's tail.
"I keep watching Gunther's back," says Schroer, who stands just outside the cage. "Everywhere he doesn't look, I look. He looks right, I look left. If a big cat bites his neck, it's over."
On the most basic level, animal training is endless, careful, patient repetition. "You can rush a painting maybe," says Schroer, "but animal training can't be speeded up." Or taken for granted. When a chimp screws up a group act, for example, his trainer must quickly get the offender back in sequence, or the other chimps, angered by their compatriot's mistake, will punch his lights out.
"Each animal needs to know his place, his name, my voice, what I mean," GG-W says. "We do a trick over and over even if it takes years."
Such a trick is the magnificent teeter-board number in which an elephant rumbles up, steps on one end of the board and launches Gebel-Williams from the other end into a backward somersault and up onto another elephant's back. "That move right there takes Gunther out of the realm of trainers and into the acrobats, equilibrists," says Herriott.
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.
"Compared to Europe, everything in America was a holiday for me," says Gebel-Williams. "Except for that."
Yet friends say he was not so much troubled as amused. "The wives were no problem for him," one recalls. "Gunther cracked the whip both ways. He works that incredible will. He muscles women just as he muscles animals. People and animals respond the same. They want his good word."
A Gebel-Williams performance, indeed the man's very presence, is so wired for sensuality—the flowing yellow locks, the revealing tights, the bare chest, the smile, the charisma—that he is beleaguered by adoring women from 6 to 60. Even Howar, a bestselling author and habitué of the Manhattan-Washington cocktail circuit, got into the act. Her interview with GG-W on Who's Who sounded like the "How's your love life?" toothpaste ads. Gebel-Williams jokingly implied that he was sneaking around. Sigrid, also on the show, retorted that this was nonsense, only a fool "would trade in a Rolls-Royce for a Volkswagen."
Tabloid troopers all the way, the couple knows a good thing when they see one. "Nobody want us to say Gunther come home to mama every night," Sigrid says. "What kind of sex symbol would that be? I don't worry about groupies outside the circus. There is enough trouble with 30 beautiful showgirls inside. Well, maybe 25 beautiful ones. I think it would not be so nice to have a husband like this and nobody look at him. I want them to look. They all think he's available. He's not."
"Every year I am hiding more," says Gunther. "In car, in trailer, in train. Ladies say, 'Come home, train my cat.' I am polite and sign autograph and run away. Absolute. I talk to everybody. I have no problems with peoples. I make everybody believe my style."
Outside the big top, Gebel-Williams is a homebody. He does not go to restaurants, movies, parties. He seldom stays up late and does not smoke; an occasional Scotch and Coke is his one concession to wild living. His usual postperformance evening consists of a quiet dinner and TV in his trailer or railroad stateroom with his wife and Buffy and Tina, Sigrid's 14-year-old daughter by a previous marriage, who has blossomed into a horse trainer/elephant rider/showgirl and appears in the Ringling Bros, show no less than six times during a performance.
Though he permits himself few close friends and does not socialize with other circus performers, Gebel-Williams has a friendly greeting for everyone—trapeze artist, pie-cart cook, roustabout alike—which is to say he is the one who calls out hello first. Besides being the hardest worker and performer in the circus, he may be its most popular, too. When the Lenzes cracked up their car and house trailer last year, Gebel-Williams offered them $7,000 in cash as well as his own dressing trailer. He said he could change his clothes in the arena men's room.
"I wish I could think of a single incident where Gunther pulled a prima donna number," says Irvin Feld, "but I can't. People just don't believe what a fantastic, natural, honest guy he is. Gunther is a prince. He gets universal love and respect."
Peggy Williams (no relation), a famous clown who along with the other funny people of the circus calls Gebel-Williams "Goober Giblet," places him on an even higher plateau. "I've never met a person so in touch with everything in life," she says. "It is difficult to look on Goob as a star because he is such a human. He never pulls rank. He never lets anybody down. That smile on his face—the ladies will tell you he's no phony. His eyes see farther than most people's eyes. Goob could do any job here; he's just the supercitizen of the circus. It's an honor to know him."
"The man is ego-less," adds Jimmy Briscoe, another clown.
These sentiments are not shared by Bale, who bitterly argued with GG-W and went over to the other Ringling Bros, group. Bale's own death-defying wheel act is very special in its own right and there was his wife—the former Mrs. Gebel-Williams—to consider. In addition, another flyer named Jimmy Cavaretta once picked a fight with Gunther because he had moved his menagerie too close to Cavaretta's living quarters. The two had to be separated, but Gebel-Williams chuckles over the incident as just a passing irritation.
It is moot whether Gebel-Williams' hard-earned reputation and popularity—now established for all time—are responsible for the confidence and serenity he exhibits on and off stage, or whether it is the other way around. He says his base salary is no higher than that of a couple of other acts—probably about $85,000 a year, exclusive of tabs for the trailer, the motorcycle and a traveling tutor for his children, all of which are picked up by the circus. After Rogie Vachon, the Los Angeles Kings' goalie who is in a six-figure bracket, watched Gebel-Williams' performance and was informed how much he was paid, the hockey player cracked, "I am embarrassed to be getting more money than that. For what this guy does, he makes peanuts."
Nevertheless, Gebel-Williams seems gloriously content. He is building a large home near the Ringling Bros.' winter quarters in Venice, Fla., and he drives a Rolls-Royce. Otherwise, he eats McDonald's hamburgers and saves his money. Recently he signed a 10-year contract as both a performer and, eventually, an administrator with the circus. Friends insist Gebel-Williams is smart enough not to blow this gig, form his own show and go broke, the way Clyde Beatty did. "Gunther will be with us forever," says Feld.
Or at least until his vigor and youthfulness run out. Though he does not run laps or lift weights, Gebel-Williams is trim and hard from the everyday labor of the circus. His doctor says he has the body of a 25-year-old. When he speaks in his charming, enthusiastic, broken English—punctuated by much jabbing, waving and jumping up and down—he gives the impression of being even younger than that.
"Look," he says, "I am always different from other peoples. Absolute. I am always working and moving and running. I never stop. I never want to miss the animals, the show, the life. Peoples come to see me. I want to give 100%. Absolute. I think I already make some history in circus. But I must keep going. More animals to do, more tricks, more fun."
Peggy Williams remembers a scene last winter when GG-W brought his family to a circus ski party in the hills of North Carolina. It was a rare appearance for him, sharing an off-day with the rest of the denizens of the big top, and Gebel-Williams made the most of it. He helped the younger ones with their equipment. He swooped past everybody on the slopes, laughing as he went.
"None of us knew he could ski," Williams recalls. "Later I asked him, 'Goob, you can handle this, too?' He got this faraway look in his eye that I had never seen. He sat in the snow and stared. Then he said, 'Yeah, yeah. Skiing is fun. I ski way back. I ski before I was a kid.' "
Right then Peggy Williams knew she had discovered the essence of Gunther Gebel Goober Giblet Williams. It was so easy. Most kids dream they run away to join the circus. This man, Goob, joined the circus to become a kid. And he never stopped being one. Absolute.
Gunther eschews hokum in favor of control. His well-trained tigers look like so many sleek, complacent tabbies.
Family man Gunther with wife Sigrid, son Buffy, stepdaughter Tina.
Gunther's beer-loving aide, Helmut (Piccolo) Schlinker, breaks up Buffy.
The star backstage, cleaning Nellie's nails.