Gunther Gebel-Williams, a legendary animal trainer and performer whose feats with elephants, tigers, pumas and other beasts made him Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's star attraction for more than two decades, died of cancer Thursday at his home in Venice, Fla. He was 66.
As flamboyant as Liberace in costumes adorned with sequins and rhinestones, Gebel-Williams dazzled circus audiences for 22 years without missing a performance, despite injuries that necessitated more than 500 stitches during his career.
One critic called him the Nureyev of the circus for balletic acts with ferocious animals. The circus called him Lord of the Rings, the Golden Gladiator, the Caesar of the Circus and the Peerless Potentate of Pachydermia--titles that almost no one considered hyperbolic when applied to Gebel-Williams.
His was the first act to combine natural enemies, sending tigers, elephants and horses through their paces in the same ring. He draped a leopard named Kenny across his shoulders like a stole (a feat later captured in an American Express commercial). He even introduced a trained giraffe.
He worked his animal magic without cracking a whip or brandishing a chair--a novel approach that helped revitalize Ringling Bros. when he joined it in 1968.
"Gunther was unlike any performer anywhere," said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. "When he entered the circus arena riding . . . galloping horses or atop an elephant, every eye was always on him until he left the floor.
"He set a standard for performing [that] will be almost impossible to match."
He was born Gunther Gebel in Schweidnitz, Germany. His father was a soldier in World War II who died on the Russian front. After the war, his mother became a seamstress for the Munich-based Circus Williams. She later abandoned her son to owners Harry and Carola Williams.
"I was 12 years old and alone, and I had nothing," Gebel-Williams recalled in an interview with The Times in 1989. "Then I started with a little pony that was close to me. Then I helped a horse in practice and I felt it trust me. Suddenly I was something to somebody, and friendship was coming from the animals.
"I never planned it. I never had the idea I wanted to train tigers. I wanted to do something a little bit different."
Harry Williams became a father figure to him. When Williams was killed in 1950 in a chariot-racing accident during a London performance, his widow asked Gebel, then a teenager, to oversee the circus. He incorporated Williams into his name as a tribute to his mentor.
Irvin Feld, the late Ringling impresario, bought Circus Williams in 1968 for $2 million just to land Gebel-Williams. The new star resuscitated Ringling Bros. with a novel approach. Animal circus acts traditionally featured an aggressive trainer who charged into a cage of wild animals cracking a whip and firing a gun. Gebel-Williams dispensed with those theatrics, which he believed were dangerous and upset the animals. Instead, he developed an approach based on patience, understanding and firmness, using the whip only to issue commands and defend himself. He believed in never asking an animal to "do anything that isn't natural for it."
At its height, his act employed 30 people, 21 elephants, 22 horses, 22 tigers, three camels, two llamas, three Shetland ponies and 12 Russian wolfhounds.
He performed 11 shows a week, 47 weeks a year, for 22 years.
He bristled when anyone called him a lion tamer. He did not work with lions, preferring the more irritable and edgy tiger. But he did not love his tigers.
"It is not: 'I love you, come here, my pussy cat,' " he once said, explaining his relationship with the beasts. "Every one has claws and teeth, and I respect them as a tiger, not as a pussy cat. . . . The message is, 'Respect me and I respect you. But I am in charge.' "
He preferred elephants most of all, prizing their intelligence and sensitivity. He worked with one of his elephants, Nellie, for more than 40 years.
He not only trained his animals, he fed them, groomed them, cleaned up after them and nursed them when they were ill. The only time he refused to be with them was during veterinarian visits, because he did not want to be associated with the pain of shots or other treatments.
He did not take vacations, maintaining a brutal schedule of 16-hour days for two decades before he entertained thoughts of retirement.
By the late 1980s, he was still a taut and lean 140 pounds. But his gravity-defying leaps and turns were becoming less instinctual and more deliberate. Backstage, he resorted to eyeglasses to compensate for weakening vision. "When I have the idea to jump over a chair, I must do it very easily without thinking," he said. "I don't want to take the risk of jumping and thinking maybe I can do it, maybe I can't. . . . Why take that chance?"
So in 1989, he began a long goodbye to the circus--a two-year farewell tour of 90 cities. He stood on the back of a charging elephant, somersaulted to the back of another elephant from a teeterboard, and raced about a cage with 18 Siberian and Bengal cats.
His official last bow came in Pittsburgh in 1990, after giving an estimated 11,000 performances in America. The audience sang "Auld Lang Syne" before Gebel-Williams skipped out of the ring and waved goodbye.
He remained with the circus as vice president of animal care and came out of retirement to perform in a television special in 1994. He performed one last time, in 1998, filling in for his son, Mark Oliver Gebel, who had taken over his act.
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Sigrid; a daughter, Tina; and four grandchildren.
His son planned to perform as scheduled Thursday night as the circus continued an engagement at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood. The circus will perform at various venues in Southern California through Aug. 5.
The circus has established the Gunther Gebel-Williams Foundation, which will support efforts to promote a partnership between humans and animals. Contributions may be sent to the foundation at P.O. Box 3500, Falls Church, VA 22043-3500.