Circus Super Stars: Wild Animal Trainers

Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus was formed in 1957 after the Acme Circus Corporation obtained the Cole Bros. title. In 2006 the Clyde Beatty name was dropped.

Circus purists will tell you, “A circus isn’t a ‘real circus’ unless it features animals.” Many of the greatest circus performers have been wild animal trainers. Clyde Beatty and Gunther Gebel-Williams will certainly go down in history as two of the most famous.

In 1921 Clyde Beatty ran away to join the circus when he was a teenager and began his life-long career training wild animals. It was the dream of many boys in those years. Howes Great London Circus and Van Amburg’s Trained Wild Animals featured Captain Louis Roth. Beatty landed the coveted position of Roth’s cage boy at a salary of $3 a week. In two short years, at the age of 20, he was performing with the John Robinson Circus, working an act of trained polar bears.

Clyde Beatty is listed as one of the performers in this 1923 John Robinson Route Book. It was the foundation of his illustrious career. A copy of this route book sold on eBay in 2007 for $225.

Beatty moved to Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1925, performing with it for 10 years. He began with polar bears and eventually created a mixed act of 40 lions and tigers.

[Hagenbeck Wallace Program.jpg]
Within three years of his arrival, the Hagenbeck-Wallace 1928 program devoted an entire page to young Clyde Beatty: “Introducing America’s youngest and most fearless wild animal trainer, Mr. Clyde Beatty. Conceded by press and public the greatest and most daring act before the public.” The value of this program is $10-15.

In 1931 Clyde Beatty was part of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for the Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden performances. After these dates he returned to the Hagenbeck-Wallace show, which was also owned by Ringling. This schedule continued through 1934.

This 1931 Madison Square Garden edition of the Ringling-Barnum program highlighted Beatty, calling him the “Sensation of the Century.” The value of this program is $25-$50.

In January 1932, while at winter quarters, Clyde was attacked by Nero, an African lion, during a routine training session. A resulting infection put him on sidelines for six weeks, but he was able to return to the Ringling show in time for the Madison Square Garden opening.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace program for that year told the story of “The Strange Germ that Lurked in the Lion’s Bite.” The value of this program is $15-$20.

By the mid-1930s, Beatty had become a super star, as popular as any famous movie star is today. He not only starred as a circus performer, but he appeared in adventure serials and feature films. He had his own syndicated series on Mutual Radio Network, sponsored by Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. He co-authored books and showed up frequently in magazine articles. He even appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Later in his career he appeared on television and owned and performed in his own circus.

For a few years, beginning in 1935, Clyde Beatty was the star of Cole Bros. Circus. The wild animal trainer’s name was given top billing along with the Cole Bros. name.

The covers of the 1935 Cole Bros. Courier (left) and souvenir program show the importance of the Clyde Beatty name. Today we would say his name became his brand. The value of each of these items is $20-$25.

Here are some other Clyde Beatty collectibles:

The March 29, 1937, issue of Time magazine featured Clyde Beatty on the cover. The value of this cover is $20.

Clyde Beatty was the topic of several Big Little Books. These two are valued at $15-$20 each.

This is a classic pose with Clyde Beatty facing an attacking lion. The 8-x-10 publicity photo was signed “To my friend Charley Hutchinson from Clyde Beatty.” Charles Hutchinson was treasurer of Barnum & Bailey and the combined Ringling-Barnum for about 35 years. Value of the photo is $75-$100.

Route books are among the more popular circus collectibles. This issue from 1951 is valued at $25-$30.

“Gigantic Railroad Circus” was the boast on the cover of the 1953 Clyde Beatty Circus program. Copies of this program have sold on the internet for as little as $5 but you should expect to pay as much as $10 or $15.

“Jungle Performers” was copyrighted in 1941 and authored by Clyde Beatty and Earl Wilson. Internet prices range from $10 to $60.

“Facing the Big Cats” was published in 1965. There are many copies of the book on the internet for $15 or less. Edward Anthony co-authored the book with Clyde Beatty, as he had done with an earlier book titled “The Big Cage” published in 1933.

Clyde Beatty starred in many feature films and serials. In a previous article titled Motion Pictures That Chronicle Circus Life Mix Collectible Categories. I list five of those films and related memorabilia along with many other circus themed movies.


In 1969, American audiences were introduced to Gunther Gebel-Williams, the sensational, charismatic star of Germany’s Circus Williams, one of Europe’s premiere circuses dating back to 1945. Irvin Feld, owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, purchased the entire Circus Williams solely to acquire the super star. This became the foundation of a second unit of The Greatest Show on Earth, named the Red Unit.

Gunther Gebel-Williams dominates the cover and two inside pages of the 1968 Circus Williams Program.

This is the last year this show appeared in Europe. The value of the program is $20-$25.

Gunther performed with Ringling for more than 25 years. It is estimated that more than 200 million people saw him perform in over 12,000 live performances and during that time he never missed a show. Besides these live appearances, he appeared in TV specials and was interviewed on numerous national TV shows, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

In 1989, Ringling staged the Gunther-Gebel Williams Farewell Tour, a two-year salute to “America’s 20th Century Circus Hero.” After his retirement from performing in the public limelight, Gunther remained with The Greatest Show on Earth as vice president of animal care until his death in 2001.

Two books about Gunther Gebel-Williams have been published. One titled “Lord of the Rings Gunther Gebel-Williams” was described in a previous article about VIP Gifts. The other book was his official autobiography written with Toni Reinhold.

“Untamed,” by Gunther Gebel-Williams and Toni Reinhold was published in 1991. Many copies are available on the Internet for $15 or less.

Ringling created countless souvenirs with Gunther’s likeness. This tray frequently shows up Internet auction sites and generally sells for $5-$10.

The farewell tour of Gunther Gebel-Williams began in January 1989 and lasted for two years. This was the 119th Edition of The Greatest Show on Earth. These programs are readily available from various sources for under $5.

Media kits are produced by a circus to provide information to newspapers and TV & radio stations. They typically contain a variety of short stories and photographs. Value is based on the amount of information and promotional pieces are included in the kit. The media kit jacket alone can sell for $5. This kit with several stories and photos is valued at $10-$15.


The lives of wild animal trainers are one of the most popular subjects of circus books. “The Wild Animal Trainer In America,” by Joanne Carol Joys, examines the topic going back to the early 1800s. The book was published in 1983 by Pruett Publishing Company. It is filled with interesting black-and-white photos and a small selection of color photos. Sections of the book are devoted to Clyde Beatty and Gunther Gebel-Williams.

Copies of this book range from $60 to nearly $200.

Below is a selection of other books written by and about individual wild animal trainers.

“Louis Roth . . . Forty Years with Jungle Killers,” was written by Dave Robeson in 1941. Louis Roth is the man who helped launch Clyde Beatty’s career. Ex-library copies sell for as much as $50. Most copies with dust jacket are over $100.

“Hold That Tiger,” by female animal trainer Mabel Stark, was published in 1938. The least expensive edition I could find on the Internet was $95, with most copies selling from $175 to nearly $400. The one pictured here is autographed by Stark.

“My Life with the Big Cats,” was written by animal trainer Alfred Court, who was a headline attraction with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Published in 1955, the book is valued at $20 to $60.

George Keller was a college professor who became a wild animal trainer. His autobiography “Here Keller—Train This” was published in 1961. Good copies with dust jacket are $30 and up.

“Lions, Tigers and Me” is the life story of animal trainer, Captain Roman Proske, published in 1956. Many copies are under $10 with some under $5.

Richard Taplinger has co-authored many circus books. “Wild Animal Man” was written with Damoo Dhotre in 1961. Many copies on the Internet are ex-library for under $10.

Trainer Charley Baumann’s book, “Tiger Tiger My 25 Years with the Big Cats,” was published by Playboy Press in 1975. Many copies on the Internet are under $5.

The Hagenbeck name is synonymous with wild animal showmen. Lorenz Hagenbeck’s book, “Animals Are My Life,” was published in London in 1956. Copies of the book can be found for $10.

Trainer Jimmy Chipperfield’s autobiography, “My Wild Life,” was published in 1976. A quick Internet search finds over 500 copies available for sale, many for $1 or less.

Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.


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