The Truth About Circus Life

photo credit:  Ringling Bros Circus Program

photo credit: Ringling Bros Circus Program

Every spotlight was on Gunther Gebel-Williams when the tiger lunged at him and took a swing.  I was nine, and perched on my dad’s drum case watching.  Massive claws connected on the inside of his elbow and ripped the flesh all the way down to his wrist.  The audience gasped in unison.

Gunther quickly played it off by doing an animated jog to the edge of the cage where crew men were always standing by.  He stretched his bloody arm through one of the holes and they wrapped it in gauze like a pit crew changing a tire.  One minute later he was back in the center of the ring setting up the next trick.  The crowd roared and cheered, probably thinking it was all part of the show. Gunther finished his act with all the fanfare of every other performance even though his left arm was tucked into his rib cage. Not one trick was cut short or substituted.  Even the final leopard embrace and giant kiss were included.

photo credit:  Ringling Bros Circus program.
photo credit: Ringling Bros Circus program.

At the end of his act Gunther stretched his good arm out wide in his signature bow, and motioned to the cats the way Broadway stars do to encourage applause for the rest of the cast.  His dazzling smile stayed on his face until the whistle blew and the arena went dark. The clowns came in as scheduled and all spotlights shifted to them.  Even in the dark Gunther continued to wave to the audience all the way to back door. When the giant curtain swished closed behind him and he was certain he was out of view, he collapsed onto a gurney and medics started whirling around him.  He was back the next morning with stitches, ready to work.  Gunther never missed a performance in his life.  12,000 shows.  Today he remains the only animal trainer in history to have been awarded the Ernst Renke-Plaskett Award three times.  It’s the highest honor bestowed upon circus performers – the circus Oscar.

photo credit:  Ringling Bros. Circus program

photo credit: Ringling Bros. Circus program

When Gunter was 13 his mother left him at Circus Williams in Germany and he immediately found his place with the animals.  The Williams raised him like their own and he eventually took their last name to show his gratitude.  He also became the star of their show.  Years later when he signed with Ringling Bros. and moved to America, he refused to leave any of the animals behind.  They had become his family.  It’s what made Gunther different, and made him the greatest animal trainer of all time.  It also helped make Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus the Greatest Show on Earth.

I’ve never been a fan of animals in captivity but Gunther took excellent care of his. He was the first one there in the morning and the last one to leave.  When he wasn’t in the arena with them, he was in jeans and boots with the rest of his handlers grooming, feeding and fostering the bond he had with each of them.  They didn’t fear him.  They respected him, and it was mutual. When they performed as requested, he always thanked them – in German, as were all his commands – and gave them treats and reassuring pats.  When they didn’t he showed mild displeasure.  Nothing more.  Even when they injured him, he remained patient, loyal and dedicated.  The way a good parent is with a child.

photo credit:  Ringling Bros. Circus program

photo credit: Ringling Bros. Circus program

Until I started this blog I rarely talked about spending my childhood summers traveling with my dad on the circus.  Now people ask me questions like, “Wasn’t it completely dysfunctional?” or “Wasn’t it constant chaos?”
The truth is it’s just the opposite.

When you’re moving a zoo, and a city of people, by train, once or twice a week into a new city in a new building with different specifications, everything runs on a very tight schedule.  There is no room for chaos.  There is only room for planning, organization and precise execution.

Circus people are not social cast-offs. They are some of the strongest, most passionate and fearless people I’ve ever met.  From that first thundering “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls” to the final whistle blow, they are dedicated to every person in that audience.  They are yours for three hours. Rain or shine, sick or well, happy or sad. Even if they’ve been mauled by a tiger.

They give 100% for every performance – sometimes three times a day.  To show up with anything less would mean rigging could fail, animals could get hurt or spooked, or someone might not make that pass in the globe of death. Their strength of spirit, focus and commitment create a sense of community that’s almost utopian. The crazy part is that I was so captivated by the costumes, the beauty and excitement, I didn’t even realize the circus was teaching me some very important things about real life:

Everything you really need fits in a 10×10 state room on a train.  If you have more than that, be profoundly grateful.

There will always be piles of shit in your path.  Dance around them and keep smiling.

If you don’t like where you are in life, audition for something bigger and better.

Anything with a heartbeat has the potential to betray you.  Be brave anyway.

Occasionally there will be blood in the ring.  Throw some sawdust on it and keep it moving.

No matter what happens, the show must on go on.  People are counting on you.

photo credit:  Ringling Bros. Circus program

photo credit: Ringling Bros. Circus program

I’m not running around backstage anymore but I’m still part of a circus.  The one I created with my own cast of characters. So are you. There may not be sequins and tigers in our homes or offices, and trains won’t collide if we leave the house five minutes late, but people are counting on us every day just the same.   We can greet the day like civilians, or like it’s Opening Night in Madison Square Garden.

You’re the star of your show.

Make it the Greatest Show on Earth.


  1. And that is exactly why I fell in love with theatre, different tribes but basically the same people. xoxo

  2. Great story. One that I will take with me though the day and for years to come.

  3. The circus stories are my favorite still!!

    I remember seeing Gunter perform on television many times. What an act! When the circus comes to St. Louis, it’s held in the arena right near my office. The number of trucks and the way the get the animals into the building right down the street is awesome. Those people are pretty amazing and talented, they’d have to be. You should really get a job promoting the circus, Molly. You’d be awesome.

  4. This was such a lovely post Molly. Really. Like you, I’m not a fan of animals being in cages but it seems that they were very well looked after. And this:

    “Everything you really need fits in a 10×10 state room on a train. If you have more than that, be profoundly grateful.”

    Is exactly how I felt when I was in India and how I still feel now. And why I can’t wait to go back. Wonderful stuff, thank you.

    • Thanks Sean. I remember that small bit about your trip to India and I would love to read more. You’re so right – travel is such an eye-opener. I worked in Italy for almost two months some years back and it forever changed my life : )

  5. I get so pumped when I see a new circus related post from you – They are always so great 🙂

    “There will always be piles of shit in your path. Dance around them and keep smiling.” This is amazing. I have to remember this one 🙂

  6. I love these circus posts of yours. They’re beautiful and very satisfying. As soon as I see hint of one in my reader, I drop what I’m doing and head on over.

    Some of my fondest memories as a parent are of taking my daughters to the Cole Brother and Ringling circuses. I never once thought of them as misfits or outcasts. I’ve always had a great respect for what they do. Once, when my daughter was five, she wrote a fan letter to her favorite Ringling clowns. I still remember her name. Jessica. She sent my daughter a beautiful hand-drawn crayon picture of herself and an elephant holding a Ringling flag in its trunk. The note arrived out of nowhere! She was beyond thrilled! We framed it.

    • Wow! That’s so touching – I love it! Thank you for sharing that : ). They are such special people – some of the most influential ones in my life. I really appreciate hearing that these posts mean something to you. Thanks Mark.

  7. Holy Holy this was so good. I love your things you learned and was also fascinated to read about him. I’ve only been to a circus once (I won a drawing contest in kindergarten, huzzah!) but the entire concept fascinates me. Also, I dreamt last night that there was a cheetah living in my backyard and it befriended my dog. I think there was also a bunny involved. Anyways, this post was excellent.

  8. deweydecimalsbutler says:

    Wow, I love this article! It provides insight to an often misunderstood niche of society. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • That is great to hear – thanks! Also did you know we both live in GA? We’re practically related : )

      • deweydecimalsbutler says:

        I think I remember finding that out when we were both telling Kenneth Justice he needed to come to Atlanta. And yes, we’re basically related. Bet we’re both kin to Jimmy Carter, too. I hope we are because I would totally claim the circus thing!
        The circus post was the best one I’ve read all day. Kudos.

    • That’s right! I’m really looking forward to meeting him, and now you too – hooray! I think everyone may be related to Jimmy Carter – you know how presidents are haha.

  9. Amazing post, Molly. I think the circus life would be fascinating. Growing up around it, I can see how it would stay with you forever. You can see the passion in these pictures. If we all could live so passionately. Isn’t that what counts, no matter what it is that you’re doing? I love this, “Everything you really need fits in a 10×10 state room on a train.” Perfect!

    • I KNOW, right??? There are so many circus stars that made an impression on me. I still daydream about running away and joining the circus. The costumes aren’t as luxe anymore so I’m keeping my job in finance : )

  10. Bravo Molly!!!!!
    I really think this is this is the greatest thing you have ever written. I am fascinated by your tales of circus life and this one had me hanging on every word. I say this a lot to people but never as sincere this afternoon when i say to you thank you so much for sharing this. I am just astounded. 🙂

  11. Went a whole bunch of times to see the circus at the Garden. Gunther and his tigers were always stunning, keeping my attention for his whole performance.

    Once wanted to join the circus. didn’t for many reasons. Still, it’s a daydream of mine.

    • Really?! What did you want to do in the circus??? It’s still a daydream of mine too : ) I took a trapeze class in Athens (post: Dopamine Party in Tights). It was SO much fun. It’s good to hear you enjoyed the circus and Gunther’s performances – makes my heart happy. Yay.

      • Back then, I cooked for a living and figured it would e a good skill for the circus.
        Never quite worked out.

        When they play the Garden in nyc, there’s a parade of animals through the midtown tunnel from the Brooklyn train yard. It’s on my list of things to see.

      • Squeal! The pie car was awesome. Dunno why they called it that when they served more than pie, but they did : ). Animal walks are always fun – I hope you get to do that soon!

  12. What a beautiful post Molly. I wasn’t aware of your circus life before reading this. Such a gorgeous, poignant read.

  13. Fascinating post! It is funny how folks can be so stereotypical, thinking a traveling circus must be mass chaos, when it’s really the exact opposite. Cheers!

  14. I’ve heard people threaten it before, but you really ran away and joined the circus! I haven’t been since a certain year in the past i won’t name, but I’ve got kids now, so maybe…..

    • Haha – I did! Every summer with my dad : ) I went to see the circus about five years ago for the first time since my father passed – took my daughter. It’s very different in a lot of ways (budget cuts), but also still the same in so many heartwarming ways. The smell and ambient noises brought an immediate smile to my face. Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Great analogy! I needed that reminder to keep smiling, since the show must go on! 🙂

  16. This is a fascinating peek. Please write a memoir.

  17. This one blew me away. We’re the stars of our show, The Greatest Show on Earth. I LOVE that. And “Occasionally there will be blood in the ring. Throw some sawdust on it and keep it moving.” You said it, lady. Thanks for this one.

  18. I love this SO much! Obviously, I love a good tiger mauling story as much as the next girl, but what really got me was the underlying message. We should live every night like we’re headlining at MSG. Really and truly. And that’s a maxim that I forget all together way too often.

    Watch out world, tomorrow morning PinotNinja is showing up and she is going to dazzle the shit out of you!

  19. madammagic says:


  20. Molly, it is amazing to me what you learn about people from their blog. I think it is fascinating that you have this experience in your life and have learned such fundamental truths from it!

  21. Brilliantly well put.

    Also, my goodness, he carried on with a gashed arm. Huh.

  22. Melissa R O'Rourke says:

    Molly, that story is so amazing! I remember some of the stories you told me as a child and the one trip I was so fortunate to take on the circus train with you and your dad for three amazing days! It was an experience I will never forget! The showgirls,the clowns, the animals calling out at night on the train! It was unreal!!! Thanks for that memory!

  23. GREAT post. Your own passion to communicate what you know comes through. The one time we went to the circus for our boy was a disappointmt. I’m no animal champion but even I was disturbed. Seemed to unnatural to “tame” them like that, in captivity. But your description of circus people is riveting.


  24. What a wonderful story! He sounds like an amazing man. I always have felt bad for animals in the circus. This gave me another point of view.

  25. So rightly put -“Anything with a heartbeat has the potential to betray you. Be brave anyway”.

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