Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
For years he sailed around the city, his effigy an urban fixture beaming from the side of a bus, the prototypical comic book superhero, blond, blue-eyed and brawny, toying with the tail of a snarling leopard wrapped around his neck. The late Gunther Gebel Williams, wild animal trainer extraordinaire and star of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, a three time winner of the Ernst Renz Plaque Award, the Oscar of the circus world, proved no less formidable in the flesh, only more human. We talked in a trailer behind the scenes in Madison Square Garden, circa 1978.
“When I come out of the cage”—he holds forth in rapid-fire, German-accented circus English, his hands and eyes punctuating the flow—”many people say: Oh, you not so big! Then I say: Yes, I grow in there, you know, my personality grows in the cage.” No fake bravado. None of that old-time lion tamer stuff for him. “Before, Clyde Beatty…hip hip…bang bang…with pistol and chair”—his tone now mock inflated, with a click of the tongue and a swish of the arm he mimics the crack of the whip—”Oh man!..What I do looks too easy maybe?” Easy!?
Consider his entrance. Houselights dimmed, the band strikes up a cavalry charge. In the arm of the spotlight a dazzling black sequined figure comes riding out, balanced on the back of an elephant, sharing his maharajah-sized saddle with a Bengal tiger on a leash. It’s Tarzan, Hopalong Cassidy, Tonto and the Lone Ranger all rolled into one. Kill the lights! The band strikes up the theme song from “Chariots of Fire.”
Cut to the cage. There in the artificial sunrise he stands alone, as in the beginning: Adam in Eden.
Enter nineteen tigers.
With the confident ease of a seasoned choreographer, Gunther gestures and commands. Each cat heads straight for its assigned place—teachers take note! The whip in his right hand is seldom cracked and seems to serve solely as an extension of his arm. With generous pats and caresses and an occasional stern word only when needed, the master guides his feline ballerinas through their pirouettes and pas de deux. They jump, rear up, roll over, play sideways leapfrog, and a fearsome game of chicken through a flaming hoop.
All except for the star cat who props her savage paws on his shoulders and together they waltz around the cage.
It does all look so deceptively easy. Just a bunch of well behaved, five hundred pound housecats horsing around. No big deal. Still the three hundred stitches all over his body attest to the difference between waltzing with a calico and a tiger.
As the dancemaster himself is quick to point out, these “little accidents” were the consequence of trying to break up fights between his pupils, never of a premeditated attack. “When something goes wrong in the cage, I blame myself and ask myself: What did I do wrong? I have always to think ahead of them, to guess what they will do next. I want my animals free in their thoughts. I train them to work alone and to think for themselves. I try to let each be herself. It takes a little longer, but it is better for both of us like that.”
“A little longer” means up to two years to finish a single act.
“First I want friendship.” (It’s easy to forget the man is talking about tigers!) “Two months to make contact. Every day I go to them…Hi hi…sniff sniff…gra gra …so that soon when they see me, they say: Ah, it’s him!…And then I step into their cage…and I let them come out and run loose in the big cage till they feel at home there.”
“And then I must overstep the friendship. Let them know: I am not only your friend, but also the boss! Because all the time: Oh, mein little pussycat!—that won’t get us anywhere…Inside and outside the ring are two separate places.” He first felt the thrill of the ring at age twelve, when his mother took him to see the famous Circus Williams performing in Munich at the time. The year was 1946. His father, a soldier, had never returned from the Russian Front. Mother and son had fled westward from their village, Schweinitz, in Silesia (today part of Poland) into the interior of occupied Germany. She found work as a seamstress with the circus, but left after a month, couldn’t stand the hectic life. Her son stuck around. He was immediately hooked. Straining for words, he recalled his first impression: “Something… wunderbar… fantastisch!…Another world!…Another world!…I go in and never come out again.”
“Like a dream?”
“Some dream!” Gunther shrugs. “Thirty years, never time for anything. Work! Work! Never time for family. Never vacation. Nothing.”
“Not for me, no—maybe for my family.” (His wife, Sigrid, and daughter, Tine, both tight bodied beauties, and his spunky son, Buffy, are all circus performers, part of the act.) “I myself never felt I was missing anything. I have a job where other people have a hobby. The animals are my life and livelihood. Work…work…always nervous, afraid for what might happen…”
“Afraid for yourself?”
“For me? No! I just don’t want anything to happen to my children…and my animals. But for me, nerves of steel!” he winks, parodying the part.
“I don’t know…I guess everybody…sometime…but…,” he falters before cracking an internal whip. “I’m fast, no time to be afraid…Pang!” (That’s him leaping into the cage.)
“Vvvvrrraaahhh!” (That’s the tigers greeting.) “Either you say: Tiger out, and never again! Or: Let’s go, pussycats!”
“Have the animals taught you anything about yourself over the years?”
“Yes, I learn always to be same person, never up and down …always steady…always keep control.”
“Control of the wild animal in you?”
“Discipline, yes,” he deflects the question, bringing the mystery back down to earth, “you cannot be sloppy yourself and expect animals to be correct.”
“How do you become a tiger trainer?”
“You learn with your eyes. You stand behind me and watch what I do. And everything I do, you do.”
“Did you have a special affinity for animals as a child?
“Yes, I was always with horses…since ten…never played with other children…only horses. But I never dreamt of the circus then. I wanted to be an engineer.”
“Do you ever dream of the animals these days?”
“No, thank God, I’m too tired!”
He tells the story of a bear trainer of his acquaintance who had raised his bears from cubs, thought he knew them inside out. Till one day they lunged for his legs. Almost had to have them amputated. He tried to go on working, but woke up one night in a cold sweat. He had dreamt of his bears. Then he knew it was time to sell them and try something else.
“I only dream about my wife,” Gunther grins.
He is dressing now for the second half of the show. The part in which he wraps the leopard around his neck, followed by the little number in which he commands a herd of elephants with the sound of his voice, makes them sit down, spin around and rear up, Radio City Rockettes style, with their front legs poised on each other’s rumps. One graceful mastodon dances around holding a tambourine with its trunk, smacking it against a pillar-like leg. Another tips forward and stands on its head. And for his grand finale, Gunther has an elephant charge at him and stamp on a seesaw, sending him flying in a backwards summersault up onto the shoulders of another patiently waiting mammoth.
“Five minutes!” Sigrid bursts in.
“Why do people keep coming to the circus? What’s the attraction?” I ask.
“The last clean entertainment,” his minimally attired wife suggests, “no violence, no sex.”
I nod politely, thinking there’s nothing sexier than a high wire act in a scant bikini and nothing more on the verge of violence than a man alone with a tiger in a cage—a scene that harkens back to the bloody antique spectacle from which the circus gets its name. But circus sex and violence are a sustained suggestive wink at what might happen, more tease than titillation.
Time for one last question: “What do spectators see in your act? Is it the primeval memory of a time when man lived closer to animals?”
“Maybe…I think…” he pauses, on the edge of some existential revelation, but the band is already striking up his entrance.
“I know,” says Sigrid, “he’s the last great American hero.”
“Bullshit!” Gunther shakes his head and rushes off to the ring.
A writer in multiple modes, including fiction (A Modern Way To Die), drama (The Tattooed Man Tells All and Burning Words) and translation (most recently, Travel Pictures, by Heinrich Heine), Peter Wortsman is the recipient of the Beard’s Fund Short Story Award and The Geertje Potash-Suhr Prize of the Society for Contemporary American Literature in German. Also a widely published travel writer, his texts have appeared in The Best Travel Writing 2008 and 2009.