Bone and Blood: Cat Circus

I have tried over the years, with limited success, to shed the date-repellent label of “cat lady.” For while I am fond of actual cats, this fondness does not necessarily extend to all cat-branded products. Friends habitually post cat-related memes to my Facebook page. I get birthday cat-cards. Cat calendars. Cat mugs. The most extreme cat gift I’ve ever received came from my ex-boyfriend’s mother: “Crafting with Cat Hair,” a book of actual patterns you can make out of your furbag’s dander-riddled leavings. She gifted this to me twice, forgetting that she had shipped this overseas to my apartment in Korea. “I just saw this in the bookstore and it screamed you!” The thought of a knitted cat hair entity screaming anything is terrifying alone, without it personally targeting my nightmares.

Since I had spent most of the month of June bouncing around on various trips, I had planned absolutely nothing for the 4th of July. Then a post on the neighborhood bulletin caught my attention – “Circus cats coming to town. Tickets selling fast!” I was intrigued, yet skeptical that it would be worth $23 to sit and watch people literally herd cats. Until my friend sent along this promo video for the Amazing Acro Cats:

A groundhog playing a gong? A chicken on percussion name “Cluck Norris”? SOLD – and along with that ticket, any remaining pretenses at dignity. 

As it turns out, I am in good company here in Baltimore. Tickets did indeed sell rapidly. I intended to buy a ticket for my five year old niece, both because I knew she’d enjoy it, and also so I would not be a crazy lady going to a cat circus by myself –  but my ticket ended up being the very last one available. All the other shows sold out as well. The venue opened up <em>standing room</em> tickets, and people actually bought these. At this point, knowing that I was going to write this week’s column about the show, I started to get a little nervous about getting a good seat. For the <em>cat circus</em>. (A final farewell to that last drop of dignity.)

Again, I was far from the only person who showed up early to claim a spot. As I approached the theatre, on the horizon, I saw a gaggle of women bedecked with cat ears gathering next to a big purple tour bus. Pictures of the circus cats were plastered all over the bus, and the women were taking pictures and meowing at the bus. “See you soon, kitties! Meeee-ow!”   

I was also definitely not the only person to show up to this event alone. I took the last seat in the first row, and immediately struck up a conversation with the cat lady next to me. She had a dizzying array of novelty hobbies. Within the first five minutes of our conversation, she mentioned getting back from a viewing of a documentary about 60‘s era Cambodian rock music, and talked about her upcoming performance in a water ballet based on the acting career of Jeff Goldblum.

As she talked, more cat-eared, leopard-printed personas poured into the theater around me. There were only about six children in the audience and they were seated on the floor in front of me; most everyone presented as a grown adult, of sorts. People purred and meowed while sipping “Feline Wine” and “Catty Bohs.” The woman behind me was the cat’s pajamas, for she had worn them to the show. I overheard a couple talking about their twenty-three cats: she had on a fine silvery dress and arched eyebrows; he a vest and a neatly waxed handlebar moustache. Surely none of these people would balk at wearing an article of clothing knitted out of cat fur. They probably had entire houses decorated with contributions from Fluffy and Petunia and Mittens and Socks and…  

Nagging doubts began to pool in the edges of my blown mind. Am I the unusual one here? Do I need to add yet more whimsy to my own ridiculous life? Cat fanatics continued to pile into the theater. Every now and again a cheerful woman in a cat outfit would come out and pump up the crowd with increasingly terrible feline puns: “what do cats want to eat in the summer time? Mice cream!” 

Eventually, the theater filled to capacity sufficiently so that the circus on the stage could commence. The cat ringmaster, Samantha, gave surprisingly practical sounding reasons to attempt training cats. All of her cats will run into their carriers at the sound of a special whistle, which could potentially save their lives in the event of an emergency. I thought of how much effort, mental and physical, it takes to coax and wheedle grumpy old Quark into his carrier. I’ve actually had to reschedule vet appointments in the past, since one failed attempt would preclude the possibility of further attempts for the rest of the day. Perhaps whistle-training wouldn’t be a bad idea. But then I remembered that he is seventeen years old, the equivalent of being eighty-five in human years. He ain’t learning shit. And since he’s managed to survive all my past roommates and their various accompanying fauna, the old man should be just fine in any apartment disaster / zombie apocalypse.

The cat acrobatics were a mixed bag (shocking, I know). Some cats pretty much ran out, grabbed a treat, and then darted directly into the audience. Others occasionally pushed mini grocery carts and disco balls, leapt on and over various platforms, and walked on high beams. The purported star of the show was Tuna, a talented but temperamental sort according to Samantha. Tuna consistently batted at a handbell and lost at a rigged bowling contest against Cluck Norris (the chicken percussionist). 

By far, though, the highlight of the show came at the very beginning. For this particular performance happened to be on July 4th, and they wanted to celebrate the holiday. One of the stage cat ladies brought out a mic stand with a mini American flag installed. Then this massively plump groundhog, wearing a sparkly Uncle Sam top hat, waddled onstage. He reached up with his little paws and raised the fucking flag. No lie, I might have shed a patriotic tear:

As amusing as it was to witness utter mayhem, even the more competent cat stunts got kind of old after a forty-five minute stretch. I was starting to feel dozy, when finally, it was time for the musical portion of the show. This is the part I had most eagerly anticipated. Tuna, the star, played the most important instrument – cowbell. There were cats on chimes, lead guitar, drums and piano. The aforementioned Cluck Norris pecked the cymbal and tambourine, when he wasn’t trying to peck feed or his handler’s fingers. An eerie synth beat played on loop as the cats strummed and clashed and cowbelled. The music put me in mind of The Shaggs, another rock group willed to existence by a mad visionary. Both bands effect a disturbingly similar, atonal yet charmingly clumsy sound.   

After the show, just as after any concert, fans lingered behind to try and pet the band members. I went to the merch table to pick up a DVD for my niece. The DVD features a vast assortment of media clips of The Amazing Acro Cats, TV interviews with the ringmaster, and also this bizarre segment starring Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous (another card-carrying member of the Crazy Cat-lady Club). At dinner that night, my niece watched the DVD, laughing and squealing with delight while us adults chatted nearby, half paying attention (like I said, the visual novelty of cats pushing things around quickly wears off). 

After an hour had passed, we heard a discomfiting sound that was not cats trying to play guitar. I looked over at the TV to see surgical scissors, and a man shoving a gas mask over a prone cat’s face. Alarmed, I ran over and stopped the DVD before my niece could continue to watch the lovely bonus material: a short student film about a neutered cat wreaking revenge against his owner. This film had been included because the star was none other than Tuna, a cat of many talents. Later, after my niece had gone to bed, we watched Zeke – which was actually quite entertaining, if too scary for an impressionable five year old. In addition to “cowbell proficiency” and “ball rolling,” Tuna can add “better actor than Vince Vaughn” to her performance resume. 

From the prime cat-people-watching to the DVD bonus clips, overall I feel that I did extract my money’s worth out of this incredibly impulsive purchase. To quote a Circus Cats fan review: “now I can die, because I’ve seen everything.”