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Obituary: Rolf Knie

Rolf Knie was a giant of the circus world, in more senses than one. A large, authoritative man, he was dwarfed only by his favourite animals, the elephants he trained and presented at the Swiss National Circus Knie.

Among his fellow circus directors, he was acknowledged as one of the giants of the industry in which Circus Knie reigned supreme throughout Europe, with a world-wide reputation for quality and class. While Bertram Mills Circus in Great Britain was, from the 1920s to the 1960s, regarded as the finest here, the name of Knie will live on as the most respected circus in the world.

Representing the fifth generation of a circus dynasty now into its seventh generation, Rolf Knie and his brother Fredy, their father Frederic and uncles Rodolphe, Eugene and Charles, received the ultimate accolade of the circus industry on 19 July this year with the induction of their names into the International Circus Hall of Fame. Rolf had retired from the circus ring as a performer in 1969, having been Europe's leading elephant trainer, but for some 50 years, from 1941, Rolf and brother Fredy directed the fortunes of the Circus Knie which became Switzerland's National Circus and its most-loved form of entertainment; both Rolf and Fredy and their sons enjoyed a cult following in Switzerland almost akin to that accorded royalty or pop-stars.

Rolf himself started his career as a child acrobat, but due to his large physique later followed his father, a trainer of dogs, polar bears, horses and a clown to boot into the field of animal training. He was pitched into the presentation of elephants at the tender age of 16, when the trainer of a group of Knie elephants at a Danish circus fell sick. He followed his uncle Charles (who died in 1940) into elephant training, taking over the big herd of Indian elephants after the departure of the master trainer Franz Kraml from Czechoslovakia at the end of 1939.

In 1941 he trained the elephant "Baby" to do a sensational feat: walking a tightrope, an act he later presented at the Scala Theatre, Berlin, while his brother Fredy worked at the equally famous Wintergarten theatre there, a favourite haunt of the German leader Adolf Hitler. In 1953, he trained another elephant, "Sabu", to perform this trick, and brought it to London for the second of his appearances in Tom Arnold's Circus at Harringay Arena in 1953/54.

His first appearance in England had been at Blackpool Tower Circus, during the winter of 1949, but he and his brother, probably the world's finest horse trainer, also supplied wild animal acts, chimpanzees, horses and elephant numbers to circuses in Birmingham, Glasgow and to the Bertram Mills Circus at Olympia, London. His animals were also featured with circuses throughout Europe, and his efforts in the breeding of elephants in captivity led to the birth of several young Asian elephants, a remarkable achievement.

In 1956, Knie acquired seven young African elephants from Basel Zoo, and was the first in Europe to present a group of these animals in the sawdust ring, this variety being considered generally much more difficult to train than the Indian or Asian species.

Rolf Knie was born in 1921 in Wetzikon in Switzerland, where the Circus Knie was on tour at the time. The Knie showbusiness dynasty was founded in the early 19th century by an Austrian, Frederic Knie (1784-1850), whose family became famous as acrobats and tightwire performers in the village squares, working al fresco. It was not until Louis Knie (1842-1909) took his family and settled in Switzerland that his sons Rodolphe, Frederic, Charles and Eugene decided in 1919 to start a circus. Receiving no financial assistance from their widowed mother, they obtained credit from the Swiss tentmakers, Geisers, who gave them a two-poler big top, enabling them to open their travelling show on 1 June 1919 in Berne.

The year 1919 was also auspicious for Frederic and Rodolphe since they both married. The following year Frederic's wife Marguerite gave birth to their son Frederic (known as Fredy) and the year after to Rodolphe (Rolf). Fredy and Rolf both followed their father and uncles, becoming talented acrobats, riders and animal trainers. Rolf eventually specialised in elephants and Fredy in horses, both of them the pre-eminent trainers in European circuses.

In 1939, they decided to throw open their training establishment to the public, in order to prove to all that cruelty was not involved in the painstaking and loving training of their animals. This practice is still carried on at Circus Knie today, where daily rehearsals and training sessions can be viewed by the public at large.

In 1950, Rolf Knie married Tina di Giovanni, sister of Dora Caroli, whose husband was the famous bareback rider and clown Enrico Caroli, who often appeared in England with Bertram Mills, Tom Arnold's and Billy Smart's circuses. Tina, who came from Milan, took her traditional place as a Knie spouse in the circus booking office. Their first son, Louis, was born in 1951, and their second, Franco, was born in 1954.

Following Rolf's retirement from the ring as a trainer and presenter in 1969, his son Louis succeeded him with the elephants, later followed by Franco. Louis also excelled as a rider of haute ecole (dressage), and a trainer of tigers, combining in one act tigers which rode on the backs of full-grown elephants. Following the retirement of Rolf and Fredy, after 50 years at the helm of Circus Knie, Rolf Knie ran for a while their delightful Children's Zoo in Rapperswil, where the circus also wintered.

In 1994, Louis Knie left the family concern to launch his own show in Austria, under the title of the Austrian National Circus Louis Knie, sided by his son, Louis Jnr.

Rolf's younger son Franco, in partnership with his cousin Fredy Knie Jnr, today controls the destiny of the Swiss National Circus, the most prestigious touring circus in the world, and members of the seventh generation of Knies are among its performers.

In true showbusiness tradition, Circus Knie did not interrupt its schedule on hearing of the death of Rolf Knie, its administrative director of 50 years, but continued to play to packed audiences in the Swiss capital, Berne.

D. Nevil

Rodolphe Knie, elephant trainer and circus director: born Wetzikon, Switzerland 23 November 1921; married 1950 Tina di Giovanni (two sons); died Rapperswill, Switzerland 18 August 1997.