Times Staff Writer

Quite frankly, “The Greatest Show on Earth” doesn’t look like much the morning of an opening-night performance.

All the glitter and glamour are still under wraps. The indoor arena is deserted; the outdoor tents are filled with yawning animals; the costumes are not yet unpacked, and most of the performers are away sightseeing in town.

Even the usually resplendently costumed Gunther Gebel-Williams, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ No. 1 attraction, has been stripped of superstar trappings. Dressed in his work denims, the world’s most famed animal trainer is grooming and watering the elephants and horses.

Hardly the circus of our dreams.

That’s the way it was Tuesday morning at the Long Beach Arena as the Ringling circus went about setting up shop for a six-day run. (The Long Beach Arena engagement ended Sunday. The show moves to the Anaheim Convention Center Tuesdayfor a run through Aug. 6, and then to the Los Angeles Sports Arena Aug. 9 through 18).

But in a matter of hours, the Ringling circus had become its usual bedazzling self in time for its 7:30 p.m. opener in Long Beach. The show was unwrapped and unraveled, all the rigging and props in place, all the animals groomed, all the performers costumed in glowing violets, greens and golds.

Apparently, the transformation never fails to amaze Ringling general manager Bob MacDougall, the chief operations overseer. “Look, we take an empty building like this, come in with 350 of our people, plus tons of equipment, and set it all up in six to eight hours. Then we tear it all down in two (hours), and move on to the next town.

“Try doing that 33 times a season. If we’re lucky, we stay a week in one place. But sometimes it’s two towns the same week. Try that for a living.”

Clearly, it’s not a life style for everyone. An 11-month, cross-country schedule of 33 cities and 535 performances with infrequent one- or two-day breaks takes its toll, especially among the work crews, where only 20% of the men stay on for another season.

But there are people still drawn by the mystique of the circus. The Ringling clown corps is filled with many graduates of Ringling’s own clown college in Florida. The “Satin” duo, Pa-mela Hernandez and Denise Aubrey, are an example. Both Los Angeles-raised and one-time dancers with a Bob Hope USO troupe, they joined Ringling seven years ago, starting out as showgirls. Three years ago, the duo won featured-performer status--the first black aerial act ever presented by Ringling.

“Pa-mela and I used to work in offices. You know, the usual routine,” Aubrey said. “We love this (circus) life; you get used to the road. We’re just not cut out for the 9-to-5 life.”

Apparently, this is a good time to join. Despite competition from television, video, rock concerts and--especially in Southern California--theme parks, Ringling officials boast of the best attendance in years. Combined annual attendance for Ringling’s two touring units is 8 million, officials said.

And, they said, Ringling is giving what most Americans still want in a circus: graceful derring-do, glossy spectacle and shameless hype on the grandiose scale. The staging cost for the “Red Unit,” the contingent now touring California, is $2.5 million.

Although Ringling abandoned the outdoor big-tent circuit and turned to the indoor arenas nearly 30 years ago, it remains the biggest regular traveling show in the country. (Other circuses still play under the canvas, however, including Circus Vargas, Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. and Carson & Barnes.)

In the heyday of the big-tent era, Ringling traveled in a 100-car train. The entry into each town was always triumphantly grand: a blocks-long parade with scores of performers and animals in extravagantly decorated wagons. The raising of the immense tent took 1,500 men, including scores of workers recruited locally, plus 80 work elephants.

Consider the Red Unit’s arrival in Long Beach (San Diego had been the first California stop, a six-day engagement that ended July 21).

The train is now 42 cars, but still carrying food and living quarters for its human and animal passengers. The animals’ menu alone is stupendous--a weekly order that includes 350 pounds of meat, 400 pounds of carrots, 150 loaves of bread and 11 tons of hay.

The parade from the rail yard to the arena is now only a blocklong line of elephants, horses, camels and llamas, followed by just two carloads of clowns and showgirls. To raise the riggings inside an arena, only 65 men are needed, all of them part of the traveling contingent.

During the current trek, the Red Unit has been involved in controversies over animal care.

In Phoenix, the unit’s performances were picketed by animal-rights groups who questioned whether the circus was giving the animals proper treatment. In New York, protesters had called for a boycott of Ringling because, they contended, the circus’ latest super attraction, a goat-like animal dubbed the “living unicorn,” appeared to be a surgically enhanced fake.

Ringling officials have argued that the circus’ standards of care are as high as any in the country and regularly inspected by local agencies. They said the traveling animals--which include the Gebel-Williams menagerie of 20 elephants, 15 tigers, 12 stallions and two leopards--are more than well-attended on the train and in the arena-grounds tents. In the New York dispute, a federal veterinarian not only found the “living unicorn” was being well-treated, but also said the attraction was a harmless case of promotional “whimsy.”

Otherwise, Ringling officials take the tack of characterizing such attacks as picking on “the biggest (circus) target around.” Besides, they said, there’s Gebel-Williams himself.

“This guy knows as much about animals as anyone. He’s with them day and night; he’s watching over like they’re family,” said Art Ricker, the unit’s chief advance man in California.

“If their noses are running, believe me, he’s going to be worried.”

Even offstage and out of show costume, Gebel-Williams, still lithely muscled at 50, cuts a dashing figure.

For the first time during the day, he is taking a respite from his animal watch, sitting on a couch in a trailer parked only yards from the animal tents. But he looks like a man in perpetual motion, showing the edginess that comes from a show less than two hours away.

“You never let your guard down about them (animals). Something can go wrong anytime, any hour. They can get nervous over anything, especially a shift in weather, a change in routine,” he said.

“They’re marvelous personalities, though. Each has his own kind of temperament. You have to show them you’re the boss but also a friend.”

There have been slip-ups by his crew, some of them quite spectacular. “A few times we’ve had tigers get away from their cages backstage, but we were able to get them back in before there was any trouble,” Gebel-Williams said.

Other kind of strays--the human kind--can pose another pre-show hazard, according to Gebel-Williams. “You get spectators at the (outdoor) tents. Someone--you can bet on it--wants to take junior and pose him in front of the leopard or tiger cage or right behind the horses.

“We’ve been lucky; no one’s been hurt because of that. But people do the craziest things and it’s hard to keep after every one of them.”

It’s easy to forget that Gebel-Williams, with his celebrity status, is a circus brat at heart. He was 12 when he started as a stable hand with the Circus Williams in Cologne, rising to bareback rider stardom, then animal trainer. He joined Ringling in 1968 when Irvin Feld, the late Ringling impresario, bought out Circus Williams for $2 million just to land Gebel-Williams.

“I never take a vacation. Well, I tried last year. I went to Grand Canyon. But I couldn’t relax--it was all go-go-go for me. I lasted only 12 hours on that trip, before I was back home (Florida), thinking about the circus,” he said.

“It’s my life, it’s a challenge, a new one every opening night. My whole family is with me (his wife Sigrid, daughter Tina and son Mark Oliver perform with him). I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

By contrast, general manager MacDougall is a heavyset man, who sits in the arena stands like a Buddha--a center of calm and reason amid all the commotion of workers, performers and vendors who come by for direction and advice.

Overhead, his crew has raised the rigging network of cables, ropes and steel 80 feet above the Long Beach Arena. There is one major mishap--a piece of rigging had lost tension and slipped, causing a half-hour delay.

Meanwhile, members of the Flying Espanas trapeze and Posso Brothers high-wire acts are testing out their overhead equipment.

“We’re more or less on schedule. Somebody--so help me--has stolen 32 pairs of our dancers’ shoes. Thirty-two! And three performers are out with sudden illnesses. But we’ll still make it in about seven hours,” MacDougall said.

Like other Red Unit executives, MacDougall acts as mediator and father confessor to the unit employees--especially to the 150 performers. “This, too, is all part of setting the show up each day. You have 150 egos to deal with, all under the gun of performing at their best.”

But MacDougall, 49, loves his work. After all, a decade ago, he ran away to the circus. A middle-aged corporate dropout.

“I’m a mechanical engineer. I worked for a big company in Los Angeles. The same desk, the same parking lot, day after day. ‘Geez,’ I asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ ” MacDougall said.