I'm Shirley Griffith.
And I'm Steve Ember. Today, we tell about the famous circusperformer, Gunther Gebel-Williams. He was known for his gentle waysof training wild animals.
((MUSIC: "THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH"))
The lights of the circus shone brightly on Gunther Gebel-Williamsas he stood in the center ring. Big tigers surrounded him. He spokequietly to the animals. Then he said a few more words to horses thatwaited in a line nearby.
Thousands of people watched as the wild tigers climbed onto thehorses' backs to take a ride. It did not seem like anything thateither a tiger or a horse would want to do. But they paraded underthe shining lights. Some of the animals even looked pleased withthemselves. The crowd under the circus tent in Boston,Massachusetts, shouted its approval.
Mister Gebel-Williams gave the tigers little pieces of meat andoffered other food to the horses. "Thank you," he told them.
Many people said the world had lost its greatest animal trainerwhen Mister Gebel-Williams died. He was sixty-six years old when hedied of brain cancer in July of Two-Thousand-One.
Gunther Gebel-Williams and his animals traveled across the UnitedStates with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus formore than twenty years. He was the most famous circus performer inthe nation.
p>Gunther Gebel-Williams started working with animals as a child inGermany. He became famous as a circus performer and animal trainerin Europe. Mister Gebel-Williams came to the United States inNineteen-Sixty-Eight. He became an American citizen inNineteen-Seventy-Six.
Gunther Gebel-Williams was wounded sometimes by his animals. Buthe gave about twelve-thousand performances without missing a showfor injury or sickness. He retired from performing inNineteen-Ninety. At the time he was working with about thirty-eighthorses, twenty-two tigers and twenty-one elephants. Four zebras,three camels and a llama or two also took part in his performances.After leaving the show he remained with the circus as a trainer,officer and part owner.
Gunther Gebel-Williams never made a secret of how he got animalsto do what he wanted. He said he built a special world around them.In this world he was the father. The lions, tigers and other animalswere his children. His methods changed the way Americans train andtreat performing animals.
((TAPE CUT ONE: CIRCUS NOISE: LIONS ROARING, ELEPHANTS TRUMPETING))
The future circus star had a difficult childhood. Gunther Gebelwas born in the eastern German village of Schweidnitz on SeptemberTwelfth, Nineteen-Thirty-Four. Gunther's father was a carpenter whobuilt things out of wood. Later he became a technical director for atheater company.
The father's Socialist beliefs got him into trouble withGermany's Nazi government during the war. The Army sent him toRussia. He and thousands of other German soldiers who were capturedthere were never heard from again.
During the final months of the war, Gunther, his mother andsister fled from their home in eastern Germany west to Cologne.Germany had lost the war, and the victorious Russians were moving into take control.
After the fighting ended Missus Gebel found work with CircusWilliams. A well known horse trainer, Harry Williams, owned it.Missus Gebel made and repaired clothes for this circus. She also gotGunther a job at the circus. He was about twelve or thirteen yearsold at the time. The boy had been in school for only a few years.
After a short time Missus Gebel left the circus. She left Guntherthere. Gunther said later that he felt his mother gave him away.Harry Williams, however, was very glad to have the boy working forhim. He immediately recognized that Gunther had unusual naturalability with animals.
Mister Williams began helping Gunther develop an act in which theboy did tricks while riding horses. Before long Gunther was gettingall kinds of animals to do what he wanted. He especially loved thetigers. He praised their beauty, wildness and intelligence.
In Nineteen-Fifty-One, Harry Williams died after an accident inthe circus. Harry's wife asked Gunther to help her operate thecircus. She also urged him to become a star performer. Gunther wasseventeen years old at the time.
He began his new responsibilities by adding the Williams familyname to his own name. Gunther Gebel became Gunther Gebel-Williams.He wanted to demonstrate that Harry Williams and his circus had beena family to him. In Nineteen-Sixty, Mister Gebel-Williams marriedone of the Williams daughters.
((MUSIC BRIDGE: CIRCUS MUSIC))
Gunther Gebel-Williams and his big tigers, elephants and otheranimals became famous all over Europe. He won three major awards forhis performances. In Nineteen-Sixty-Eight, an owner of the RinglingBrothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in the United States boughtCircus Williams. The owner, Irvin Feld, did this mainly to getGunther Gebel-Williams as a performer.
Mister Gebel-Williams was an immediate success in the UnitedStates as he travelled with the circus. His leopards jumped throughcircles held by tigers in their teeth. His elephants walked calmlyand carefully down busy streets. People in cities across the countrypraised his bravery in his acts with the animals. His performanceswere different from anything that had been seen in circuses before.
For many years Clyde Beatty had been the most famous animaltrainer in the United States. Mister Beatty was an American circusperformer known for his "fighting act." In this act he controlledforty lions and tigers. Mister Beatty also performed with dangerousmixes of tigers, lions, leopards, pumas, hyenas and bears. His actdemonstrated how fierce the animals really were. He used chairs andwhips to get the animals to obey his commands. Sometimes he evenused guns.
Mister Gebel-Williams had high praise for Clyde Beatty's braveryand skill. But Mister Gebel-Williams made his own animals perform bybeing friendly to them. He said he wanted to work with happyanimals. He did not believe in making them fear him.
Training by Gunther Gebel-Williams began and ended with kindness.He never had an animal operated on to make it safer for him. All hisbig cats kept their hard, sharp claws on their feet. He spoke toanimals in the same soft voice each time he worked with them. Whenthey performed well he gave them special foods. When they failed toobey he expressed mild displeasure. He never used chairs or whips orguns.
One of the most unusual things about Mister Gebel-Williams wasthe way he got animals to perform well together. For example,elephants and horses naturally fear tigers. He would take as long astwo years to get the elephants and horses to let tigers ride onthem. Traditional enemies like leopards and zebras also performedtogether in his acts.
Mister Gebel-Williams especially liked working with a panthernamed Kenny. This big cat weighed more than thirty-four kilograms.Kenny enjoyed sitting on the neck and shoulders of his trainer.People liked to say the animal was probably thinking great thoughtsas he rested on Mister Gebel-Williams.
But Gunther Gebel-Williams never forgot the danger involved inhis work. He could not have forgotten it if he wanted to. From timeto time an animal would become wild for no apparent reason. MisterGebel-Williams' face was covered with old healed wounds thatsometimes made it difficult for him to talk.
Even when animals attacked, Gunther Gebel-Williams did not becomeangry. After Kenny died, Mister Gebel-Williams was performing oneday with a panther named Zorro. Zorro weighed two times as much asKenny. Suddenly Zorro started making a threatening noise. Then hebit his trainer deeply in the neck. But Mister Gebel-Williams wouldnot go to the hospital until he calmed the animal and got it back inits cage.
The marriage of Mister Gebel-Williams and his first wife ended.His second wife, Sigrid Neubauer, became a circus performer. Theyhad been married thirty-three years when Mister Gebel-Williams died.They raised a daughter and a son. The son, Mark Oliver, now servesas a star trainer of tigers with a Ringling circus company.
Friends say Mister Gebel-Williams was a loving husband andfather. Yet they add that his deepest relationships probably werewith his animals. He called animals dependable and honest althoughhe sometimes suffered from their attacks. Gunther Gebel-Williamsonce said he liked animals more than most human beings.
This Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson andproduced by Caty Weaver. Our studio engineer was Keith Holmes. I'mShirley Griffith.
And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another PEOPLEIN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.