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A Legend In His Own Time

From the moment Gunther Gebel-Williams stepped into the Center Ring of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus, he was destined to change the face of the American circus forever. His totally unique style and uncanny rapport with his animal co-stars created a new standard for circus performers around the world. One of the few performers in any entertainment industry to become a legend in his own time, Gunther Gebel-Williams - the undisputed Lord of the Rings - was universally recognized as The Greatest Animal Trainer of All Time!

From the age of 12 in WWII Germany, Gunther knew that the circus would be his life, learning the ins and outs of circus life at the Circus Williams. As a young animal trainer and performer, he became the rage of the European circus world, and in 1968, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus owner Irvin Feld purchased the entire Circus Williams just to acquire the extraordinary talents and performing arts of Gunther. He made his American debut on January 6, 1969, in the world premiere of the 99th Edition of The Greatest Show On Earth® at the circus' Winter Quarters in Venice, Florida.

"Gunther was unlike any performer anywhere. When he entered the circus arena, whether riding Roman Post on galloping horses or atop an elephant, every eye was always on him until he left the floor," recalled Kenneth Feld, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey producer and a close friend to Gunther. "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. Gunther knew the mind of the animal, and he taught us all to love and respect all living things. He set a standard for performing which will be almost impossible to match."

In 1973 he was named "Outstanding Circus Performer of the Year" by the American Guild of Variety Artists. He was featured in a CBS-TV network special, Lord of the Rings, with Tony Curtis in 1977, plus a second nationally televised special in 1981, the NBC-TV production My Father, the Circus King, a behind-the-scenes look at Gunther through the eyes of his son, Mark Oliver Gebel, now a featured performer in his own right with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. He has been a guest on numerous national television shows, including his memorable visit with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, where Gunther brought along an elephant. But perhaps the most recognizable television appearance Gunther made was as a featured star of the noted American Express commercial which pictured Gunther with his favorite leopard, Kenny, draped across his shoulders. In 1989-90, his Farewell Tour broke box office records from Venice, Florida, to the last performance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he passed on his boots to his son, in an emotional ceremony. Gunther later returned to the circus ring for a limited 10-city tour in 1994, which served as the focus of a CBS-TV network special, The Return of Gunther Gebel-Williams. He was called into the spotlight for a final time in 1998 when he stepped into the tiger cage so that Mark Oliver could return to their Venice, Florida, home for the birth of Gunther's grandchild, Hunter.

Gunther Gebel-Williams performed for more than a quarter century with The Greatest Show On Earth, where he presented horses, elephants, tigers, leopards, lions, panthers, mountain lions, a giraffe, goats, zebras and a rare white tiger. He entertained an estimated 200 million people live and in person, a record that will never be broken by any circus performer. In fact, during his entire American performing career, Gunther never missed one of more than 12,000 performances, and in 1995, he was honored by Madison Square Garden for holding the record for most performances by any entertainer in the famous arena.

Throughout his illustrious career, Gunther not only earned the respect and applause of circus fans and audiences everywhere, he captured the imagination of the American public with his dashing style and daring performances. But perhaps more importantly, Gunther demonstrated to all that humans and animals could work, live and thrive together in harmony and should respect one another, thus forever banishing the outdated notion of "man versus beast." Because of Gunther Gebel-Williams the American circus has changed forever, and we have all learned more about the beauty, majesty and sheer splendor of the world's most exotic creatures.

In his memory, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has established the Gunther Gebel-Williams Foundation, which will honor his lifelong commitment to the partnership between humans and animals. Contributions made in his memory can be sent to the Gunther Gebel-Williams Foundation, P.O. Box 3500 Falls Church, VA 22043-3500.

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