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O.C. CIRCUS REVIEW : It’s the Biggest Retirement on Earth

Most guys quit a job after 20 years and they get a pat on the back, a free lunch . . . maybe a gold watch.

Animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, 54, star of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus since 1969, will retire from the ring at the end of this tour. But instead of a watch, his boss, producer Kenneth Feld, is giving Gebel-Williams the “Splashiest Going-Away Party on Earth.”

This 119th edition of the circus, which runs through Tuesday at the Anaheim Convention Center, is a no-holds-barred tribute to Gebel-Williams that borders on out-and-out hero worship. Gebel-Williams is everywhere. He smiles at you from souvenir mugs and T-shirts. He is featured in the center ring three times during the 2 1/2-hour show. And at the end of the evening, he takes his bows amid an extravagant, star-spangled salute that would make Donald Trump blush.

It’s Gunthermania. And it will continue night and day until the show closes in November, 1990.

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But then, the circus has never been known for restraint.

Judging from the reaction of Tuesday’s opening-night audience at the convention center, circus-goers are more than happy to be swept right along with Gunthermania. Besides, Gebel-Williams, that Fearless Trainer of Wild Beasts, that Golden-Haired God with nerves of steel and a smile to melt your heart, wears the hero’s cape rather well, thank you.

Unquestionably, Gebel-Williams and his trained elephants, tigers and horses are the stars of the show, which is enhanced by a succession of comic and “death-defying” acts well-orchestrated to keep audiences on edge.

Gebel-Williams makes the first of what will be several appearances early in the show. After a cast-of-thousands opening number, he appears astride a prancing white horse (no surprise there).

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Flanked by 20 comely ladies performing an aerial ballet, he takes center ring with his Liberty Lippizaners, a precision team of high-stepping stallions that prance, dance and perform other feats at his command. Thunderous applause.

Next, in the center ring comes the Willers, a roller-skating trio from England who whirl on a tiny stage at breakneck speeds, performing stunts rarely seen at the local Roller Ranch.

After a parade of pratfalling clowns, the stage is set for aerial wizardry of the Flying Alejandros and the Flying Lunas, who flip and float through the air with the greatest of ease (and, just in case any uneasiness surfaces, a sturdy net below). Ten-year-old Miguel steals the show with a full, twisting somersault; at Tuesday’s show, attempted triple somersaults by two women didn’t pan out.

A pause for more clowning shenanigans, and it’s on to more derring-do, this time from the Carillo Brothers, a trio of Colombians on the high wire. Agleam in aqua and purple sequins, the men cha-cha-cha on a slender strand, balance on chairs, play leapfrog and jump rope at nosebleed heights, topping off their act with a “human wheelbarrow,” which finds portly Pedro Sr. supporting the two younger performers in a bit most people wouldn’t try on terra firma .

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Gebel-Williams returns in the midst of a raucous revue intended to celebrate, as ringmaster Eric Michael Gillette put it, the “Dawn of the circus spectacle, when beasts and gladiators thrilled Ancient Rome.” Draped in a flowing purple cape and perched atop an enormous elephant (doesn’t the guy ever walk?), this Caesar of the Circus readily acknowledges the applause. Before you can say “Et tu, Brute ? he’s in the ring--sans elephant--with 18 royal Bengal tigers.

There’s a mutual respect--admittedly a sometimes snarling respect--between this man and his cats. Gebel-Williams uses the whip sparingly, more for its sound than its sting, and the tigers respond with very little argument, leaping over a flaming rod, standing and hopping on their hind legs, doing spins, turns and barrel rolls while the trainer guides them with a word, a smile, a frown.

Another Romanesque revelry follows, with a parade of bejeweled camels, llamas and an assortment of well-built gods and goddesses leading up to an act simply entitled “The Living Statues,” an odd blend of floor exercises and slow-motion acrobatics performed by a couple covered head-to-toe in gold paint.

After intermission and the daredevilry of the Royal Canadian Aerial Ski Squadron, a trio of teeterboard troupes and the acrobatic Ayak Brothers, the thundering of 15 ponderous pachyderms heralds the final appearance of Gebel-Williams, the last act of the evening.

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This time, he’s joined in the center ring by his 18-year-old son, Mark Oliver; together, father and son lead the animals through their paces. They (the elephants, not the men) perch daintily on their behinds, twirl in place, and perform a jumbo-size teeter-board game with the men.

Mark Oliver is a tall, slightly built carbon copy of his dad. Literally born into the circus, he has been working with animals, especially elephants, since he was a preschooler. Although he’s the Circus Superstar’s heir apparent, he says he isn’t ready to fill dad’s boots just yet.

“Right now, all I’m concerned about is that everything (in Gunther’s acts) runs smoothly,” said Oliver during intermission. “I work with my father, that’s good enough for me. I feel great knowing that the audience loves what we’re doing.

“Being a trainer isn’t something you just learn in a day or a week or a year,” he added. “It’s a will to perform you have to have, a super responsibility to your animals and the audience. It’s just in our blood.”

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The 119th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus continues daily through July 25 at the Anaheim Convention Center, 800 W. Katella Ave., Anaheim. Reserved seating is $8.50 to $12.50; children under 12 receive a $2 discount at selected performances. Show times today and Friday are 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 11:30 a.m., 3:30 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Show times on Monday and Tuesday are 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, or by calling TicketMaster at (714) 740-2000 or (213) 480-3232. Information: (714) 999-8950. The circus moves to the Long Beach Arena July 27 through 30 and to the Los Angeles Sports Arena Aug . 2 through 13.


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