Big top: Some young performers don't have to run away to join the circus. They were born into it.

THE GREATEST HOME ON EARTH

March 07, 1996|By SANDRA CROCKETT | SANDRA CROCKETT,SUN STAFF

Children often follow their parents and go into the family business. Nothing unusual about that -- unless the "family" is the circus. And the business is training wild animals, being a professional clown or flying through the air.

When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to the Baltimore Arena this month, there will be several children following in their parents' footsteps. How could they possibly choose any other life? The circus, they say, is in their blood.

"I've been training for my own act since the day I was born," says Mark Oliver Gebel. The animal trainer is the son of an animal trainer -- the noted Gunther Gebel-Williams. Mr. Gebel was born in 1970 in Houston, where the circus was touring at the time. He has traveled everywhere with his parents.

His earliest memories are of being around animals, watching his father train them. He grew up in the company of zebras, elephants, tigers and leopards.

"My father is the greatest animal trainer of all time, and I learned by watching him day after day," Mr. Gebel says. By the age of 6, being an animal trainer was his calling in life.

"I've been doing this all of my life. It's my job. My responsibilities. I've never felt pressured to do this," he says.

Not to be outdone, sister Tina Gebel-DelMoral also did not stray from the circus. She is the equestrian in the family.

"No one ever sat my brother and me down and said, 'OK, now I'm going to teach you how to care for the animals ... how to be a good performer,'" she says. "My brother and I learned it by doing and by the example of my father." When they aren't learning their trade, young family members attend a one-teacher school that travels with the big top.

The circus, Ms. Gebel-DelMoral says, is a wonderful place to raise children. "Where else could you be with them 24 hours a day and work at the same time?"

Barnum's legacy

This is the 125th year for the circus, which was founded by P. T. Barnum. The first performance of P. T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome was held on April 10, 1871, in Brooklyn, New York. In 1872, Barnum's Circus begins traveling by rail, and the subtitle "The Greatest Show on Earth" was used for the first time.

The show coming to Baltimore will be a three-ring circus. As usual, one of its fixtures will be Ringling's famous clowns.

David Larible, 38, is proud to call himself a clown of a clown.

As an 8-year-old, he had already decided that clowning would be his life's work. And his clown father was only too happy to help him.

"As a child, your parents would help you train your body so one day you can become a circus performer. I used to come home from school, do my homework, play for a couple of hours, come back and then make my circus homework, the exercising, the training. My parents didn't make me do it. I had no doubt that this is what I wanted to do."

But when it came to schooling, this clown got down to serious business. His father supported his son's desire to follow in the family's footsteps but insisted he get a well-rounded education.

Today, Mr. Larible speaks five languages and plays seven musical instruments. And he's made strides where no clowns have gone before. Mr. Larible is the first clown ever to be a featured performer in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

He travels with his family, a wife and daughter, 11 months out of the year. But for Mr. Larible, that is nothing new.

"Traveling is my regular life," he says. "I have been traveling since I was 2 months old."

Performing in front of different crowds keeps his act fresh, he says.

"I never get bored. Every crowd is different, and that makes it interesting. You have to be ready to improvise each time. But that is the beautiful part. You have to be creative," he says.

Another sibling

Once again, a sibling decided to join the fun.

Vivien Larible actually joined the circus when she was a child of 7. It was then that her father juggled her in the air on a trapeze. Today, she is an aerialist with the circus.

The most important thing to her, she says, is her father's opinion of how the act goes. "He gives me signals on what I am doing. If he cannot be there, of course, I still do the act, but I feel anxious."

For someone whose expertise is in something called "Globe of Death," Ivan Espana doesn't sound the least bit anxious.

Ivan and his bother Noe were born in Mexico and are fifth-generation circus performers. They grew up performing in their family's trapeze act but decided to venture out into something different.

The Globe of Death is a round contraption 17 feet in diameter, 52 feet in circumference and made of more than 7,000 feet of steel. The brothers perform cartwheels on the rotating globe before leaping onto motorcycles and riding inside it. They also perform on the Wheel of Death.

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