Saturday, March 08, 2008

Big Cage Showdown: Clyde Beatty versus Gunther Gebel Williams

This first appeared March 18, 2008

In a post that keeps on posting about Circus Compensation (I am waiting for the bible to appear on it), Henry Edger logged his “book” on this evidently lively blogging issue. He makes some informative points in favor of Clyde Beatty as being the superstar of all time. Not for me to argue for or against right now, but Edgar’s facts and positions did get me thinking, as in...

What makes you remember the greats who present the big cats? I saw Beatty when I was young enough to be riveted to his every move in the cage. I don’t remember having ever sat as still and fixated during an entire act as I did during that one. Every single moment, the audience was wondering will he get out alive? ... Clyde Beatty created dramatic tension. That was the premise to his greatness. A legendary showman he was ...

Scanning my memory, who are the trainers I recall? They can grab us in so many ways. Some of us look for stats — how may tricks turned; some for drama, some for looks and showmanship. Pat Anthony jumps to mind. So does Professor George J. Keller, possibly because the way this college art director-turned-trainer was sold and because of his relaxed nice-guy persona in the arena. So does Tarzan Zerbini for his amusing self-satirizing bravado. So does Pablo Noel (seen here), such a great humorous showman! Some of these trainers seemed to be laughing inside.. Another individual who amply entertained me was Josip Marcan. And so did the rambunctious Tabayara Maluenda, whom I saw with Ringling last year, carrying on like a befuddled Joan Rivers suddenly thrust up against the jungle challenge without preparation. Fine content, though I do go for entertainment. Nice to see trainers breaking free of the GGW mold which they tried cloning for so many seasons.

Mostly, wild animals acts blur past my eyes while I await aspects of a performance that usually hold greater appeal — to me. Some of us saw Trevor Bale as a furniture mover, which may be very unfair. There are those no doubt who have all the stats on what each trainer did. How many rollovers, sit ups, fire hoop jumps etc. I don’t.

Another trainer who caught my passing fancy was a somewhat pivotal figure bridging the more furious past with a gentlemanly future: Charlie Bauman. Beautiful act. Gracious trainer. Wonderful climactic ring picture when a tiger stood up on a rotating pedestal under a shower of globe lights while Merle Evans played Shangri-la. In that one magical moment, Ringling ruled the universe.

Gunther? I gotta tell you, what I most liked about Gunther in retrospect was his agile way with elephants. I realize there have been better trainers. I just liked his easy elegance and those voice commands, even if they were illusory. There are a number of cage trainers that I would place above GGW, mainly because I suppose Gunther was a bit to fey to generate the sort of drama I enjoy from a wild animal act. Too elegant. Which is the very reason why he was so perfect for a new era dominated by audiences wanting ultra-humane imagery. He connected perfectly with his time, and the Ringling productions and pr teams did a brilliant job of packaging and ballyhooing him to the public. Irvin Feld’s finest hour.

But for Big Cage theatrics, I would pick Clyde Beatty any day. The movie Ring of Fear gives us only a variety of camera angles and disconnected bits — nothing like sitting in one seat having a set relationship to the real Clyde Beatty in the cage, in real time, and watching his act from start to finish. In regard to which, I absolutely agree with Henry Edgar that circus art does not come through well in recorded media. When we are there, we watch performers survive by their skills in the present tense, in the flesh. It is not illusion (even if some of the theatrics are just that), for we sense that anything can happen.

So, my "circus compensation" post
provoked a mini-stampede of commentators. Big Cage Theatrics — or PETA pandering love-ins? What say ye, anybody out there not already bored to death by this topic... Hey, it’s new on my midway...

[photos: The greats bring a distinctive personality to the ring. Clyde Beatty brought drama, Pablo Noel, comedy. And Gunther -- Mr. Cool?]



Wade G. Burck said...

You like Henry, and other's keep muddying the water, by bringing in names of who you liked, and turning it into a ridiculous discussion of who is/was better then who. I sometimes feel like Joe Montana sitting with a group of sports writers discussing quarterbacks. They at least have records and printed "fact" to refer to. Often the vote in this discussion is cast depending on whether the panel member was given an autograph, or the person in question posed for a picture, etc. etc. No disrespect intended. Henry, or someone brought up the point, that in the autobiographies of other trainers, they all criticized Beatty. If anyone is basing their vote on what another trainer has said about Gebel, I suggest that "green monster, jealousy", ought not be your guide. I will often say, after seeing an act, cat's or any other animal act "that was a nice act". The usual response is, "they didn't train it", depending on whether the trainer was your pal, or the person in the ring was. Don't get me started on a circus competition judged by circus performers!!!! It was a nice act, what is your point!!! For the record, I as an animal trainer, like Baumann and Marcan, based on longevity, production, and a different set of criteria.
That said, let us not wander away from the often asked question: Who was the Greatest? Beatty or Gebel? Henry suggested because I had never seen Beatty live, I had a hard time crowning him? I suggest it is because "who was the Greatest what", had never been addressed, and presented a list of "what" criteria from an animal trainer/performers point of view:

Trainer: Beattys bouncing lions or Gebels double hindleg walking tigers?

Presenter: Beattys cage act, or Gebels cage act, elephant act, horse act etc. etc. Combine trainer and presenter, if you would like.

Showman: Beattys rush to the safety cage, or Gebels neck carry with the leopard outside of the cage? Combine trainer, presenter, and showman if you would like.

Athlete: Again, Beattys rush to the safety cage, or Gunthers elephant powered back flip off a teeter board to the back of an elephant. Combine this one with trainer, presenter, showman if you would like.

Stamina: bouncing cage act 3 times a day, or a half dozen different animal acts 3 times a day. I suggest I might know the answer, but go ahead with your thoughts, and combine it with any of these criteria.

Author: Who's book did you like? And don't say your's Showbiz Dave. That's what I mean when I say, "muddy the water".

Box office big shot: Show me some valid, printed facts based on ticket sales X cost of living for the era.

Superstar: Simple. The word wasn't in the vocabulary in the 40's or 50's. You can't use a word for a dead guy, Henry?

Media sensation: Beatty with the movies, or Gebel with the newer media of television.

The only thing Henry and I agree on is beautiful wives. And Sigrid Gebel wins hands down.

In closing, I would suggest, in Beattys defense that you were able to "focus" on only one thing, the cage act. In Gebels defense, he did so much you did not "focus", and thus appreciate just one thing.
The greatest advantage Beatty had, and if you believe nothing else, trust me on this Henry, was private ownership of the animals, giving him the ability to do what he wanted, what he felt was best. As opposed to Gebel, and the great task of making an owner happy, and doing what an owner wanted. Based on that greatest of intangibles, Baumann gets my vote over Marcan, with all due respect to Marcan.
Based on this criteria listed: Who was the Greatest: Beatty or Gebel?
Most respectfully,
Wade Burck

P.S. And don't give me that Benny did a better teeterboard bull shit, Henry. The only paper you need to hang here, is book sales paper for Showbiz.

Wade G. Burck said...

Any body who just got to their seats in the 12th round, because they got in the general admission line, instead of the will call line, don't take this debate serious. Just take the issue, that of who is the greatest serious, using listed criteria. It might be fun for all.
Henry and I, locked in mortal combat, just fell through the bat wing doors of one saloon, into the dusty streets of Dodge City, rolled around until, "I" threw Henry through the window of a different saloon. If we hurry, we can be done by Saturday, and then we can tell JRNII how he did the opening of Kelly Miller wrong. LOL
Wade Burck

Wade G Burck said...

Showbiz Dave,
Great picture adds on your site,
especially the one of GGW. What can I say? I can only assume that because my seat was a few row's closer to the "steel bound den of fury/stainless steel mesh den of fury", I might have a differing take on the the isssue. Why don't you take a shot at the above "standards" list that the profession academy uses, and see what you come up with.
That Greatest crown needs to be on somebodys head. I asked Henry to have a go at it, but I think he is weaseling out now that we have established some quidelines.
My best,
Wade Burck

henry edgar said...

wade - my answers were posted on this web site as you asked me to do last week. i'm not weasling out. i just don't want to see this take over this blog.

Ben Trumble said...

Wade, you have a significant advantage here. As a great trainer you know exactly what goes on "behind the curtain." Sitting in the audience it's about the theatrics and the presentation. It's been suggested that NASCAR sells not because we like to drive fast, but rather because we're waiting for the crashing. Beatty audience was in a sense a NASCAR audience. Forty cats in a fighting act and the possibility of blood may have been riveting. GGW changed everything as a superstar because he successfully led the audience in a different direction in a way that Court and others did not.

Showbiz David said...

Hey, you guys, your comments are most interesting. Have another tea-free non-organic candy apple on me...-):

Wade G Burck said...

Ben, good points all. It has always been my contention if you want to compare, compare Beatty with Jacobs, or Court, or Baumann, etc. Cage act to cage act. There are enough intangibles in that debate to keep you busy for months. To even suggest that there is a similarity between someone who did a cage act and someone who did a cage act, elephant act, and horse act, in addition to other things is preposterous. When asked to judge against some type of equal standard like I listed, instead of personal opinion, like an MC Festival it is ignored and avoided, which is why the debate still rages 75 years later. Speaking of ignored Ben, I sent in 8 posts to the fellow blog
at the post of AGVA represented salarys of old, and all 8 were in the garbage. That is the ugliest story in circus, as this is the second time in 2 years, at attempt has been made to bury it. Except if it is aimed at Ringling. Do you know how many generational pedigrees came to an end in the mid 90's, and even their forefather are afraid to address the subject of salary What of the ones who loved it enough to continue, as my son does. Wait until he find out not even the oldtimers and the professed lovers of the business car. How long must a flag be flown upside down? How long were the Knights Templar willing to look for the Holy Grail. As an author , showbiz Dave, I assure you it would be the deepest hardest fact check story you have ever considered. Instead of listing how you are not qualified, you could show how much you "really" do love it. Not a phony love, like a professional circus member.
Wade Burck

Showbiz David said...

Wade, I gratefully feel your passion. The fact is, and I hate to disappoint you, the issue of pay does not hold that much interest to me. And even if it did, I'm not sure what could be achieved, or who would talk. Nor is it that much of a mystery to me. You were lucky (with the talents needed) to be paid at the top. Most of the rest (be they authors like me or mid-level performers) are not. Showbiz and the arts are notorious for heaping riches on the favored few, pennies on the rest. Of course, yes, the idea of a union is something worth arguing, if you can organize those who would benefit. I'm sorry to sound so indifferent. We come from very different backgrounds.

Wade G. Burck said...

Showbiz David,
Backgrounds!!!!!! I don't think you have to be a Jew, to go to the Heaven's with the wrongness of Hitlers' actions. Or a parent to speak out that the Amber alert is a pretty good deal. In hindsight, I think it was the moniker Showbiz David that may have given me the wrong impression, or the critiquing of circus's, and what's apparently wrong. In fact it was the walkout of the new Kooza show, that led me to believe you had finally stumbled on one of the main reasons for it's demise.
But you did learn something about that "lucky" deal. I have found that the harder you work, the better you get, and the luckier you become. I just wish I had learned about that "favored" deal sooner. Thanks
Kind Regards,
Wade Burck

Wade G. Burck said...

Showbiz David,
Speaking of indifferent. How about the agent, who from what I have been led to believe, "works for the artist", pointing out that the Koosa artists are ungrateful, and a bunch of crybabies. Another example of "spin" in the poor man's Hollywood.
Wade Burck

Anonymous said...

Having seen Tabayara "Taba" Maluenda tonight, I googled him and came across this post.

This guy was the greatest I've seen, and I've seen many, including Gunther as a kid.

Tabayara was electric, manic, and crazed. He rocked.

Another tamer who was right up there was a guy with the Shrine circus several years back. I don't know his name, but he was a 50-ish chubby blonde German with 70s throwback hair, in tights, who pranced and twirled around the ring between tricks. I'll never forget that.

Showbiz David said...

I was so glad to see your comment. The guy evidently rocked us both! Rare are the trainers who can bring such individual electricity into the Big Cage.


Harry Kingston said...

I agree with you that I think that
Clyde Beatty was the greatest of them all.
I got to see his act a few times before his death and I can remember I was glued to my seat asking my mother will he get out alive. All the shooting and growling cats, WOW what a show it was.
I love the American fighting act and have never been a fan of the European style acts. But they are what we have left now with just a few cats.
I never got to see the 40 cat act and Jacobs with his 52 or 53 cats.
Clyde Beatty performed his act almost to the day he died.
His presentation and how he presented his act really selled it.
Modern day trainers and it's a new era of cat training.
Let us not forget Vicenta Pages and Pat White two performers that are with it and for it.
When Dick Gardens show wintered here in Beaumont, Texas, Pat White was here for months until the show opend here. Pat was with the cats all the time seeing to there needs and training them to do new acts.
I offered to take Pat out to eat but she was too busy with the cats.
And when the show opened what a great act she had. I enjoyed seeing her train the cats almost every day as she is a real trooper.
And cat acts today do not get me started and I am not counting Europe just the good old U S A with just a few left.
Harry in Texas