When Maryland-born Irvin Feld bought and saved the Greatest Show on Earth and combined it with a European import 33 years ago, he simultaneously gave his audiences a circus extravaganza and its headlining animal trainer.
Gunther Gebel-Williams was the golden-haired star with a passion for big cats - Bengal tigers, cheetahs, leopards - inside and outside of the ring. The German-born trainer with the jaunty gait performed for generations of circus goers, Baltimoreans among them, and brought his family into the act as well.
When Gebel-Williams died of cancer Thursday in Florida, the 66-year-old trainer joined the impresario Feld and a cast of legendary performers (like clowns Lou Jacobs and Otto Griebling, fellow elephant trainer Axel Gautier) in a three-ring heaven.
"He was a magical human being. He loved women and animals, but animals more than people," says Gerry Kreml, a Baltimore advertising executive who promoted the circus. "You would be enchanted by him. Every one was."
Because of his animal magnetism?
"Hey, what a good phrase," she says, laughing. "It sounds so trite but he really and truly did. And he respected every living thing."
Kreml remembers the time she bumped into Gebel-Williams outside the grocery store. He invited her to his car to show off his newest recruits. On the floor of the back seat, in a cardboard box, were three tiger kittens.
A newspaper reviewer in Tulsa once wrote about Gebel-Williams, "If there ever was a god among animals, it was Gunther Gebel-Williams," Kreml recalls, "Nobody could get over the love and magnetism between Gunther and his animals."
His last performance in the giant steel cage was in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Sept. 27, 1998, when he filled in for his son who had followed in his father's footsteps.
Gebel-Williams underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor last July. 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.
He was born Gunther Gebel and joined the circus as a boy. He took the name Williams when his boss and circus mentor, Englishman Harry Williams, died without leaving a son. Feld, a Hagerstown native, bought the entire Circus Williams in 1968 for $2 million to bring Gebel-Williams and his family into the show.
It is said Gebel-Williams never missed a performance - despite a score of injuries. Although Feld showcased myriad talent under the Big Top (trapeze artists, Hungarian stuntmen, uncaged bears), Gebel-Williams and his cats always remained the heart of the show.
After performing for 16 years, Gebel-Williams was asked why people should return to see him.
"I am older, and when you become older, you be better," he told The Sun in his accented English, "and not only with women ... I am a better trainer. I perform better."
The tigers may have been his passion, but he trained horses and elephants, as well. Where so many before him had used chairs and loud, snapping whips, Gebel-Williams - to borrow a phrase - talked to the animals.
He also gave them respect. "Respect is the foundation of my training style," he once said. "I worked with tigers as a trainer, never a tamer. ... I did not use brutality." And he gave them rewards: a little morsel of meat for a tiger licking his face, a showy loaf of bread in the gaping mouth of the elephant that would plunk a giant foot onto a teeterboard and send him hurtling atop another pachyderm's back.
He also performed with cheetahs, panthers, mountain lions, camels, zebras, even a giraffe. Kreml says, "He loved everything living."
When a newspaper reviewer pooh-poohed the performance of his giraffe Dickie, Gebel-Williams got angry. It was 1981, and at the time, no one had ever integrated the leggy creature into an elephant act. "What do they expect him to do?" he asked. "Stand on his head! You come to the same city every two years - what can you do that's different? The giraffe - it's never been done before."
Until his retirement in 1990, Gebel-Williams led the cast of the "Red Unit," one of two shows the Felds had touring the country.
Risk was always part of the business. Better that great animal trainers take a final bow in the glittering rhinestone-studded vestments of their trade, the lights dim and a circus band fanfare bring in the clowns.
But the greatest show does go on for the "ladeeze and gentlemen, and chilllldren of all ages" - with the likes of Feld's son Kenneth now the showman-owner, and another generation of performers including Gebel-Williams' surviving son Mark Oliver "Buffy" Gebel, a star tiger trainer.
Wire services contributed to this article.