Training a dog to fetch or jump is no surprise, though it can take time. The same principle goes for teaching a parrot to mimic a phrase or respond to a whistle. But what about training geese to perform on stage? Or training house cats to do, well, anything?
Those are the challenges that inspired Russian-born Gregory Popovich to create the World Famous Popovich Comedy Pet Theater, coming to Hutchins Street Square on Oct. 24. It’s a combination of human talent and fun with pets to encourage the audience to make room in their families for a dog or cat from an animal shelter.
“We have a very unusual show, with pets working with actors,” he said. “We don’t push them, or ask them to do anything against their nature. They act like normal, but we make it funny.”
Popovich could not see himself in any other line of work, he said. Performing is a strong element of his heritage. He was born in Moscow to Russian circus performers Alex and Tamara Popovich, who also specialized in dog training. Popovich used his connection with his mother’s show dogs to make his way onstage as an assistant to his mother’s act.
He learned to juggle at six years old, performed his first solo at act 15, and joined the Moscow Circus Group at age 17. Popovich traveled the world with the circus, and represented the group at international circus competitions in Paris, Brussels, and Monte Carlo. He earned a five year degree naming him an official Circus Creator and Producer. In 1990, he became the first Russian artist to appear in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.
That’s how the circus life came about. But how did cats enter into it? In 1992, Popovich was invited to perform in Las Vegas at the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino. He was practicing with his wife, Izolda, when the pair decided to use the family kitten in his clown act. The audience loved the cute kitten’s antics, and Popovich was inspired to create a whole show based on animals.
Where does one pick up performing cats? Popovich found his at animal shelters across the United States.
“There are a lot of talented, nice looking pets looking for a home,” he said. “We didn’t have the shelters for pets in Russia, so as a pet lover I was very excited about these.”
Every animal in the show, from the 14 house cats, to the 12 dogs, was rescued from an animal shelter. These pets, along with three geese, two parrots and five white mice all live on the Popovich’s Las Vegas ranch.
The key to getting pets to cooperate among the music, lights and crowds is time, patience and an understanding of the animal’s natural abilities.
If one cat likes to climb, and can always be found on the highest shelf at home, Popovich will create a sketch that uses a climbing cat. Training starts at home, with lots of treats and no lights or music. Popovich may use a feather to catch the cat’s attention, then coax it across a set of poles or up a tall post. The trick is rehearsed hundreds of times, increasing the sounds and distractions a little each time. To master the routine at home takes about two months, but the transition to the stage can take twice as long, said Popovich.
“You want to know the real secret? I have two or three cats for each one,” he said. “I see the cat and I know who will pay attention. That’s the only way to do an every day show.”
So dogs must be smarter, right? Not so, says Popovich. Dogs are easier to train because they have more energy and are easier to teach, but they aren’t very smart. Cats are very smart, but are often lazy and don’t want to do anything.
That independent feline mind is easily distracted onstage, too. Years ago, on the Circus Circus stage in Las Vegas, Popovich was in the middle of an act with three experienced cats and one newbie. The stage was circular, and situated in the center of the casino floor. A few yards offstage, one gambler won a major jackpot. The cat was used to the normal sounds of a casino, but the impromptu light show and crash of coins into the tray were too much. The cat paused in the middle of the act to stare at the commotion.
“I tried to call him, say ‘Hey, come on, let’s go to work,’ but it went on for three minutes,” he said.
Luckily, Popovich was able to work the distraction into the act, and the audience was understanding.
What about the dogs? They are much more eager to please, he said.
There’s one dog who is so lazy, he seems to move in slow motion.
Instead of pushing the dog to jump, bark, or perform energetically, Popovich lets him play the lazy student in a dog school sketch.
“He’ll be the lazy one hiding behind the desk. It sometimes has more laughs than a jumpy dog. With his face and expressions, it’s the perfect setting to show his personality,” he said.
Popovich and his expanding show have gone back and forth from the Las Vegas stage over the years.
In 1995, the show was known as the “One Man Moscow Circus,” and toured around major cities in Japan. Then it was back to the United States to bring dogs into the act.
In 2000, the show went international once more and thrilled audiences in more than 20 countries. In June 2006, the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater debuted at the V Theater in the Aladdin Resort and Casino.
The storyline highlights Popovich’s message about caring for abandoned pets. In the show, Popovich is kicked out of the circus and is homeless before finding his place among homeless pets. He uses their talents to impress the circus folk and make it back in.
The 75 minute show includes juggling, balancing acts, and acrobatics skills by the animals and eight humans.
“We have the pet talent and the human talent,” said Popovich, who asks the audience to judge by applause which group is more talented. “My pets have always not lost.”