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Epilogue | Gee Gee Engesser

Circus animals had a special hold on her


Gee Gee Engesser, in a waist-cinching strapless leotard and fur-trimmed boots, skipped around stage with the gait of a sprite and the body of a bombshell.

Her fleet of Alaskan huskies, dogs sometimes vicious and combative with each other, willingly obeyed her commands.

They walked on tightropes. They danced on their hind legs, mimicking her grapevine moves. They leapt over Ms. Engesser as she rotated wildly on an upright merry-go-round.

To close the act, she bounded to center stage, arms outstretched, platinum hair tumbling, chest heaving, invigorated.

• • •

Ms. Engesser, a circus icon, died Monday after battling congestive heart failure. She was 81.

She was born into the circus. Her parents were vaudeville performers who owned traveling theater shows.

At age 4, Ms. Engesser was photographed in a feather dress and ballet shoes, lifted snugly skyward in the trunk of an elephant. She learned to perform aerial acts, hanging from swinging ladders.

At 18, she joined the Cole Bros. Circus. For her signature act, she balanced atop two horses hitched in a line of 16. She rode standing.

"They went hellbent for leather around that track," said Buckles Woodcock, a circus historian who worked with Ms. Engesser for years. "She was terrific."

She was nicknamed the "blond bombshell of the circus world." She appeared on the cover of This Week magazine. She booked spots on television shows including What's My Line? and You Asked for It.

She married twice over the years and had one son, Bill Powell Jr. — but he was hardly the only child.

• • •

Ms. Engesser owned cougars, leopards, bears, lions, tigers, draft horses, miniature horses, donkeys, ducks and geese.

"Her philosophy was that humans and animals can coexist in an entertainment environment," her son said. "She lived, breathed, slept the animals, 24 hours a day."

She owned elephants. She bottle fed one, also named Gee Gee, raising her for 22 years.

She lived with the pets on 15 acres in Ruskin zoned to allow large animals for business, her family said.

Gee Gee the elephant roamed free. She often came to the window during family breakfast, stuck in her trunk and made chirping sounds. Ms. Engesser tossed out bananas or apples and told her to shoo.

"She would be like a 7,000-pound dog," her son said.

When it came to the animals, she was stern. She made it clear that, if there was a money crunch, the animals would eat first.

When Powell came home from school, he started a laundry list of chores — brush the Arctic wolves, wash or feed the elephants.

When animals got sick, Ms. Engesser curled up and slept beside them. When Gee Gee the elephant developed terminal liver problems, Ms. Engesser had an A-frame swing with a 5-ton cargo hoist built so Gee Gee could stand for one last year of life.

"I remember when she lost a dog, I thought, what a moral blow," Woodcock said. "Everybody gathered around her. They must have mourned over that dog for several days. Just imagine when her pet elephant was sick and died."

• • •

She performed into the 1980s, when she stopped to work behind the scenes with circuses. In 2007, the Ringling Museum inducted her as a circus celebrity.

As she aged, Powell asked her to move near him to an equestrian community in Seffner. She agreed only because there was room for her two miniature ponies, Blue and Teddy.

Last year, she went to Las Vegas with her son.

They took in a Ringling Bros. performance. At one point, Powell glanced over at his mother. She was crying.

What was wrong?

She was emotional, she explained. She couldn't help it.

This was her life.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (727) 893-8857.


Gee Gee Engesser

Born: Aug. 6, 1926.

Died: July 15, 2008.

Survivors: son, Bill Powell Jr.; grandson, Cory Powell; sister Roxy Luce Engesser.

Services: celebration of life, Aug. 9. For more details, the family asks that you call (813) 623-6556, ext. 1 or e-mail

Circus animals had a special hold on her 07/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2008 7:48am]
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