One of the most discussed shows during these days of quarantine has been Netflix’s new docuseries, The Tiger King. I’m not even going to go into any detail about it, but if you have the opportunity, you should absolutely check it out. We’re only a few episodes in, but it is FANTASTIC!
But I want to talk today about the true Tiger King.
Gunther Gebel-Williams was all over the pop culture map in the 70’s and 80’s and I’m not even really sure why. I can’t recall another animal trainer who has garnered as much attention as he did. Most people in that line of work go unnoticed for their entire careers, but for some reason, he captured the zeitgeist of that period.
That word comes up often as I look back on my collection of vintage memorabilia.
Why did we care that much about Snorks to keep them on the air for four seasons?
Why weren’t we more freaked out by Slim Goodbody?
Why did Gunther Gebel-Williams shoot to the top of the American conscienceness at that time? Before we can even guess, let’s learn a little about him.
Gunther Gebel was born in Poland in 1934 to a scenic designer father and a costume seamstress mother. That would seems like a perfect start for a future star, except that their jobs created a lifelong dislike in him for the theater. Gunther never wanted to do theater. He wanted to make something real.
When he finally saw a circus for the first time when he was thirteen, he had his epiphany. That’s what he’d been looking for.
By chance, his mother took a seamstress job at the Circus Williams in Germany and he was introduced to the lifestyle. And what area excited him the most? The animals, of course.
His mother left her circus job after only a few weeks, but left Gunther in the care of the circus’ owner, Harry Williams. It was an easy choice. She was struggling to find steady employment and his father was a heavy drinker with a nasty temper. Gunther often said later that she virtually gave him away.
Whetever the circumstances, things worked out pretty well for young Gunther. Harry Williams took him under his wing and taught him about the animals. Williams was a former stuntman and ran his own bareback horse show, so that’s where he started. It became apparent early on that Gunther was a natural athlete and a quick study.
He worked closely with other animal trainers to absorb as much as he could. He found himself spending most of his time, though, with the big cats.
That may have been because of their trainer, however. You see, Circus Williams had hired a young Dutch trainer named Tini Berman (but known throughout the industry as “Miss Yvonne”) and Gunther was absolutely smitten. She handled a group of lions and he would often sit through sessions, observing.
Once, he was even asked to step into the ring as her replacement. That’s when he realized that cats were his calling. Sadly, Miss Yvonne was happily married and Gunther was just left with the felines.
But all the time spent at the circus was also teaching him about the business. As a surrogate member of the Williams family, he learned most of the day to day operations.
He even began his own act with a young tiger named Bengali and an elephant named Kongo.
All of that time with the Williams family also meant a lot of time spent with their daughter Jeannette, whom he eventually married in 1961. As tribute to the family that saved his life, he officially changed his name to Gunther Gebel-Williams.
Circus Williams would usually contract out their animal acts, so Gunther and his new bride spent much of the 60’s travelling across Europe. They made a spectacular team and were often the centerpiece wherever they’d appear.
But an even bigger benefit came from those shows. Gunther was able to work closely with another trainer named Gilbert Houcke. Houcke had been a huge European star since the 50’s and had a very specific style that wasn’t seen often.
Most trainers at the time would enter the ring like a villain from a melodrama, with a whip in one hand and gun in the other, forcing the animals to do their bidding.
Houcke’s approach, however, was much different. He focused on maintaining a quiet manner and always gave them the spotlight. He frequently added humorous elements and the cats often looked like they were in on the joke, making fun of their trainer.
In 1968, Gunther purchased eight tigers and immediately put them into his act, using the same style elegant style he witnessed from Houcke. The result was life-changing.
I try…. to never put my animals in any way down. I like [him] to have his own personality. Teach him to respect me and I respect him very much. I think this comes very clear in my performing.Gunther Gebel-Williams, on dealing with his feline friends
In November of 1967, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus was sold to a group of investors led by Irvin and Israel Feld. The Felds wanted to launch a second tour of The Greatest Show on Earth, but needed a big name to carry it.
Irvin Feld flew to Europe and bought the Circus Williams for around two million dollars. Now that Gunther was essentially his employee, he convinced him to come to the United States. He and his entourage set sail in November of 1968 to light the American circus trail on fire.
And check this out. His “entourage” consisted of seventeen elephants, nine tigers, thirty-eight horses and a few other assorted animals. But the true danger came in bringing both Jeannette (his now EX-wife), as well as his new wife Sigrid, a former model from Berlin.
Talk about a potential cat fight.
Once on American soil, the Felds set about changing his style to suit the American public. He shaved his goatee, bleached his dark hair to the familiar California surfer style we know and threw him into one of the classic Ringling designed costumes.
His talent and charm took over from there.
He performed nearly 12,000 shows for Ringling without ever missing a day for injury and sickness. And this was the big cat trainer. He got more than his share of injuries, but he just kept performing.
And perform he did. For a man who never wanted to be a star, he sure shone like one. Often performing multiple shows in one day, his act just grew in popularity. He was working with seventeen tigers in the cage at his peak. That’s a lot for one man to handle.
His smaller acts also grew. He created a special small cat show in 1977 which showcased fifteen leopards, two cougars, and two black panthers.
This act was the first of its kind for nearly four decades and became a sensation. That’s when Hollywood came calling offering him his own show, a CBS special called Lord of the Ring.
And he made this:
Eventually, the daily grind got to be too much. He became the vice president in charge of animals and stopped performing regularly. His last headlining performance was on November 18, 1990 – the end of his Farewell Tour.
He only made a few select appearances after that. In September of 1998, for example, he stepped into the big cage in place of his son, Mark Oliver, so Mark could be present at the birth of his own son.
Sadly, that was to be his final performance. Health issues had been creeping in. First hearts problems, and then a brain tumor. He underwent chemotherapy, but, like him, the cancer wouldn’t quit. He died in his home on July 19, 2001.
Let’s go back to the earlier question. Why was he so popular? Was it his good looks? Is that what Americans wanted from their circus performers at that time?
Was it the thrill that something may go wrong at any time? This was also the time of Evel Knievel’s peak, so that’s entirely possible.
Maybe it was the way he approached the cats. The America he entered in 1968 was going through some massive changes. Maybe people were looking for somebody to show that a calm approach could tame even the wildest beast.
Or maybe it was a New-Age thing. Doug Henning’s proto-hippie style was rocking the magic world – maybe this fit the same mold.
Like many items from this period, the reason behind the success may never be truly discovered. But one thing is for sure.
Forget Joe Exotic. Gunther Gebel-Williams will always be the true Tiger King.