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When legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams cracks the whip on his farewell tour with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus next fall, Buffalo-area fans will have to go elsewhere to see him.

And local followers of world-class ice skating may not get to witness the nation's premiere amateur skating competition, Skate America, which was to have been held here in October for the first time.

The reason: Scheduling conflicts with the Buffalo Sabres, apparently because of misunderstandings among the organizers of those events, Memorial Auditorium management, the Sabres and National Hockey League schedule makers.

Skate America requested in writing in September 1988 that the city-run Auditorium set aside next Oct. 15-21 for the elite figure skating and ice dancing program, said Elizabeth Ruddy, chairwoman of the local organizing committee.

"It's the only international skating competition in the United States this year," she said.

The event expected to draw 80 competitors from 19 countries, including the world's three top-ranked male figure skaters, and organizers hoped it would give Buffalo the inside track in bidding to stage the 1994-95 World Figure Skating Championships, Ms. Ruddy said.

She said the group received a written reply later that month from George Gould, Aud director, committing the dates to Skate America. Last November, she said, Gould asked the Sabres, whose lease gives them their choice of Aud dates, to schedule October home games around Skate America.

Somehow, the signals got crossed.

Ms. Ruddy received calls last month from Gould and Gerry Meehan, Sabres general manager, informing her that the league had booked two games for the Aud during the week of the skating competition. The Sabres will face Pittsburgh Oct. 17 and Montreal Oct. 19.

Frantic, she tried to forecheck the schedule, but it was too late.

"I talked to Seymour Knox IV (assistant to his father, Sabres President Seymour Knox III), but he said nothing could be done," Ms. Ruddy said. "I cried for two days."

Similarly, Ringling Bros. applied well in advance to bring the circus to town NOV. 6-11 but was shut out because the Sabres are scheduled to play Vancouver in the Aud Nov. 9, said Joe Lewi, regional marketing director of "The Greatest Show on Earth."

"We found out last week in a letter from George Gould," Lewi said.

Meehan and Gould were out of town and could not be reached Thursday for comment. Calls to Nancy Smith, Aud assistant director, were not returned.

But Seymour Knox IV said the Sabres were unaware of any firm request by either organization to use the Auditorium next fall.

"We got a letter from the skating group two years ago, but when we submitted our dates to the league in December, they weren't on it for some reason," he said. "It's one of those things where we sort of knew about it but didn't really, if you know what I mean."

"We never got anything from the circus," he added.

From the Sabres' viewpoint, the October games will be particularly important at the turnstile. Pittsburgh features superstar Mario Lemieux, always a crowd-pleaser. Montreal is a traditional Buffalo rival and its latest playoff nemesis.

Nevertheless, had Skate America and Ringling Bros. followed through before the hockey season was mapped, the Sabres would have done their best to accommodate them, Knox said.

"We work with everybody," he said, noting that the Sabres' 20 years as the Auditorium's primary tenant have been largely free of conflicts with other organizations.

Ms. Ruddy is working to salvage Skate America by rescheduling the figure skating and ice dancing events around the hockey games. But it won't be easy, in part because of the technical requirements of ESPN, the sports network that is expected to televise the program.

"We'll have to take down our advertising from around the rink, remove the TV cameras and the communications wires and dismantle the trade show in the lobby, and then put it all back up again. Twice."

Whether the governing bodies, the International Skating Union and the U.S. Skating Federation will go along with the revised setup, is another matter, she said.

They may have little choice. The program already has been publicized in international skating circles; hotel bookings have begun to flow in; and the local committee has begun soliciting corporate sponsors for the estimated $250,000 it will cost to stage the show.

"We've already sold 1,000 tickets," Ms. Ruddy said.

Despite the scheduling debacle, she believes her group can pull off the program impressively enough to bring the 1994-95 world skating championships to Buffalo.

"An official of the U.S. Skating Federation said, 'You can kiss that goodbye,' but I'm not so sure," she said.

But "The Greatest Show on Earth" will not be the greatest show in Buffalo this time around, Lewi said.

"We definitely won't be playing Buffalo," he said. "It's the nature of the beast -- a routing problem. When one day is in question, we have to skip the city altogether."

Thus circus fans will miss their last chance to see Gebel-Williams, the flamboyant white-maned master of the big cats, who will retire after the tour ends.

"This was going to be his second to last stop," Lewi said.

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