Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gunther Gebel-Williams Died 10 Years Ago

Gunther Gebel-Williams died ten years ago now, on July 19, 2001. I had forgotten about him, to be honest, until I took my young daughter to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus last week. It was much smaller than the version I remember seeing as a kid in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C. Back then, animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams was the star attraction.

His brief obituary in the New York Times HERE began as follows, "Gunther Gebel-Williams, who taught lions to ride on the backs of skittish horses, leopards to jump through flaming hoops held by the gleaming teeth of tigers, and elephants to take calm, leisurely walks through roaring traffic in the nation's busiest cities, died yesterday at his home in Venice, Fla. He was 66... Mr. Gebel-Williams, who for many years was the unrivaled star of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, had surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor in July 2000."

As a child in the 1970s, Gunther Gebel-Williams seemed almost like a super-hero, perhaps partly because he was so heavily promoted on television commercials when the circus came to town.  As I was watching the circus last week, I was struck by the total absence of any star power. In contrast, Gunther Gebel-Williams once featured in an American Express commercial that you can watch HERE.  Even better (but longer) is THIS 6 minute clip from his appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.  It really gives you a feel for how the German-born performer was part Arnold Schwarzenegger and part Evel Knievel.

1 comment:

  1. Dave Miles RBBB Blue Unit 1975January 17, 2012 at 6:09 PM

    The last time I observed Gunther was during a RBB&B Red Unit circus performance in the New Haven coliseum in Connecticut. At first I didn't click on who he was... He had on RBB&B circus workingman's coveralls, and he was just on the outside the wild animal cage in Center Ring, while his son Mark performed with the animals in the cage...

    Gunther was unobtrusively assisting and watching over the performance from outside the cage, in the shadows of the spotlights, and he wore the coveralls in order to not draw attention to himself (I believe). A great showman, never to be forgotten, and a great moment to have experienced.