RUSKIN — The crowd hunkered in the dark as smells of cotton candy and peanuts filled the air.
"And now, please welcome …" the ringmaster intoned over a drumroll before the payoff: "Ben Williams and Anna May!"
The curtain opened, and in trotted an elephant carrying a blond man in a loincloth.
"The crowd would scream," recalled Michael Christensen, a co-founder of Big Apple Circus, where Mr. Williams and his elephants performed.
Mr. Williams was a star, and the act never failed. He was so attached to Anna May, an Indian elephant several years his senior, he nearly went to prison for her in 1982 after the animal killed a woman.
Mr. Williams, who combined his training ability with acrobatic skill for Ringling and Big Apple circuses, died Friday at Tampa General Hospital of gastrointestinal cancer. He was 56.
His mother and stepfather, Barbara and William "Buckles" Woodcock, were well-known circus performers. "The Woodcock family is to the world of circuses what the Fonda family is to acting," Christensen said.
Young Ben, who grew up in Ruskin, took his first elephant ride at age 4 months. He played with the large animals as a toddler, jumping from one leathery back to another.
"They raised him," said Barbara Woodcock, 75, a former aerialist. "He knew their moves, and they knew his moves." He bathed them, trimmed their toenails, talked to them.
Mr. Williams' father, Rex, was also a circus performer. When Ben was 5, his mother married Buckles Woodcock, whose family had been training elephants since 1853.
Mr. Williams was president of the National Honor Society at East Bay High School and passed up multiple academic scholarship offers, his mother said.
"It broke my heart," she said. "He said, 'Mom, I know what I want to do, and I can't waste the time.' "
Buckles, Barbara, Ben and his siblings, Dalilah and Shannon, all performed together with Marlowe's Mighty Hippodrome Circus, started by Barbara's parents. But Ben quickly emerged as a crowd favorite.
"He entered on the back of a very large elephant in a Tarzan costume," said Bill Powell, a longtime friend whose family also trained elephants. "He was physically imposing, he had a long mane of hair. He did this incredible act with this wonderful elephant that was literally a family member. It was an act people remembered and talked about."
The family worked with the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus in the 1970s, and with the Big Apple Circus in New York in the 1980s and 1990s.
Before audiences ranging from Madison Square Garden to the Ed Sullivan Show and the Hollywood Palace, Mr. Williams coaxed Anna May — billed as the "world's smartest performing elephant" — through hoof- and headstands, playing the tambourine, carrying people in her mouth or serving as a springboard for leopards. It was a bond for the ages. But in 1982, a bizarre incident nearly dissolved the partnership with Anna May and ended Mr. Williams' career.
The body of Mary Herman, 30, a friend of Mr. Williams', was found dead of a "crushing-type injury," authorities in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., said. Authorities charged Mr. Williams and another trainer with first-degree murder.
They later found the real culprit was Anna May, who had been startled by Herman's visit to her trailer. Anna May swatted the woman with her trunk, killing her. Authorities dropped the charges, even though Mr. Williams admitted hiding the body.
"He was afraid they were going to kill the elephant," said Buckles Woodcock, 74. "He carried that with him."
Later, Mr. Williams brought his daughters, Stormy and Skye, into his act, and they proved just as fearless as he had been.
The family retired the elephants to an Arkansas farm several years ago. Anna May died in 2002; she was nearly 60.
The entertainment form she starred in may also be dying. Ringling Bros. is defending an animal-cruelty lawsuit brought by several animal-rights groups. Meanwhile, protesters stand outside circuses, making arenas skittish of bad publicity.
The Big Apple Circus stopped using them after Mr. Williams and his family left in 2000. "We knew we weren't going to get elephant training like the Woodcocks again, ever," Christensen said. "We were saddened by the end of an era."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]