Amazing Acro-Cats have impurrfect start in circus

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Fifteen circus cats were stuck on a bus — and they had a performance in two hours.

“Jax is like, ‘I’ve got this.’ No you don’t, Jax,” said circus owner Samantha Martin, fending off Jax’s paws as she fed keys through a tiny bus window to a  human also trapped inside.

Even on a good night, things can go awry for The Amazing Acro-Cats, a traveling cat circus with accompanying cat band. A furry performer wanders offstage, someone hisses at someone else, the fish treats aren’t enough of an enticement to do, well, anything.

“They’re cats,” Martin said. “It’s really up to them, when it comes down to it. And we want it to be fun, anyway. It’s supposed to be fun for the cats. It’s supposed to be fun for me. It’s supposed to be fun for the audience. It may not be a perfect show — but it’s a fun show.”

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Opening night in Maine on Thursday had a little extra fun.

Because someone else needed the St. Lawrence Arts Center stage the night before, Martin and her assistants had to scramble to set up. Pudge’s special hoop went missing. Martin hadn’t had the chance to shower. 

But it was OK. They had two hours until showtime. They just needed to rehearse; the cats had never been on this stage. They just needed to get the cats out and acclimated.

And that’s when the bus door jammed.

***

Martin found a ladder and — wearing a strappy summer dress and cat-ears headband — plunged herself through one of the bus’ small windows to get inside.  

They’d been through this with the 52-year-old tour bus before. The door was persnickety. If popping a key into the inside lock didn’t help, pushing hard from the inside would usually snap it open. 

But not this time.

Ninety minutes to showtime, publicist/sound engineer/assistant Polly Smith called AAA for a locksmith.

“It’s very easy to spot,” Smith told AAA, referring to the purple bus plastered with giant cat photos. “Very easy.”

Someone called the VIP Tour & Charter Bus Company’s after-hours emergency line. Though the vehicle didn’t belong to VIP, perhaps the company could offer some advice for getting into a cat circus tour bus.

“Is this a crank call?” the operator asked.

No, no it is not, the caller assured the operator, who agreed to send a mechanic.

In the meantime, the bus — parked on busy Congress Street in front of the arts center — drew attention from passersby. All passersby.

“I can’t imagine training a cat,” one woman mused. “My cats trained me.”

People whipped out cellphones and snapped photos of the bus. They cooed at the cats that lounged in the bus windows and chuckled at the idea of a cat circus/band.

“Of course they play instruments — because what else would a cat do?” said one man.

An hour before showtime, eager audience members started lining up. Just as AAA arrived, the bus door suddenly burst open.

Martin had finally gotten the lock to release.

Within moments, volunteers and circus assistants began shuttling the cats (along with Cluck Norris, the chicken, and Garfield, the groundhog) into the arts center, each carrier personalized with sparkly letters.

Jax. Oz. Tuna. Buggles. Over a dozen more.

It was thirty minutes to showtime.

In her show outfit — black pants, a purple top and glittery sliver-and-purple cat ears — Martin swept into the 110-seat theater. The stage was covered in glitzy purple props: platforms, stools, balls, hoops, a skateboard and a drum set.

Martin looked around at her animals. Most were serenely resting in their carriers. A few of the cats seemed to be carrying on a conversation in meows.

Martin gasped. “We forgot the rat,” she said.

***

Martin started training animals when she was 10. As an adult, she said, she spent years as a zookeeper and presenter for an educational wildlife show. For a while, she ran a rat circus. 

Then came Tuna, the cat.

“She was kind of the catalyst, the inspiration behind the show,” Martin said. “She was different from any other cat I’d had. She really took to training. It wasn’t about affection for her; it was really about learning. So I ended up teaching her like 16 different things and I started taking her places to showcase her talents. People were just amazing. They were like, ‘I can’t even believe this! Cats can be trained.'”

Martin’s cat-training secret: capitalize on a cat’s natural ability — like jumping — then reward that behavior with a clicker and treats (hand-cooked fresh tuna, chicken and salmon) to get the cat to do it on command. Emphasize treats. 

Over the years, she added more cats to the act, all of them strays, rescues or orphans. Based in Illinois, the circus started touring about four years ago. It’s also been featured in The New York Times, on “The Steve Harvey Show,” on BBC and on BuzzFeed. 

The group had never performed in Maine before. They’d wandered into Portland after a Boston show a couple of years ago and thought it looked like a nice place to play.

“They contacted us last year and asked if we would be interested in having a cat circus,” said St. Lawrence’s executive director, Deirdre Nice. “I was like, ‘Hell yeah.'”

The group booked the theater for shows from Aug. 6 through 16.

At $20 a ticket online or $22 at the door, Thursday’s Maine premiere was packed. 

Martin had just enough time to run a few cats through their tricks. Alley jumped through a hoop. Buggles rolled a disco ball over a plank which was suspended several feet off the ground.

But then an assistant spilled a container of treats on the stage and Buggles jumped off the platform and trotted off to explore a paper bag jammed under a theater seat. One of the band’s musical instruments — the groundhog’s gong — wouldn’t work. 

“Where’s a reality show when you need one?” Martin said. 

A few minutes later, the theater filled with families with young children, retirees, couples and twenty-somethings in cat T-shirts.

 ***

Tuna, ever the star, hit her mark. At her pawing, an “applause” sign lit up the stage.

The crowd cheered.

The rat, in a blue hat, clamored across a tightrope. Cluck Norris, the chicken, flew from platform to platform.

The crowd cheered.

Martin’s tiny, fluffy foster kitten tried to hop through a hoop but missed. He got it on his second try. 

The crowd cheered.

During the hourlong show, there was a lot of cheering. There was also a lot of feline wandering.

“It makes the show exciting and different every single time,” Martin told the audience after three cats gave up on their tricks to go explore. “We never know which cat it’s going to be, when they’re going to leave, where they’re going to go — and when they’re going to return.”

A few minutes later, two cats streaked across the stage, one chasing the other.

Despite the glitches, the cats got their tricks right more often than they got them wrong. Alley, a world-record holder for longest jump by a cat, leaped across platforms. Tuna rang a bell on cue and gave high fives. Oz flicked a pinwheel with his paw, making it spin. The chicken bowled, knocking down all but one plastic pin, but he couldn’t pick up the spare. 

And the finale: The Rock Cats band, with cats on chimes, bell, drums, piano and guitar, Cluck Norris on tambourine and the groundhog on his gong, which was fixed at the last minute.

It took four humans with five containers of treats, but, for a moment, everyone played at once.

Then the chicken ran off and one of the cats climbed over the guitar and the groundhog stopped ringing the gong, opting instead to stand on his hind legs and wait for treats.

At the end, Martin invited the audience on stage to meet the furry performers who weren’t already wandering around the seats.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Joann Sica, a cat fan who came from Westbrook to see the show. “And it’s cool because they don’t always do what you want them to do.”  

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at ltice@sunjournal.com.

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