Past a small woman delicately balancing eight spinning plates on the ends of long metal rods stands Mark Oliver Gebel, holding steadfast to the only rope keeping two acrobats suspended 20 feet from the floor during morning practice.
The only son of animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, Mr. Gebel has had the task of taking the reins after his father's early retirement from circus performance in 1990. Now, in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' first visit to Baltimore in more than four years, he takes part in nearly every aspect of the show's preparation.
"It's not all fun," says the tall, blond animal trainer, now seated in the stands of the Baltimore Arena after finishing the acrobats' workout. "It's a lot of hard work. It's a seven-day-a-week job. Even in the off hours, we're training, we're working."
Mr. Gebel, whose residence is in Venice, Fla., travels with the circus for all but two weeks of the year. Born into the nomadic circus lifestyle while the show was touring in Houston, he has spent his 21 years learning the ropes from his father and preparing for his solo career. Since his first show appearance in the elephant ring at age 4, he has developed to become the star of the act.
"I never really just came in [to circus life]; I've been growing up with these animals," he explains in a light German accent. "I've been doing this for my whole life. In the farewell tour of my father, I was doing the voice commands. . . . You really have to want to do this."
Mr. Gebel-Williams has stayed with the circus in a background role. Once called "The Lord of the Rings," he has trained his son in the animal techniques Mr. Gebel now uses with more than 60 circus animals, including elephants, horses and ponies, zebras and camels.
"He still does a lot of things," Mr. Gebel comments, watching his 57-year-old father work with a baby elephant in the center ring. "When my father is gone, I'm the boss. When he is here, I'm the second boss," he says, laughing.
The animals, which have become comfortable with their original trainer over the past 40 years, can be stubborn to the young trainer's commands, he says, "but that's why my father is here. He still trains the animals with us."
Using the same mixture of German and English voice commands as his father, Mr. Gebel's herd of elephants alone recognize more than 30 directions. "I've had to work on my voice. I had to make it loud enough and clear enough in the ring," he admits, his father's sharp commands echoing from the center ring as the baby elephant obediently sits and raises its front legs high into the air.
There is more to the family tradition than father and son. Mr. Gebel's sister, Tina, works closely with him in a new animal act, practicing with a quartet of ponies. His mother, also retired from the show, continues to work behind the scenes.
In fact, he comments, the whole troupe is a family, constantly helping each other put together their acts. "Everybody has to make sure things go smoothly when there's a lot going on," he says, "and everybody has to clear out of the way when the elephants come through."
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will perform at the Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., today through Sunday. Show times are today at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday at noon, 4 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8.50, $11.50, $14.50, and $20. To charge tickets, call (410) 481-SEAT. For more information, call (410) 347-2010.