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Theatre Cats


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Theatre land - Shaftesbury Avenue, London Cats were for a long time thought by superstitious theatre folk to bring luck to the house. The tradition of theatre cats, according to a popular theory, began back in pre-Shakespearean times when sailors returning ashore after finishing their sailing careers found employment backstage owing to their familiarity with knots and rigging, and often brought the ship’s cat with them for companionship and for pest control. The latter was very important in those days, because theatre audiences used to come laden with food, which they ate when they were being entertained, and threw at the stage when they were not! Naturally the food scraps tended to encourage the attention of rodents.

Somewhat more recently, in 1867, a gentleman called Joseph Cave took over London's Old Vic Theatre, which was at the time overrun with rats. Not wishing to use poison, he encouraged a stray brindled cat in to deal with the problem; this cat recruited a friend, and before long the theatre had 20 cats!

It wasn't so long ago that practically every theatre in Britain had its backstage cat or cats, of which it was very proud; but times and priorities change and these days, as with cats in hotels, post offices and shops, theatre cats are far fewer in number. Before memories of them are lost we'd like to record some of those that used to 'tread the boards', as well as a very few that we know of that are still around — although now they are virtually all 'front of house' and don't mingle with the cast.

In 2009 the actors' union Equity launched a campaign to reintroduce cats into London's historic theatres, as those and many other central London buildings suffer from rodent infestation, quite severe in some cases, and the union was keen to improve working conditions for actors. However, although the idea was enthusiastically received by some, and would have been an environmentally much friendlier solution than using poison, when it came to the point it seems the plan was not adopted. It was feared cats would be made ill or would even die from poison previously left out, and in any case it was felt that many cats were not effective against rats.

Most of our notes below refer to cats that worked at the West End theatres or in other parts of London, England.


London Theatres

Listed alphabetically by theatre name

Boy Cat, of the Albery Theatre, London

   ALBERY THEATRE (now the Noel Coward Theatre)
Among the last of London's theatre cats were Boy Cat and Girl Cat, working at the then Albery. Boy Cat earned a place in history by eating Princess Margaret's bouquet during a Royal Gala performance, and seems to have been a real character. During a performance of Pygmalion he walked across the stage, jumped down into the audience and sat in a vacant seat in the front row, where one of the audience stroked him for the rest of the show. Then in a performance of Five Guys Named Moe both the cats got stuck under a box on stage and refused to come out until tap dancing began over their heads. Then they made a circuit of the auditorium, chased by ushers!


Theatre cat Polly of the Apollo Victoria Theatre, London

   APOLLO VICTORIA THEATRE
This theatre in the Victoria district was for years the home of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express. It was also the home from 1984 of the feline team of Polly and Victoria, sisters who were rescued as kittens from a watery grave when they were tied up in a plastic bag and thrown into a pond. Victoria died in 1992, leaving Polly to patrol the theatre alone until, in June 1993, a new theatre manager decreed that she had to go, citing new health and safety laws. She was retired to live in the country with the theatre's building foreman, but staff at the Apollo were very upset by her banishment and warned that, as a town-bred cat, Polly would be at risk outside the world she knew. Tragically they were proved right when she was run over and killed on the road, just weeks into her retirement.


Theatre cat Pluto - Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, London
Theatre cat Pluto - Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, London
Theatre cat Pluto - Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, London
Theatre cat Pluto - Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, London

   BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE, Lavender Hill

The Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) has a well-known and much-loved resident black cat called Pluto. He has a Facebook page, initiated in August 2011 although there doesn't seem to be much traffic to it; but there are a couple of short video clips of him there, and from the main BAC Facebook page there's an album of photos. There's more activity on his Twitter account, where a number of photos are posted.

Pluto arrived in 2007 when he appeared in performances of Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death — a review at the time remarked that he played his part beautifully. We don't know if he has taken on any further roles since, but he's probably far too busy managing and supervising everyone!

In 2015 there was a serious fire at the historic building that destroyed the original Grand Hall at the rear, but left the front and other parts intact. Pluto was missing for a few days and appeals were made on social media and in the local press for help to find him; he was found in the basement, lured out and then stayed at the home of a staff member till it was safe for him to return a few weeks later.

Pluto: Facebook | Twitter
BAC: Website | Facebook | Twitter


Theatre cat Marley, of the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush, London
Theatre cat Marley, of the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush, London
Theatre cat Marley, of the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush, London
Theatre cat Pirate, of the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush, London
Theatre cat Pirate, of the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush, London
Theatre cat Pirate, of the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush, London

   BUSH THEATRE, Shepherd's Bush

Since its inception in 1972, the Bush in west London has become world-famous as a champion of playwrights and for its production of new plays. In 2011 it moved to new and much more extensive premises in the heart of Shepherd's Bush — and took on two new felines from the Battersea Cats and Dogs Home. They're outgoing cats, and had three storeys and a garden where they could make themselves at home. They're included on the theatre's staff list, where Pirate (so named because he has only one eye) has the jobs of 'entertaining staff, playing with members of the public and keeping Marley company'. Marley's main jobs are 'to look pretty and purr'. He likes sitting in small spaces, so is likely to be found in his basket or hiding backstage. The boys may even get a part in a play in due course! In August 2012 Pirate went missing for a week, provoking a frantic search, but fortunately he was found safe and well not far away.

Both cats have their own Twitter accounts where photos are frequently posted:
Pirate | Marley


   COMEDY THEATRE
The resident felines here, Marilyn and Vivien (after Monroe and Leigh respectively) were usually to be found stretched out on top of the box-office computers in the Comedy Theatre. The manager said that Marilyn, in particular, spent so much of her time asleep that they sometimes worried she had passed on!


Doyen of theatre cats Beerbohm, of the former Globe Theatre, London
Painting of theatre cat Beerbohm of the former Globe Theatre, London; copyright (C) Frances Broomfield

   (Old) GLOBE THEATRE (now the Gielgud Theatre)
Regarded by many as the doyen of British theatre cats of recent times, Beerbohm came from a line of theatre felines, being born at Her Majesty's Theatre, and he was named after the actor-manager there, Herbert Beerbohm Tree. As a young cat in the mid-1970s he became principal mouser at what was then the Globe. During a production he would usually select a particular member of the cast whose dressing room he would occupy; and from time to time would choose to wander across the stage in the middle of a production, always upstaging the stars! He was not above some mischief; he ate feathers from hats, and played havoc with a collection of stuffed birds used as a decoration on one set. Then for a scene in the production The House of Bernard Alba, the stage was filled with tons of sand and flagstones; Beerbohm was most impressed to be given such a large litter-box and wasted no time in putting it to good use!
     Despite being seriously injured on the busy roads around the theatre at one point, he lived to be almost 20 and died in March 1995 in Kent, where he had retired to live with one of the theatre's carpenters. He was mourned by many stars of the theatre who knew him, and is the only cat ever to have gained a front-page obituary in the theatre newspaper The Stage; his portrait still hangs in the theatre itself. He also gained several mentions on the long-running radio programme Desert Island Discs.


Theatre cats Jack and Cleo, of the new Globe Theatre, London

   GLOBE THEATRE (new)
Faithfully reconstructed to be as Shakespeare would have known it, the new Globe opened in 1997 and a couple of years later took on two 'rescue' cats, Jack and Cleo, after a mouse was seen running across the stage. They had stage names too — Brutus and Portia! — but we don't know whether they are still there. They were described as 'very much working cats — really part of the security team'. They received a lot of media attention, which didn't always please the theatre's publicist, who was trying to get publicity for the shows!


   LYRIC THEATRE
The Lyric's pet cat Fleur was taken home by performer and cat enthusiast Beryl Reid when the cat was retired. Beryl felt that cats were an effective antidote to stage fright; she said, 'The act of stroking a cat is a great reliever of tension and brings down the blood pressure.' Fleur was great friends with Beerbohm (above), as their respective theatres were close to each other.


   PHOENIX THEATRE
A massive brown mackerel tabby called Stumpy, with a stump for a tail, was the resident feline here. He is recalled going after a large rat that had escaped backstage during the run of Strippers; the animal had been intended as a meal for a boa constrictor that one of the actresses had to perform with during her strip act in the performance. The rat — with Stumpy hard on its heels — was seen rushing off into the auditorium, luckily before the audience that night had been let in.


   PLAYERS' THEATRE
Greeting patrons from the comfort of a red velvet sofa, Gus was theatre cat at the Players' until his retirement to the country in 2001.


   PRINCE EDWARD THEATRE
The night-shift mouser at the Prince Edward was Belle, carrying out her duties after the audience had gone home.


   PRINCE OF WALES THEATRE
William and Harry (now where did those names come from?) were two tomcats at the Prince of Wales; they were inseparable brothers from a rescue centre, although both have now died. They generally hung out around the stalls bar, where they were well and truly spoiled by the many dancers who rehearsed there; they often walked across the stage during rehearsals, but were never allowed there during performances. They had the run of the whole theatre at night, though. They were treated as casual staff and their food costs came out of the theatre's budget — and their vet was in Harley Street!


Theatre cat Gus (Gustave) of the Putney Arts Centre (PAT), London
Theatre cat Gus of Putney Arts Centre, London

   PUTNEY ARTS THEATRE, South-west London

The theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014. Resident cat Gustave ('Gus'), who seems to have arrived in July 2013 and is now listed among the staff ('People at PAT') on the website, likes press nights especially, as there are lots of empty bottle-boxes to explore!

PAT: Website | Facebook | Twitter (@PutneyTheatre)


Theatre cat Osborne (or Osbourne) - late of the Royal Court Theatre, London

   ROYAL COURT THEATRE

At this theatre the resident black tomcat was Osborne. Through the second half of the 1990s the building was extensively renovated, and for the duration of the works the Royal Court moved to the Duke of York's Theatre where there was a big vermin problem. Osborne was adopted during that period, and in his first week caught 25 mice!

He moved back with the company when work was completed, and the larger image shows Osborne on stage for a production of The Chairs by Ionesco. In later life he retired to live with the theatre's costume supervisor. She said he had a lovely nature but didn't find retirement easy: 'He couldn't bear to be alone after all the drama of the theatre, so retiring was hard on him. Whilst at the Court, we would always lock him in the Green Room during shows, but he did occasionally manage to escape and make a guest appearance on stage.' He died at Hallowe'en 2013, aged about 18, after a long and distinguished career.


   SADLER'S WELLS THEATRE
The theatre cat, name unknown, made the news when he mysteriously went missing in February 1956, not long before he was due to star in a run of School for Fathers.


   ST GEORGE'S THEATRE, Tufnell Park
Tufnell Park is an area of north London in the borough of Islington. Lilian, named after producer Lilian Baylis, was the feline resident at the theatre, and became well known for her liking of always sitting in the third row of the stalls.


   STRAND THEATRE
Misty was a mottled grey cat who spent much of her off-duty time sleeping on a box of drapes under the stage at the Strand. Footsteps and voices above, and the clanking and whirring of stage machinery, didn't bother her at all; however, a production involving two motorbikes roaring onto the stage at one point did cause her to hide until they had gone. Her minder-in-chief was the theatre fireman, who said she had a preference for fresh chicken and prawns.


Theatre cat Ambrose, of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London; painting copyright (C) Frances Broomfield
Painting of theatre cat Beerbohm of the former Globe Theatre, London; copyright (C) Frances Broomfield

   THEATRE ROYAL, Drury Lane
Another well-known London theatre cat was Ambrose, taken on in 1974 at the Theatre Royal while the show Billy, starring Michael Crawford, was running. Ambrose, dressed in his 'evening wear' of jet-black coat and white chest, enjoyed making impromptu appearances on stage, to the audience's amusement — but apparently it made Crawford furious, as he didn't like being upstaged! Threats were sometimes made, but the backstage crew to a man staunchly defended Ambrose. Another member of the cast, actress Avis Bunnage, became captivated by Ambrose and regularly kept in touch with the theatre to see how he was. When he became ill in 1983 she sent a cheque to help pay for his treatment, and when he died in 1985 she was heartbroken.
     Going back some years, in the early 1950s there were three cats at the Theatre Royal. Humphrey and Susie lived in the electrical and carpenter's departments and remained in the background, but tuxedo cat Cecil (pictured lower left) was the front-of-house feline, although he actually lived right at the top of the building in the housekeeper's room. Apparently he was quite elusive and had many hiding places among the theatre's statues, from which he had to be coaxed out by the royal waiter (who was in charge of the royal box) before each performance! Cecil was a splendid 'rodent operative'.


British provincial theatres

Listed alphabetically by placename

   THEATRE ROYAL, Bath
The Theatre Royal in Bath had a real cat during the 1970s, but it was replaced by a stuffed one behind the fax machine!


   ALHAMBRA THEATRE, Bradford
The Alhambra had a resident cat. In 1973-74 the pantomime Puss in Boots was being staged and featured a 'highland waterfall', and on one occasion when the water in the tanks was being changed, a powerful 'blow-back' caused hundreds of gallons of water to flow into the orchestra pit and under the stage. The crew spent a whole afternoon clearing up and thought they had got rid of the evidence before the stage manager found out. But that evening when he went into his office he found a damp patch on the floor — and he didn't believe it when the cat was blamed!


   NORTHCOTT THEATRE, Exeter
The old Northcott Theatre (since rebuilt) in Exeter had a small tortoiseshell cat called Socks in the early 1980s; she had been found asleep in a box of socks!


   APOLLO THEATRE, Manchester
In 2000 the Apollo still had Chess, a very large black-and-white cat who liked to sleep in an envelope box in the box office.


   OXFORD PLAYHOUSE
The Playhouse was home to BC (Big Cat) until 1996, when he was forcibly retired to live with a lady down the road, as his impromptu stage appearances and fur balls in dressing rooms were considered to be 'too much'. It's said that his departure so divided the stage crew that the stage manager and the electrician would not speak to each other for a year afterwards.


   PALACE THEATRE, Redditch
In 1951 the Palace was putting on the play White Cargo, set in Africa. At one point the theatre cat strolled onto the stage to join the co-stars, and started to peer over the footlights at the audience, much to their amusement. One of the actors brought the house down with the impromptu one-liner, 'Get that tiger out of here!'


   THE OTHER PLACE, Stratford-on-Avon
A few years ago it was reported that the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) had employed its first professional feline actor, which trod the boards in The Lieutenant of Inishmore at The Other Place. The uppity feline star refused to comment on his mousing abilities, however.


   GRAND THEATRE, Swansea
In the 1970s the Grand always kept at least one cat backstage, since mice and rats could from time to time be seen and heard around the building. On one occasion a black cat strolled across the all-white set of Ring Round the Moon, looking somewhat disdainfully at the cast and audience. More worrying was the night when the cat demolished the roast chicken that had been set on stage for the production of Great Expectations — a replacement was quickly procured from the local chip-shop — but when an actor cut into it, a jet of cooking oil shot out all over his frock coat!


   OPERA HOUSE, York
The Opera House had Charlie, but he died in the late 1990s.


American theaters

America had its theater cats too, although we have hardly any information about them. However, black-and-white Minnie was one of the last of the New York ones. She had a sister who was expelled for clawing up costumes, but Minnie was usually well behaved — except on one notable occasion when Bobby Clark's act as a comic tortilla maker involved using fresh dough, which Minnie loved. Clark couldn't understand why the audience was laughing in all the wrong places, as the cat behind him snatched at his props!

Rusty, later known as Hamlet, was described as an 'unemployed theater cat' when hotel owner John Case took him in during the 1930s and made him the first of a line of hotel cats at New York's Algonquin Hotel that continues today.


Theater cat Kallie - Capitol Theatre, Rome, New York State
Theatre cat Kallie - Capitol Theater, Rome, NY
Theater cat Kallie, Capitol Theatre, Rome, NY
Theater cat Kallie, Capitol Theatre, Rome, New York State, USA

   CAPITOL THEATRE, Rome, New York State
The Capitol Theatre has a resident cat usually called Kallie, although her full name is given on the roster of theatre staff as 'Kallie T. Cat, Mouse Exterminator', As a tortie-and-white, or calico, cat, she is also sometimes known as the 'Kallet-co cat'. Her names refer back to the Kallet brothers, who founded the place in the late 1920s as a first-run movie theatre; since then it has been through various incarnations but now stages all kinds of performance, from musical concerts to stage productions, while continuing also to show classic silent and sound movies.
      Kallie has been there since at least 2008; in the following year she surprised everyone by producing two kittens which were homed with theatre staff.
Website | Facebook | Twitter


Australian theatres

Magenta the cat, Astor Theatre, Melbourne, Australia
Marzipan, the Astor cat - Astor Theatre, Melbourne, Australia
Marzipan the Astor cat - Melbourne, Australia


Duke the Astor Theatre cat - Melbourne, Australia
Marzipan the Astor cat - Astor Theatre, St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia
Theatre cat Marzipan, late of the Astor Theatre, Melbourne
Theatre cat Marzipan - Astor Theatre, Melbourne, Australia


Theatre cat Duke - Astor Theatre, Melbourne, Australia

   ASTOR THEATRE, St Kilda, Melbourne

In 2015 it seemed that the famed art-deco Astor Theatre, opened in 1936 and one of a dwindling few single-screen cinemas still operating, would close when its lease expired. It would have been the end of an era but, happily, there was a reprieve at the eleventh hour, with another cinema operator, on a new lease, vowing to continue the 'Astor Experience' so much valued and enjoyed by its patrons.
Earlier, in March 2013, another era really did come to an end with the death of Marzipan, the Astor's long-lived and much loved resident cat.

She wasn't the first Astor cat: in the 1980s an unnamed female feline gave birth to two kittens there; they were cared for by the projectionist and named Columbia and Magenta. Columbia found a good home to go to, while Magenta (top left image) stayed as the official Astor cat for a while, but at some point seems to have died. Then, early in the 1990s a tiny kitten was found under a truck right outside the cinema — or so the story goes — and decided to make it her home. Marzipan had arrived! She spent her early days in the projection booth, but soon won over the hearts of all the theatre staff and made the place her own.

As time went by she became a well-known feature of the Astor — and won the hearts of much of Melbourne. She delighted cinema-goers for 21 years with her presence and her company, sitting on their laps and 'doing the rounds' during screenings. She became famous and was sent postcards from across the world by her fans. Feeding her was an integral part of the staff duty rosters. Towards the end of her life she suffered some illness, leading ultimately to her passing after a long and full life. Later the cinema hosted a tribute evening to her, with a showing of The Aristocats, with part of the proceeds going to the animal hospital that had treated her.

In July 2015 the theatre continued the tradition of feline residents by adopting a black-and-white moggy from The Lost Dogs' Home in Melbourne. Astor general manager Zak Hepburn named him Duke after Hollywood star John Wayne (whose nickname was The Duke) because of his relaxed manner and 'nonchalant swagger'. Possibly about two years old at the time, Duke settled in well and quickly gained fans among staff and patrons. By the early months of 2017 Duke's Facebook page had over 2000 followers.

Astor Theatre pages/social media: Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram


Sources:
Some accounts have been drawn from letters to The Stage.
Image of Shaftesbury Avenue, London, courtesy David Bank at Flickr.
Images of the paintings of Beerbohm and Ambrose are copyright © Frances Broomfield




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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.


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