The Greatest Show on Earth, officially known as The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, put Venice on the map with its arrival in 1960 when it moved to a 15-acre site at Venice Airport from its 204-acre site in Sarasota.
But with the arrival of Gunther Gebel-Williams in 1968, even the famous circus grew in stature.
To acquire the man who would become the most famous animal trainer in circus history, then owner of the Ringling show actually had to purchase Circus Williams where the man and his animals were selling out every show.
While some animal trainers used whips to make their animals perform, Gebel-Williams loved his animals and they loved him back.
He was not without his scratches but there were no reports of animals ever turning on him.
Instead, his animals not only worked with him but they also worked with his other animals. One of the best examples is his famous entrance to the arena standing astride a tiger which was standing astride an elephant. He also had a tiger who would stand astride two horse with him as they entered the ring.
Gebel-Williams also was see on many a home television screen with a leopard named Kenny draped around his neck. That was for a commercial for America Express credit cards.
A GOOD NEIGHBOR
Until stricken with brain cancer about a year before his death in July 2001, Gebelk-Williams never missed a show, nor did he ever miss a chance to help his neighbors in Jacaranda not to chat with fellow Venice residents while waiting for a table a restaurant.
Even in his last year, his wife Sigrid spoke about how he raked up some leaves for a neighbor who was not able to do that.
While he was on the circus’ winter break from late November until the end of January, he never missed a day with his beloved animals. And many a Venetian in those days would be out at the circus grounds looking over the fence to watch him interact with the animals and also to catch some of the other acts in rehearsal.
He actually trained elephants to stand on their heads and forefeet. He worked with all the animals in the circus in those days: lions and tigers and giraffes and zebras and horses.
In one act he worked with 20 leopards, three black panthers and mountain lions — all in the same ring.
Geberl-Williams was the reason the Greatest Show on Earth created a second troop.
With an entire extra circus and his new animal trainer, it seemed the sensible thing for then owner Irvin Feld to do.
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