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Circus Ring of Fame Wheel Plaque

Ursula Boettcher

Inducted into the Ring of Fame: 2018

Circus Profession: Bear Trainer

Born: 1927

Died: 2010

Ursula Boettcher and Alaska Circus Ring Of Fame Foundation inductees

Dominique Jando and Christian Hamel

Ursula Böttcher (1927-2010) was
one of the most celebrated female animal trainers in the second half of the
twentieth century. The diminutive German artist (she was 1,57 m.
tall—or 5,1 feet) with the predestined name (Ursula comes from
ursus , which means bear in Latin) stroke an amazing figure near the huge
polar bears she eventually chose to present, and which made her a circus star
all over Europe and in the United States.

She was born Ursula Blütchen in Dresden, Germany, on June 6, 1927, in a working class
family. “Uschi,” as her friends called her, didn’t
“run away and join the circus” in the adventurous manner typically
described in cheap novels: She took a job as an usher and cleaning woman with
Circus Busch , which was visiting Dresden in 1952. She was twenty-five,
living right after WWII in a city that laid in ruins in Soviet-controlled
East Germany; her brother had been killed on the Russian Front, and Ursula
desperately needed to make a living by herself. At Circus Busch, she met and
fell in love with Erich Böttcher, assistant to the elephant trainer,
Epi Vidane . Ursula liked her new life; she stayed with the circus and married
Böttcher in 1955. She had also caught the circus bug, and began to
take an interest in animal training. Meanwhile, Böttcher became the
assistant of the famous Dutch wild animal trainer Jean Michon , before taking
over a group of brown bears that he went on to present at Circus Barley in
1955.

Apprenticeship There, the Dutch trainer Gaston Bosman , who was also
performing in the show, taught Ursula to present his small group of three
lions, with which she eventually made her performing debut at Circus Barley
on July 19, 1955, in her home city of Dresden. She was pregnant then: At the
end of the season, she became the proud mother of a daughter, Maria Angelika.
Meanwhile, the new German Democratic Republic had nationalized most of its
surviving circuses into a central organization, and their performers had
become employees of the State. Erich Böttcher was sent with his
brown bears to Circus Sarani, one of the few private circuses left, which was
owned by Ernst Probst . Ursula’s budding career as a lion trainer
had come to a halt. Nonetheless, she was helping her husband with his six
bears, and in 1956, the Böttchers were offered another contract at
Circus Busch, on the condition this time that the couple change roles: Ursula
would present the bears, and Erich would assist her. Thus she resumed career
as an animal trainer; in 1959, Ursula was given to present a new group of
mixed animals: two leopards, three brown bears, and two polar
bears—her first polar bears.

In 1960, Ursula Böttcher, now
a respected artist on her own, got her first contract out of Germany, with
the Bulgarian Circus Globus . It was still Eastern Europe, though. The
following year, she returned to Circus Barley, now called Olympia, to take
over a group of six lionesses, and after that a group of eight polar bears
purchased from the Swedish circus Trolle Rhodin , which became her first
polar bear act. “Alaska” And Other Polar Bears In 1964, Ursula was
given another group of seven polar bears and one brown bear, trained by
Wolfgang Mantag : This last group would serve as the foundation for the act
that was to make her famous. It already included Alaska , the white giant
that became her favorite, and “kissed” her at the end of their act.
Two more polar bears were added later, and when Charly , the veteran brown
bear, died in 1967, he was replaced by another polar bear, bringing
homogeneity the group that now totaled ten animals.

From 1964 to 1970, Ursula
went to work with this act to Circus Aeros , then East Germany’s
premier circus. She had divorced Erich Böttcher, and had a new
assistant, Manfred Horn (1939-1990), who would stay with her until his death,
in 1990, from an attack by a Kodiak bear. Ursula Böttcher also went
to perform abroad with Aeros in Romania, Hungary, and even a few cities in
USSR. She spent the winter of 1970-1971 at the Fövárosi
Nagycirkusz in Budapest, and then was offered her first engagement out of the
Eastern bloc, with Circus Boltini in Holland for the 1971 season. She
returned to Budapest for the winter of 1971-1972, and was contracted for two
seasons (1972 and 1973) by Cirque Jean Richard , then France’s
premier circus, also considered as one of Europe’s best venues for
a circus artist, especially an animal trainer; Ursula would keep fond
memories of her two French seasons. The 1974 season saw her at Circo Price in
Spain. Then Ursula and Manfred packed their equipment and prepared their
bears for a long trip:

In November, they flew to the United States, where
Irvin Feld had signed them to star in The Greatest Show On Earth , Ringling
Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. American Years And Back To Europe
Ursula Böttcher spent six years in the United States: She was
featured in Ringling’s Blue Unit in 1976 and 1977, spent the two
following years at the Felds’ short-lived amusement park, Circus
World , in Orlando, Florida, and then returned to the Blue Unit for the 1980
and 1981 seasons. She was a sensation in America, where an act such as hers
had not been seen since the 1950s, when The Greatest Show On Earth still
performed under the big top, and Albert Rix presented his spectacular mixed
bear act.

Back to Europe, Ursula continued to work alternately in Eastern and
in Western Europe, with contracts at Circus Busch, Circus Kronebau in Munich,
and Circus Berolina . In December 1983, she appeared at the International
Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo , where she was awarded the Nice-Matin prize.
She then spent the 1984 season at Circus Knie in Switzerland, after what she
flew to Japan, where she participated in an official tour of the GDR State
Circus. The GDR also immortalized Ursula Böttcher in a postage
stamp, part a series of four stamps celebrating the circus. Ursula and
Manfred Horn with the Kodiaks After an engagement at Liana Orfei ’s
Golden Circus in Italy, and another at Munich’s Circus Kronebau in the winter
of 1985-1986, Ursula was featured in the grand opening show of the new
Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin—a new version of prewar-Germany’s
glorious “varieté” theaters, rebuilt on the place where the
old Cirkus Albert Schumann had once stood. There, she began renewing her
group, some animals having reached the age of retirement.

She also acquired
and began to train a group of four young Kodak bears—dangerous and
powerful animals with a reputation of being impossible to train. In June
1989, she presented in the same cage an extended group of fourteen polar
bears and four Kodiaks, her largest group ever. That same year, Alaska , the
white giant and Ursula’s favorite, passed away at the age of
twenty-six. Other veterans were retired.

The following year, Ursula
Böttcher presented her group shrunk back to ten polar bears, while
Manfred Horn presented the Kodiaks. The dangerous Kodiaks were now grown up
and were becoming increasingly difficult; they often refused to work. Yet
Manfred didn’t give up. On September 21, 1990, during a rehearsal
in Minden, Germany, he was attacked by one of them, Nemo . Ursula and the
equestrian and acrobat Dany Cesar came to Manfred’s rescue, but he
was badly injured; he died one month later, on October 23. Final Years Ursula
continued to work, alone. She returned to Munich’s Circus Kronebau
in January 1991, and then went on tour with the new Circus Aeros-Olympia,
born of the re-privatization of the circuses after the fall of the Communist
regime in East Germany. She continued to train new bears, with the help of
her first teacher and old friend, Gaston Bosman.

In December 1991, she was
with Circus Busch-Roland in Berlin, and then spent the 1992 season in Spain,
at Circo Mundial . In the winters of 1994-1995 and 1995-1996, she returned
with Circus Aeros, now managed by the former cat trainer, Christine Samel .
Meanwhile, she worked at Berlin’s Spreepark and, in 1996, at
Hoppegarten—the old winter quarters of the Berliner Circus Union,
the RDA State circus organization. Joachim Krebs had become
Ursula’s new assistant and companion.

Then Ursula Böttcher
signed for two seasons with the new Circus Richter in Hungary, run by the
famous family of equestrians and elephant trainers. These would be her last
full seasons. She lost her last old bears ( Norda , the oldest, was 38!), and
her group was reduced to six when she presented it at Cirque Rose-Marie
Malter in Anvers, Belgium, in December 1997. Her final engagement was at
Circus Busch-Berlin in 1998. Then the Berliner Circus Union, which owned
Ursula’s animals, was dismantled, and to her dismay, her bears were
sold to various zoos in Germany.

At 71, the brave Ursula finally retired,
with her full state pension since she had, from her years of work under the
East German regime, the status of a civil servant. Ursula Böttcher
passed away in her native city of Dresden, on March 3, 2010, in her
eighty-third year.