The Lion Cage Is Empty: Gunther Gebel-Williams Passes Away

You would think it'd be easy to avoid elephant poo on the mean streets of New York. I beg to differ.

It was April 1989, and there I was with the golden god of the circus, the biggest star of "The Greatest Show on Earth" — legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Willliams.

What does it take to thrill ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages? This hulking blonde man in a spangled vest would wave his hand and magically coax a snarling, 500-pound Bengal tiger to leap on to the back of an elephant.

I was a cub reporter for Pacifica Radio back then, there to report on Gebel-Williams preparing for his last shows at New York's Madison Square Garden — where he had appeared more times than Bruce Springsteen or any other entertainer.

There was a tradition when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to New York. The animals would arrive by train, then paraded from Queens to Manhattan, through the Midtown Tunnel.

I was a 24-year-old kid, with a microphone in one hand, rushing to interview a circus superstar.

I immediately recognized him from the circus posters and the American Express commercial with a leopard draped over his shoulders, asking in a thick German accent, "Do you know me?"

Then, abruptly, I suffered my first professional lesson in abject humility. I was brought to my knees by a giant mound of elephant dung.

"I don't think you need to ask any questions," Gebel-Williams said to me, smirking. "You've had your lesson in circus life."

It was time for me to recover. "I bet you see that all the time," I said. "It's an occupational hazard for you, I suppose."

"No," he said, signaling that chitchat time was over. It was time to go, and he never really did like doing interviews. Dozens of workers lined up the elephants, llamas and other beasts. He was the wild kingdom's traffic cop.

He grabbed one elephant by the collar. The handlers and other creatures fell into line. It was part routine, part magic. Gunther Gebel-Willliams had a parade of animals at his command.

Elephants Trumpeting in the Midtown Tunnel

Through the Queens train yards and into the tunnel to Manhattan, marched the parade. The trumpeting of the pachyderms reverberated like car horns. Gebel-Williams says the elephants sound happy.

I jogged alongside Gebel-Williams, keeping a microphone under his chin when I could. I stepped in manure of all sorts. But once you've stepped in elephant waste, everything else is anticlimactic. I should have worn my old Adidas, but so what?

"I can't do this forever," Gebel-Williams said. "It is time to go on."

It was a storied career. This man broke the mold of lion tamers who subdued jungle cats with a whip and a chair.

For three decades, he delighted circus-goers, sticking his head in a lion's mouth, making tigers dance and jump through hoops of fire. He performed more than 12,000 shows, got nicked and bruised a few times, but never missed an appearance.

A Lesson in Circus Life

In the days after World War Two, his mother joined the Circus Williams as a seamstress, and he began performing as an acrobat at 12. By 1968, he was so good, Ringling Bros.' owner Irvin Feld acquired the German circus primarily to get its animal trainer.

He was an immediate smash, setting all sorts of milestones. He had such great understanding of the animals he was able to get natural enemies — tigers, horses and an elephant — to perform together in one steel cage.

On the day I met him, back in 1989, he saw himself retiring, moving behind the scenes at Ringling Bros., and that's essentially what he did. He performed occasionally, last stepping into the center ring for a show in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Sept. 27, 1998, when he filled in for his son, Mark Oliver.

Last July, Gebel-Williams underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. His wife, Sigrid, said he 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.

He died at his Venice, Fla., home of cancer Thursday. He was 66.

It's hard to make sense of life and death. A good obituary is hard to find, even for someone who brought so much joy. I think once again to the very first words Gunther Gebel-Williams ever said to me, when he was giving me that lesson in humility. Those seem to sum it up best: "I don't think you need to ask any questions … You've had your lesson in circus life."

May Gunther Gebel-Williams rest in peace.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.