Gee Gee Engesser
Inducted into the Ring of Fame: 2008
Equestrian, Animal Trainer and Presenter, Producer of animal themed theatrical shows
Born: 1926 Died: 2008
Gee Gee Engesser
The Blond Bombshell of the Circus World
A Biographical Snapshot: Gee Gee Engesser was born into the circus business and mastered a wide array of talents; from training arctic sled dogs to the great Asian elephant, she was a natural at whatever she accomplished.
When asked about her life she noted three factors that defined her work. She was first and foremost a circus artist, animal lover and trainer of many different species. Second, she was a fiercely independent woman who raised a family, owned a business and sent her son to college while performing - long before "women's lib" was even on the horizon. Third, she was a passionate advocate for "genuine animal welfare" and the rights of humans and animals to work together. It was this magical combination of heritage and hard work that made Gee Gee Engesser a one-of -a-kind for the history books.
Early Years: Born Georgedda Zellmar Engesser on August 6, 1926 in St. Peter, Minnesota, the middle daughter of George Engesser and Vates Swenson, she was literally raised in the circus. George and Vates were vaudevillian performers and owners of traveling repertory shows and circuses. At one time in the mid 1920’s the Engesser Family owned and operated six traveling theatre shows and Schell Bros/Zellmar Bros. Circuses. To young Gee Gee this was her playground and early circus education. It was on this backdrop that Gee Gee grew up. At the age of three, she performed swinging aerial ladders and acts with elephants and ponies on her parents’ circus.
During her early teens she performed with dogs, goats and learned trick riding and roman riding on Barker Bros., Attabury Bros and Kelly Miller Bros. shows. During this time she also served the civilian war effort making toys for children of military families during World War II.
The Incredible 16 Horse Roman Riding Hitch: In 1945, at the age of 18 Gee Gee joined the great Cole Bros. Circus as a featured equestrienne. While on Cole Bros. she performed jumping horses, ménage horses, swinging ladder and rode with the Loyal Repenski bareback riding act. However, her greatest accomplishment was riding the difficult and daring 16- horse roman post hitch. Standing astride two horses hitched to 14 in front she raced around the hippodrome track at breakneck speed thrilling young and old alike. To this day she is one of a handful of people to successfully master this feat. In doing so, she became know as the blond bombshell of the circus world and received national media attention culminating with a full-page cover photo on This Week Magazine (the predecessor of Parade Magazine).
In 1946, she met and married Bill Powell Sr., an accomplished center ring wire walker, and they toured and performed together on the Cole Bros., Cristiani Bros., Daily Bros, and Clyde Beatty Circuses.
The Alaskans: In 1951, her son Bill Jr. was born while she was busy preparing for her next uncharted venture. Alaskan malamute sled dogs and arctic wolves had always fascinated Gee Gee. After doing extensive research on sled dogs she reasoned that they potentially could become a great circus attraction. There were three problems; these animals were large, possessed vicious temperaments and were considered largely untamable in a circus act setting. Not to be discouraged she personally selected eight large Malamute/Wolf mixture pups and hand raised them for over two years during the training process. The results were nothing less than spectacular. The animals large size (120 lbs.) and aggressive nature combined to make an explosive presentation that captivated audiences nationwide.
From 1953 until 1970 “Gee Gee’s Alaskans” toured as the feature attraction on every major sports and recreation exposition and Shrine Circus engagement in America. She also toured and performed the Husky act with Gil Gray/The Show Beautiful, Clyde Bros., Tom Packs, Cowboy movie star Gene Autry’s stadium spectaculars, Pollack Bros. and Atayde Bros. in Mexico City. She was also featured on the television shows What’s My Line and You Asked for It. Her image, a fur clad beautiful blond bombshell posing with Alaskan Huskies, graced covers of numerous of major newspapers around the country. But this was only the beginning.
Lions and Tigers and Bears and More: In 1968, Gee Gee married her second husband, elephant trainer Robert “Bucky” Steele, and together they acquired 6 elephants, 12 mixed cats, 6 black bears and 12 white Willmar ponies. For the next ten years they toured Gatti Charles, Hamid Morton, George Matthews Great London circuses and numerous major indoor Shrine dates.
In 1970, Gee Gee and husband Bucky’s five elephants were featured performers in the Disney television movie Runaway on Rogue River/The Great Elephant Chase, starring Slim Pickens and Willie Aames. In 1986, her mastodon clad elephants were featured in another major motion picture, Quest for Fire.
Upon retiring from active performing in 1983, she turned to producing a circus in Montreal, Quebec at Parc Safari, a well known theme park in Canada. It was during her tenure at Parc Safari that she conceived a totally new live theatrical animal attraction when A Town Called Justice debutedin 1987. As the producer of “Justice” she combined the best elements of musical theatre, circus acts, movie stunts and animal attractions. This unique blend of animals and musical theatre ran successfully for seven years to standing room crowds at Parc Safari.
Giving Back: In 2002, Gee Gee Engesser opened yet another new chapter in her life long dedication to the circus. She organized the first recognized charitable event for animal and circus industry causes at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s dress rehearsal in Tampa, FL. As a result of her efforts, she raised approximately $75,000 for a variety of pro-circus animal organizations including the International Elephant Foundation, the Outdoor Amusement Business Association and other worthy causes.
Awards and Recognition: In 2007 Gee Gee Engesser was inducted into the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art as Circus Celebrity. She was one of 30 circus artists worldwide to receive this recognition. In 2008 Gee Gee received one of the highest honors in the circus arts with her induction into the Ring of Fame on Sarasota’s historic St. Armand’s Circle.
Gee Gee Engesser passed away July 15, 2008 seven months after her induction. She was just three weeks shy of her 82ndbirthday. For over eight decades she personified the circus and remained active in promoting the circus arts to the rest of the world.
Personal: Unique among circus performers of her era Gee Gee Engesser stressed higher education to her family and encouraged her son to attend college instead of performing. Gee Gee continues to be an inspiration to all who knew and loved her. She is survived by her son William Wright Powell, a successful live entertainment executive and Chair of the Circus Ring Of Fame Foundation, grandson Cory Powell, a MBA graduate at the University of South Florida and daughter in law Sherry Powell, Chief Marketing Officer at the Florida Orchestra.