THE house lights have darkened. In the back lot behind the Madison Square Garden arena, the tigers are pacing restlessly in their cages as circus performers and animals hurriedly align for the grand entry. As the Silly Symphony strikes up, searing spotlights slice the shadows, and a panoramic parade of sequined showgirls, capricious clowns, and acrobatic artisans atop ponderous pachyderms perambulate the hippodrome!
The ringmaster blows his whistle and heralds the Wizard of the Wild, the Lord of the Rings, the Caesar of the Circus Constellation: Gunther Gebel-Williams! He flashes into the arena, standing erect and well aft on a duo of rocking and rolling Lipizzaner horses. The world's toughest audience - 8,000 New York schoolchildren - squeal with delight.
At 54, the star animal trainer is hanging up his whip after 21 years with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Mr. Gebel-Williams will join Ringling Brothers' management after his last performance in Pittsburgh next year.
After countless stands from Monte Carlo to Alaska - he's been seen by 8.5 million people in 1,138 performances at the Garden alone - Gebel-Williams says there is nothing left for him to accomplish in the center ring. But with his sculpted muscles, golden mane, and graceful aplomb among the beasts, he hardly looks as if he needs a spangled last hurrah.
He steps into a steel cage, flicks his whip, and conducts 18 Siberian and Bengal tigers as they hurdle flames, roll over, and rise on hind legs atop revolving pedestals. The 500-pound cats roar and swipe at him, yet he directs them with only a look and a nod, and an occasional handout.
For his smash finish, Gebel-Williams leads a herd of elephants around the three rings as his picture descends from the rafters and his name flashes in lights. He then mounts a teeterboard and a king of the jungle sends him hurtling through space onto a waiting bull elephant. The signature back flip is sweeter than cotton candy.
After a change from sequined magenta trousers to blue jeans and cowboy boots, Gebel-Williams recalls his life under the big top. Even when seated, he is a dynamo, talking in rapid-fire, staccato sentences with vigorous gestures. He cuts the air with exclamation points when he's mislabeled as an animal ``tamer.''
``I never `tame' something; I'm always training. These guys are still wild.'' He bares his forearms to show great weals where he's been bitten and clawed by the cats. Over the years, he's had injuries that resulted in more than 500 stitches. ``It's like that song, I've been kicked and stepped on, and I don't even know the last one that's stepped on me.''
He claims that he is never afraid when the cage door closes behind him, leaving him alone and unprotected among some of the world's largest predators - ``the guys,'' he calls them.
``Afraid? Not at all. I have to be very strong because these guys are very independent,'' he says. ``You can't be sometimes good, sometimes lousy. There's no second chance.''
Unlike the fabled stories of future stars leaving home and ``kicking sawdust'' for a life under the big top, Gebel-Williams caught on with the circus not through wanderlust, but for want of a job.
IN the aftermath of World War II his mother was a seamstress for the Circus Williams, based in Cologne, West Germany. Harry Williams, the circus owner, recognized Gunther's natural talents and taught him horseback riding and acrobatics.
Gunther never planned on becoming an animal trainer. He just slipped into it. ``There was never a time when I decided I really want to [train], but in small ways it came to me. I'd spend more time with the animals, and gradually I found I had a little more contact with them.''
When Harry Williams was tragically killed while performing stunts on a racing chariot, Gunther took over both the circus and, as a sign of respect, the Williams's family name. Circus Williams flourished under the charismatic performer. Almost inevitably, the rising star became headliner for the Greatest Show on Earth.
Gebel-Williams changed his act every two years, always striving to make each act outdo the last. Among numerous other feats, he rode tigers. Then he and a tiger together rode an elephant. And in what he calls one of his most difficult performances, he laid down among a cageful of swarming leopards. It took him three years to prepare the trick.
``There's no such thing as an untrainable leopard. You just get different personalities,'' he says. ``Just as some people are smarter and do better in school than others, so it is with animals. The trick is to find the ones that are smartest and teach them the most.''
The first thing he does is ``take charge of the most powerful animal - the leader. I have to be more powerful, more respected. That way, I'm in charge of them all. I wear the hat.''
When he steps out of the ring and takes his final bow next year, Gebel-Williams believes, he will be leaving at the peak of his career.
``I'm a better trainer now than I was 20 years ago,'' he says. ``Young men don't make good trainers. The animal may not know what the guy wants, the trainer gets upset, and that just puts them both back. Maybe I was always a little smarter to say, ``Forget it; tomorrow, maybe it's better.'''
He is already dreading his last performance, when he must say goodbye to his extended circus family. But unlike an aging, once-great boxer who staggers through his last bouts, Gebel-Williams wants to leave the ring while he can still register a knockout.
``I don't want to go on, doing a little less each year. I don't want kids to come back in ten years and see me doing the same routine. I want to be recognized for stepping down when I did.''
Gebel-Williams is one of the few performers who can live up to the familiar boasts of circus advance agents. Yet he performs, he says, only so he can train. After he treads the tanbark for the last time, he believes he won't miss the spotlight. What he will miss are ``the guys'' and ``the boys'' - his elephants.
``I have elephants who've been with me for 40 years. We've spent a lifetime together. They understand everything about me. Now, I'm old and the boys are becoming old, and I'm not looking forward to this. This kind of relationship, nobody ever knows.''
PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE Here's a partial schedule for Mr. Gebel-Williams. His final performance will be in Pittsburgh next November:
Hartford, Conn., May 16-21.
Springfield, Mass., May 23-27.
Philadelphia, May 30-June 11.
Tulsa, Okla., June 15-17.
Tucson, Ariz., June 20-25.
Phoenix, June 27-July 9.