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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.