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He has left life's stage

Published Sep. 10, 2005

He kissed tigers on the lips. He taught elephants to break dance. He got leopards to leap through fiery hoops.

With his golden hair, glittering costumes, sinewy body and charismatic smile, Gunther Gebel-Williams was the undisputed star of "The Greatest Show on Earth." For 30 years, he delighted millions of children the world over.

On Thursday (July 19, 2001), Mr. Gebel-Williams died at his longtime home in Venice, Fla., ending a yearlong bout with cancer. He was 66.

"Whether he was working with tigers, leopards, elephants, horses or a giraffe, you immediately knew that he was special because his incredible rapport with animals was unsurpassed," said Kenneth Feld, chairman of the company that owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Mr. Gebel-Williams' stage was a giant steel cage in the circus' center ring. He never missed a performance. By one count, he entertained more than 200-million people, not counting the millions who caught his act on numerous television specials.

At venues such as St. Petersburg's Bayfront Center, the German-born animal trainer would make a splashy entrance, charging in astride a pair of galloping white stallions accompanied by lions.

Often performing with his wife and son, Mr. Gebel-Williams employed a unique blend of playfulness and respect for his beasts, rewarding them with sweet talk and chunks of bloody meat.

"You can't tame tigers, you only train them," he often said. His muscular arms were raked with scar tissue. His signature stunts _ such as riding a Bengal tiger perched atop an Indian elephant _ took years of practice to perfect.

"Always I try to do something different," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1987. "Some animal trainers have an act they try to hold together for 15 or 20 years. I try to change every second year."

Probably the highest-paid circus performer ever, Mr. Gebel-Williams maintained a blue-collar work ethic, putting in 15-hour days. He personally fed the big cats their 25 pounds of raw meat a day. He filed down the elephants' toenails. He cleaned the animals' cages, bathed them, played with them, learned their habits.

He and his wife lived 11 months of the year in a railroad car, doing two performances a day. Their permanent home was in Venice, the circus' winter quarters.

Born in 1934, Mr. Gebel-Williams was raised in World War II-era Germany. His father disappeared into the forced labor camps of Siberia. He was introduced to circus life at 12 when his widowed mother joined a circus as a wardrobe seamstress.

By 1968, Ringling Bros.' owner Irvin Feld bought an entire European circus just to get the talented Mr. Gebel-Williams, who made his American debut in Venice in 1969. He quickly became a hit.

Billed as "Lord of the Rings," the flashy showman charmed Madison Avenue as well, appearing in an American Express card commercial. "Do you know me?" he asked television audiences, his favorite leopard draped across his shoulders.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1979 in Tampa. In 1981, the Smithsonian Institution asked for some of his memorabilia.

Mr. Gebel-Williams "retired" from the ring in 1990, becoming Ringling Bros.' vice president of animal care. But on special occasions, he returned to the big cage.

His final performance was in 1998 in Grand Rapids, Mich., when he filled in for his son, Mark Oliver, who had returned home to be with his wife for the birth of Mr. Gebel-Williams' grandson.

In July 2000, Mr. Gebel-Williams underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor after he fell ill at a practice in San Antonio, Texas.

His wife, Sigrid Gebel-Williams, said her husband realized something was wrong when he lost his peripheral vision during a training session with two tigers. He felt dizzy and weak and walked into one of them.

Even in a hospital bed, Mr. Gebel-Williams was still smiling, still optimistic. But he was ailing.

"He was at peace, in his hometown, with his family and friends," his wife said after his death. "We held his hands, prayed and talked, and then he was gone. He was a true shining light."

Mr. Gebel-Williams is survived by his wife, son, daughter and four grandchildren.

In Venice, circus performers remembered him in his glory.

"When he came out for the audience, he was Mr. Showman," said Jenny Wallenda, a former member of the Flying Wallendas. "The funny thing: After a performance, he walked out like a beaten man, because he had given it all he had."

_ The Sarasota Herald-Tribune contributed to this report.