Five years later: compare this Gunther to the one above - a feat of American showmanship?
When he first appeared before American audiences, the young German animal trainer dazzled as much as impressed. In a word, Gunther Gebel Williams had glamor. How much of it was produced by the Ringling organization?
I had seen him somewhere outside Rome, only five years earlier, on Circo Americano's 3-ring "American Circus Show" of 1965. Whatever his impression or impact on the program, I had not remembered it. In deed, the so-called "three ring" program was mostly one-ring, the tent long and lumbering.
Looking back at the Ringling-Barnum program magazine of 1969, at the image of Gunther, above, I am struck by how costume designer Max Weldy glorified the cool contemporary persona of their new star. A persona that Weldy and director Richard Barstow may have helped create and shape. I'd always imagined new owner Irvin Feld, later revealed to have been gay, being responsible for the seductive Gebel Williams packaging. Maybe not completely. The John Ringling North regime was still firmly in place. North himself received "produced by" credit that season, though it's doubtful that he had played a significant role in the staging of the show. We know that he had been after Gunther for some time, wanting to bring him over. But it was Irvin who landed the young showman.
Gebel Williams appeared multiple times during the show, setting him apart as a true modern day circus star -- filling a recurring role possibly unprecedented in big top history. Strangely, his image does not appear in a program magazine cover collage, an artist's rendering, of some Ringling figures.
The presenting and selling of GGW was brilliant. His natural laid-back coolness proved a perfect circus metaphor for the age of Aquarius - flower children and beads, hippies and incense and long hair (notice his longish locks). Everything anti-establishment. This was a totally new kind of ring hero. To a degree, he electrified the show.
Here is Don Marcks, writing to me on August 26, 1969 -- while I was on the road working advance press for James Bros Circus:
"The new feature act (Williams) is very good and makes a nice appearance. He looks quite young, but is reportedly 36 or 37. He does tigers, works a single tiger with two elephants, works elephants and is out there with his wife who works horses - so that is four acts easily."
Onto Marcks and the new young clown recruits:
"The new clowns are much in evidence and the older ones who are left are grumbling about them. They almost don't use the clowns - except for workarounds. I'd say they have one with character on the show (of the new group) and another one who looks just the way a clown should - but he doesn't do much. In general the new clowns don't seem to be white face but rather are mostly characters. They get $150 a week, and the show provides, costumes, etc. which is what makes the older clowns grumble."
A new era was dawning in Ringling showmanship. But the old was magnificently still in evidence. Remember when three rings overflowed with action? Okay, yes, I'll go ahead and say it, my friends -- those were the days!
Now ... did that feel good?
I think Don would smile looking back.