Search

Now He's The Cat's Meow NORTH DAKOTA COWBOY WADE BURCK JOINED THE CIRCUS AND, WITH THE HELP OF GRIT, WIT AND A CORPS OF SQUIRRELLY WHITE TIGERS, BECAME A STAR

July 21, 1986
July 21, 1986

Table of Contents
July 21, 1986

Now He's The Cat's Meow NORTH DAKOTA COWBOY WADE BURCK JOINED THE CIRCUS AND, WITH THE HELP OF GRIT, WIT AND A CORPS OF SQUIRRELLY WHITE TIGERS, BECAME A STAR

* To hide the pain when he talks about the most self-destructive
time in his life, Wade Burck pauses every now and then and laughs his
North Dakota cowboy laugh. Unflinching. Dry as drought. Rodeo
circuit riders laugh like this when they're telling you about flying
off the back of a homicidal bull, hitting the arena dirt wrong and
watching leg bones that were hidden just seconds before by skin and
blue denim suddenly make their public debuts.
''I was a crazy man,'' Burck says, laughing that laugh, sitting on
a wooden circus prop box as if it were a corral fence and gazing
across the deserted arena through 31-year-old hazel eyes that have
seen their share of hard times. ''I was obsessed with the need to be
Gunther Gebel-Williams. The blond circus god. I literally tried to
live another man's life. I was a legend in my own mind. I just kind
of lost it there for a while.''
Burck is waiting for the roustabouts to wheel in his eerie white
tigers for their training session in the center ring. He is wearing
tight jeans and a dark-blue Western shirt. He breathes deeply of
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus air -- equal parts elephant
manure and rancid popcorn butter. He looks like a guy who breaks
horses for a living. Or sings about women who have hung him out to
dry in Texas. He does not look like a tiger trainer. Except for the
scar.
The scar is white. It zigzags across Burck's right jawbone. It is
as if some small, frantic animal went burrowing through there, trying
desperately to evade something larger and faster than itself, but
finally ran out of room in the middle of Burck's chin.
Burck sips his coffee. A little of it leaks out of the right
corner of his mouth and runs down his chin. He doesn't notice until
the drops hit his battered jeans.
''The bottom part of my face is numb,'' he says evenly. ''It's
got no feeling in it at all. That's why I smile crooked. Because
this side of my face doesn't operate. The nerves were destroyed.
Sometimes, when I'm talking, I will drool out of this side of my
mouth. If I got punched there, I wouldn't feel it.''
The nerves died in 1980 when Burck was mauled while breaking up a
fight between two of his white tigers one afternoon outside Boston.
The one named Frosty lunged at Burck, wrapped its jaws around his
face and dragged him over the backs of four other tigers who were not
pleased. ''They started squatting and going to the bathroom,'' Burck
remembers. ''They were thinking, 'Oh Lord, we're gonna die. Wade
is the head tiger. Frosty's killing Wade now, and then he's gonna
kill all of us. Oh, Lord.' ''
Burck's brother, Mike, threw him a stick through the cage mesh.
Wade bashed Frosty over the head. Frosty backed off, then came at
him again, bit through his right shoulder, punctured an artery and
broke his collarbone. ''Lord,'' Burck remembers praying just like he
imagined his tigers had been praying moments before, ''if I got to
die, strike me dead now, 'cause it hurts so bad and I don't want to
suffer no more.'' His right arm was useless. His legs and his left
hand still worked, but he was in shock. ''I was in sorry-ass
shape,'' Burck says. ''And the tiger kept on coming.''
Frosty grabbed Burck by the right shoulder again, dragged him to
the rear of the cage and began shaking him. Mike stuck a stick
through the mesh into Frosty's mouth and pried the tiger off his
brother. Burck staggered to his feet. Frosty was terrified. ''In
his mind,'' Burck says, ''he was going, 'Why isn't the head tiger
dead? I've tried everything. I'm in big trouble now.' ''
Bleeding and in pain, Burck somehow managed to finish his act.
Afterward, he was rushed to the hospital, where they wired his broken
jaw and wrapped bandages around his torn-up head, right arm and
chest. He did a show that night. ''I looked like a damn mummy,''
he says, laughing, making the scar on his right cheek dance.
Although it is the closest he has ever come to dying, Burck talks
about the mauling more comfortably than he does about the three years
preceding it, when he was obsessed with being Gunther Gebel-Williams.

This is an article from the July 21, 1986 issue Original Layout

The mauling was deadly, but it was real. The obsession was
something else. It was not solid like a tiger. But it tore Burck
apart just the same. For three years he lost track of who Wade Burck
was.
He forgot that, deep inside, he was a kid from Turtle Lake,
N.Dak., who had grown up training horses on his uncles' ranches.
The kind of kid who got excited about riding out to the salt flats
and spending hours watching elk and beaver and hawks and whooping
cranes.
''Shoot,'' Burck says, sounding like his boyhood self, ''there's
maybe 150 whooping cranes in the whole world, and I actually got to
see some of 'em. North Dakota is on their migratory flight pattern.
Every year a group of about 17 would stop in the salt flats about six
miles from town. And every year, there I was, sitting on my pony,
waiting for 'em to show up.''
At 17, he left North Dakota and apprenticed himself to an animal
keeper, a crusty old Texan named Lou Regan who called him Boy and
taught him how to apply his horse sense and his whooping crane
patience to elephants and tigers. ''Most of the guys doing what I was
doing were transients,'' Burck says. ''Drunks. I had serious plans.
None of the performers believed me. I was a crap shoveler. I was
lowlife.''
One of the few people who talked to him was a teenage aerialist
named Margaret Duke. He could say good morning to her. She would
say good morning back. She didn't treat him like dirt. ''We weren't
like real friends,'' he says softly, ''but at least she was
sociable.'' He felt beholden to her. When he finally became a
full-fledged animal trainer, he married her. She was 18. He was 21.
They had a son, Adam.
By the time he was 22, Burck was still playing Shrine circuses and
amusement parks, working 24-hour days trying to get famous, carrying
a chip on his shoulder the size of an elephant pie.
The European circus people would tell Burck he wasn't European.
The Americans would tell him he wasn't a blue blood, a second- or
third- generation circus performer. He saw himself as an outlaw, and
he made sure everyone else saw him that way, too. ''Somebody would
come up to me and say, 'I'm a Wallenda.' I'd go, 'What's a Wallenda?
I've had pneumonia before. Is it anything like that?' ''
Burck laughs at his outrageous cockiness. He was flashy, favoring
tights and skimpy halter tops that exposed plenty of sweaty chest. He
worked dangerously close to his tigers and made lots of physical
contact -- hugging their necks, patting their noses, riding on their
backs. He took too many chances. He was sexy.
And the sexier he was, the more he reminded people of
Gebel-Williams, who had been sexy for more than a decade. At first,
people called Burck similar. Then they started calling him a copy.
That's when things got strange.
''All I was hearing was Gunther, Gunther, Gunther,'' Burck says.
''Finally, I said, 'I want to be this big shot.' I didn't want people
saying, 'He reminds us of Gunther.' I wanted them saying, 'He reminds
us of what's-his-name.' ''
Gebel-Williams presented horses, elephants and tigers. Burck
presented horses, elephants and tigers. He did the same tricks at the
same frenetic pace. Gebel-Williams dressed his young son, Buffy, in a
matching costume and had him swing from an elephant's trunk. Burck
did the same with Adam. Gebel- Williams ended his act by slinging a
leopard over his shoulders and parading around the arena. Burck slung
a young tiger.
As an ultimate, desperate gesture, Burck dyed his hair blond in
1977 and kept it blond for three years. ''Once I had the blond
hair,'' he says, ''my personality changed. I became the Star. In my
mind, I was being Gunther. In reality, I was just a 22-year-old punk
acting like an arrogant jerk. I was very insecure.''
Burck built a cage around his obsession. A cage made of steel and
paranoia. He whipped himself harder than he has ever whipped any
tiger. Margaret took it until at last she could take it no longer.
''I drove her away,'' Burck says honestly. ''It was, 'Whadduya mean
leaving a sink full of dirty dishes?' And when she tried to explain
that she had simply taken a little time to rest, I threw all the
dishes out.''
Margaret left him. All of his assistants quit. ''One day,'' he
remembers, ''all of a sudden, there I'm sitting -- without a friend,
without a wife, without nothing. It was me and my son and my hound
dog. And the only reason that my son didn't leave was that he was
three years old and couldn't leave. And the only reason the dog
stayed is 'cause I was feeding it.''
Sitting all alone, face-to-face with his own craziness, Burck had
a revelation. ''I went, 'Whoa! Wait a minute. Something's wrong here.
It sure as hell is lonely. Ho-ly cow. Ho-ly cow. Ya blew it, son.'
''
He let his hair return to its natural brown. He stopped trying to
be Gebel- Williams. He got back together with his wife for a while.
They had a second son, Eric. The reconciliation didn't work out. Too
much anger, Burck says, left over from his former strangeness.
He realized that the only way he was ever going to make it to the
Ringling show was to create an act that couldn't be found anywhere
else. He already had a few white tigers. He added more. Outlaw tigers
for the outlaw tiger trainer. White tigers are genetic freaks,
$100,000 creations of captive breeding programs. They do not exist in
the wild because they cannot survive there. All of Burck's white
tigers are hard of hearing. The one named Bagheera is stone deaf.
Three of them are cross-eyed. All of them are neurotic, easily
spooked. The one named Silver is mentally retarded.
When Silver was born, his sac didn't break. When he took his first
breath, he inhaled his placental fluids. Most baby tigers scream.
Silver lay flat, barely breathing. He remained comatose for four
months. Burck had to use a tube to feed him.
Silver is five years old now. He roars all the time and bangs his
head against his cage for reasons that he alone understands. He is
afraid of everything -- the whip, circus music, meat, Burck. It is
clear that Burck loves Silver. It is not man-dog love. It is not
built on trust. The tigers have tried to kill Burck. They will try
again. He loves them anyway. He is not just the head tiger. He is
the head white tiger. To his way of thinking, that's like having an
extra set of fangs.
''I don't care if Gunther's tigers sit up and sing the national
anthem,'' Burck says, flashing his wall-to-wall grin. ''None of 'em
are white. Gunther hates white tigers with a passion. My having the
white tigers is like being Elvis Presley; I've got something you just
can't get anyplace else.''
Because of Burck's unique tigers, owner Irvin Feld signed him up
for 1984 as a featured act for Ringling's Blue Unit. Gebel-Williams
was then entering his 17th year as the main attraction on the Red
Unit. Except for the month of January, when they share winter
quarters in Venice, Fla., the two tiger trainers perform hundreds of
miles apart, constantly circling each other like big cats, aware of
each other's presence, listening for threatening sounds.
Burck drove toward his first Ringling winter quarters with his
hound dog, Macho Man, and a deeply troubled mind. He saw himself as
the upstart, hot- tempered American brat about to be scrutinized by
Gebel-Williams, a blond Teuton known for his cool precision in the
cage. Burck, on the other hand, galloped around the cage like a ranch
hand at roundup time, relying on his New Age tiger psychology. His
attitude toward his tigers seemed to be, ''So, Frosty. How do you
really feel about doing this trick?''
He had seen Gebel-Williams's tigers sit on their seats between
tricks. Regal. Silent. Frozen in time. Not like Silver, who roared
constantly and swiped at phantoms. Not like old Rajah, who abandoned
his seat whenever the spirit moved him, sauntered to the front of the
cage, flopped himself down like a fat man at the beach and yawned
mightily at the crowd. Burck let him do it because he knew that
Rajah felt safe there, close to Burck, away from the other tigers.
He also knew that nobody at Ringling was going to understand this.
Nor would they understand that when he had finally purged himself
of the compulsion to impersonate Gebel-Williams, Burck had sighed
in relief and said to himself, ''When I perform, I want the people to
sit in their seats and go, 'Well, shoot. He's just a regular guy like
me.' ''
His whip was for regular guys, too. Instead of cracking a big
lash whip like other trainers, Burck wields a skinny fiberglass buggy
whip, the kind used on Shetland ponies at kiddie rides.
''In the wild,'' Burck says, ''a tiger will grab a 1,000-pound
water buffalo by the throat and hang on while the buffalo kicks him
and stomps him. That tiger will not release its grip until that
buffalo is dead. Now, how am I gonna physically hurt that tiger? The
secret is never to let him find out that I can't make him do
anything. If that tiger wants me bad enough, he's gonna get me
whether I have a bazooka in my hand or a Popsicle stick.''
Trucking down to Venice that year, one hand on the wheel, the
other on reality, Burck decided that he was going to apply his
buggy-whip approach to the rivalry with Gebel-Williams. Leave the
lash whip and the big stick alone. Keep things light.
Let Gebel-Williams be Ringling's top gun, Burck reasoned. Be a
head white tiger to your tigers. Be a misfit. Be an outlaw. Be a
North Dakota man. Burck knew one semifamous tiger trainer who ended
up an alcoholic. He knew of another one who was living somewhere in
the Florida Everglades, selling tropical fish out of his trailer.
''I'm not gonna be an old man,'' he told himself, ''running around
telling anyone who will listen, 'Ya know, back in 1983, I made tigers
jump through fire.' I'm not gonna have a circus room in my
retirement home with cat seats as coffee tables and elephant tubs as
couches. The hell with that.''
Had his head screwed on tight, Burck did. He was ready for
Ringling.
Nevertheless, when he arrived at winter quarters he was nervous
about meeting, for the first time, the man he had impersonated so
fanatically for three years. But on that first day, Gebel-Williams
showed up at the tiger cage wearing faded jeans and cowboy boots and
behaved more like a roustabout than a living legend.
He ran around outside the cage, pushing a stick through the mesh
to break up fights between Burck's tigers. He didn't talk much. He
was just there. Burck was too awed to say anything. Finally, after
several days, Gebel- Williams asked if there was anything more he
could do to make Burck feel at home. Thanks, no, Burck said politely.
He felt just fine.
Gebel-Williams had never been offended by Burck's three years of
dyed blond hair and desperate attempts to be a Gunther clone. ''Since
I came to Ringling Brothers 18 years ago,'' Gebel-Williams says with
a sly smile, ''you'd be surprised how many animal trainers all over
the world suddenly grew blond hair.''
Burck's problem was not Gebel-Williams. It was Charly Baumann, 58,
the Blue Unit's performance director. Like Gebel-Williams, Baumann
had been imported from Germany. He had starred as a Ringling tiger
trainer for 20 seasons, finally stepping down because he began to
feel strange sensations in the back of his neck whenever there were
tigers behind him. He wanted to retire before his tigers retired him.

But when he finally left the cage, Baumann missed his tigers
terribly. He was overweight. He had been smoking two packs a day for
almost 30 years. His heart and throat were at risk. His anger was as
huge as his massive chest. He sometimes thought that everyone in the
Blue Unit hated him -- including Wade Burck, the guy Feld had hired
to replace Baumann in the cage. Burck decided to win Baumann over.
He took to calling him ''ya big palooka.'' When he knew Baumann was
watching during tiger practice, Burck would whip out Baumann's
autobiography and pretend to be consulting it -- he would look at his
tigers as if confused, look in the book, then smile and nod as if he
had found the answer.
Baumann took to chasing Burck around, brandishing a tiger whip,
burlesquing his own anger. A curious friendship has developed between
the two men.
''He's like ol' Tony,'' Burck says, referring to his 15-year-old
patriarch tiger to whom all other white tigers in the U.S. trace
their bloodlines. ''Tony used to be a warrior. Fought continuously.
Chewed up nine people. But them days are gone now. Now I'm dealing
with an old man. A very scared old man who knows he's not in his
prime anymore. He's blind in his left eye. His nose is just a mass of
scar tissue. He's been replaced. He's going through a hard time now.
Like Baumann.''
One night, after the show, Baumann sits in his office and
complains about Burck. Burck's tigers do not roll over in unison.
Burck's tigers do not waltz with panache. Some people, Baumann says,
look better pushing a wheelbarrow than holding a whip in their hands.
He is not going to mention any names, but Gunther never did that, he
says. He himself never did that. Where, he asks, is the Germanic
elegance of yesteryear?
There is a knock at the door. ''Goddammit!'' Baumann bellows.
''What?'' No one enters. Baumann walks out to see what's going on.
Burck is kneeling in front of a footlocker, eyes tightly closed and
hands clasped together in prayer, head tilted up toward a tiger whip
taped to the wall next to a handmade sign that reads SHRINE OF ST.
CHARLES. The whip is one of Baumann's old ones. There are four green
votary candles burning on the footlocker. Burck rocks back and forth,
praying in reverent tones. ''My tigers have all run away,'' he keens.
''What shall I do? Should I use my big whip? Should I use my little
whip? Should I use my hanky? Give me a sign.''
Baumann rips the whip off the wall. Burck springs to his feet and
runs. Baumann chases him through a gaggle of scattering clowns and
show girls, traps him against a pile of footlockers, drops the whip,
lurches forward and slaps Burck's bare chest so hard that Burck falls
over backward.
Burck shakes off the pain and beckons to Baumann as if he has a
secret to share. Baumann is curious. He leans forward so Burck can
whisper in his ear. Burck lets his wrists go limp and plants a big,
wet kiss on Baumann's right cheek. Baumann recoils in horror.
''Goddammit!'' he roars. ''This is why his cats won't listen to him.
They look at each other and say, 'Who is this wimp?' ''
Baumann reaches out and pinches Burck's nipples, hard. Burck cries
out in pain. ''See?'' Baumann booms. ''He likes that.'' Burck's
relationship with Gebel-Williams is less physical but equally
vaudevillian. Last winter they got together in Florida for a photo
session. Burck introduced Gebel-Williams to the photographer as the
bus driver from the Red Unit. Then he knelt and kissed
Gebel-Williams's ring. The living legend responded by blessing Burck
with his whip, touching him lightly on the head.
When the photo session was over, Burck took Gebel-Williams over to
his truck. ''Something here I want you to see,'' he said. Then he
showed Gebel- Williams the rear bumper, which is dominated by a
sticker that reads: GUNTHER IS COMING! ''That's the last thing people
see,'' Burck said, ''when I leave town.'' Burck has come a long way
from his blond days. He has exorcised his demons. He has used his
country boy humor and his big-cat psychology to establish
whippersnapper but workable relationships with the somewhat aloof
Gebel-Williams and the rampaging Baumann.
Burck still feels like an outlaw in the circus world. Although he
feels accepted, he is in the circus but he is not of the circus. His
dream is to save enough money to own a wild-animal park. Closed to
the public. Just him and his white tigers and all kinds of endangered
species. The kind of place where a bunch of whooping cranes might
want to spend some time.
''But every once in a while,'' he says, watching the roustabouts
wheel his tigers out of the arena, ''I have another kind of feeling.
Just for a moment. And not more times than I can count on one hand,
y'understand. Once in '84, three times in '85.
''I take my bow and I look at the people and I say to myself,
'Aren't I just the neatest thing in the world? Aren't I the
greatest?' It's a high. It's like you took a big suck of oxygen or
something. That moment of glory when you are the conquering hero.
The epitome of show business. Ya know, I've actually started to strut
a little bit. . . .'' END

Photo(s):PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONO Here Burck holds his snarling tigers at bay; six years ago he was nearly killed by one.PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONO His scar reminds Burck to be forever wary.PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONOPHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONO Burck, who was once obsessed with becoming a carbon of the great Gunther GebelWilliams (above), shoulders a stuffed toy lioness in a waggish salute to his hero.PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONOPHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONO White tigers are genetic freaks with neurotic minds and crosseyes, but their trainer loves them.PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONO Burck breakfasts with sons Adam and Eric while Kathleen Sealak, a friend, looks on.PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONO This Florida sign doesn't say anything about cats.