In the Circus Hierarchy, There's No Doubt Who Has the Whip Hand: Sigrid & Gunther Gebel-Williams

updated 04/13/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/13/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

He controls a herd of elephants with his spoken command, orders tigers to dance on their hind legs and makes leopards leap through hoops of fire. As the unchallenged star of the Ringling Bros, circus Red Unit, wild animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, 46, is always in charge. Then he goes back to his trailer. "I have to have such mental control outside, with all the people and the animals, that when I come inside sometimes I explode," he admits. Though his wife, Sigrid, 37, is hardly a doormat, she has learned that these are the times not to fight back. "I know what he is expecting from life and what he is living for," she explains. "If I live with him as No. 2—I won't say 'in his shadow'—I can manage. If I wanted to be No. 1, it wouldn't work. The animals, the circus, the challenge, the performance—this is his life."

Whether supervising his latest act, featuring his 10-year-old son, Buffy, riding one of the few giraffes ever trained to perform; kibitzing from the sideline as Sigrid and her daughter, Tina, 18, command the dancing horses; or riding defiantly with a Bengal tiger on the back of a lumbering elephant, Gebel-Williams is a study in total involvement. When the show is over and the arena is dark, he insists on checking the animals personally. "It's tough on my family," he says. "I never have a day off." Sigrid agrees. "That man is a 24-hour challenge to live with," she says. "He doesn't know where his bank account is. He doesn't even know his home telephone number. He's got no time for things like that. 'Do it,' he says, 'I'm too busy.' "

Does Sigrid do it? "She does everything," Gebel-Williams says gratefully. "Every letter, every tax return, every nail in the wall." That includes having Gunther's breakfast ready the minute his feet hit the floor in the morning, handing him his Scotch and Coke when he walks in the door at night—even bar-bering his hair and keeping it flaxen. "I said to him one day, 'What would happen if we were in an earthquake or a hurricane?' " she recalls. "He said, 'I'd expect you to take care of my children and save yourself.' He wouldn't come get us and bring us to safety. He'd go to his animals. I'm a strong woman, he says, and he trusts me."

Among the benefits of such single-mindedness is Car 60 on the Ringling Bros, circus train—bigger and plusher than the sleepers provided for other stars. Featuring three full bedrooms and a bathroom with a whirlpool tub, it is the Gebel-Williamses' home on the road (except in New York, where they have an apartment) and the place where they decompress at the end of the day. Between the 13 weekly performances, for costume changes and meals, Gunther and Sigrid maintain their closely guarded privacy in their dressing room trailer—the only one permitted inside the arenas where the circus performs.

The Gebel-Williamses rarely socialize with other circus folk, even when they are on tour. Most of their entertaining is confined to their luxurious lakeside home in Venice, Fla., where they live for four to six weeks in December and January while the circus is in winter quarters nearby. Decorating the driveway there is Gunther's gaudy collection of cars (which he loves almost as much as his animals): a gold Rolls-Royce, a matching Mercedes and a white Corvette. He also drives a semitrailer to personally transport Dickie, the giraffe, from city to city.

For Gunther, the affluence is a constant reminder of leaner times. His father, Max Gebel, was a designer of theatrical sets in a village that is now part of Poland; his mother, Elfrida, was a dressmaker. The family broke up during World War II, when Max was taken into the German army and Gunther's older sister left to build bridges and roads. When the Russians drove into Germany in 1945, 10-year-old Gunther and his mother fled west. For two years they lived in refugee camps, enduring the lice and keeping alive on potatoes. Finally they reached Munich, where Elfrida got a job as a seamstress with the famed Circus Williams. Then, after a few months, she left the show—and her son, too. Gunther is still bitter. "I never could understand why a mother would abandon a 12-year-old child," he says.

The boy stayed on with the circus as a stablehand, and by 13 was performing as a bareback rider and becoming a favorite of the owners, Harry and Carola Williams. Before long he was almost a member of the family. When Harry was killed in 1951 in a circus chariot race, his widow turned to 17-year-old Gunther to manage the business. In gratitude, he added Williams to his surname. Nine years later he married the Williamses' 19-year-old daughter, Jeanette.

Sigrid Neubauer, meanwhile, grew up worlds removed from the circus. Her West Berlin family was rich and snobbish, and her paint manufacturer father would not let her accept any job he considered unsuitable. So at 18 she married her high school sweetheart, the son of a wealthy construction company owner. Within a year she was widowed, with an infant daughter, when her husband was killed in an automobile accident.

For the next three years she lived alone with Tina. Then in 1965 Sigrid took the little girl to the Circus Williams. Gunther, whose marriage to Jeanette was breaking up, was smitten by the beautiful young widow in the last row and brashly asked her for a date. Soon, push came to love. The two lived together for a year, then married after Gunther's divorce became final. He had doubts about risking wedlock again, but as Sigrid happily confesses, "I nailed him. He had no choice."

In 1968 showman Irvin Feld, who had just taken over the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, bought out Carola Williams for $2 million, mainly to get Gunther. In the U.S., Gebel-Williams became an overnight success. Determined not to sit on the sidelines, Sigrid began to perform as a rider ("I was scared to death"), which was instant trouble, because Gunther's ex, Jeanette, was also in the horse act. Matters became even more complicated when Jeanette married aerialist Elvin Bale, who felt that he, and not Gunther, deserved top billing. To keep the peace, Feld sent Bale and Jeanette to another of his circuses. Now Bale is a reigning superstar of Ringling's Blue Unit.

As for Gunther, a U.S. citizen since 1979, he has just signed a new 10-year, six-figure contract and is contemplating another decade in the cage with his cats. "Going in there is fascinating," he says. "Every day it is different. You always have to be on your guard." Although he has had to be stitched up from time to time, he never has had to kill an unruly animal. He keeps a gun on hand just in case, and is constantly aware of the danger. Sigrid accepts the risks philosophically ("If you worry every day, you make yourself sick"), as well as the endless demands of life in the big show. "You can never sit down and feel sorry for yourself," she says. "You don't have an understudy, and you can't say, 'I'm not working today.' " Has she ever been tempted to say goodbye to all that—and to Gunther? Not a chance. "As I always say," she laughs, "if you have a Rolls-Royce, you don't trade it in for a Volkswagen."

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