Their assignment sounded simple enough: tape-record Donald Schoor's cat, Blackie, meowing and then take portrait-style pictures of the animal.
Blackie, an 8-year-old feline of undetermined breed, is one of six regional finalists chosen at random among 250,000 entries in a nationwide "Meow Off," a contest sponsored by Ralston Purina, maker of --what else?--Meow Mix brand cat food.
But when the crew showed up at Schoor's Anaheim home early one morning this week, Patti Goldstein, the cat food company's representative, discovered that it wasn't going to be as easy as it sounded.
"Gentlemen, our work is cut out for us," Goldstein informed the soundman and photographer as they lugged their equipment into Schoor's living room. "It seems that Mr. Schoor's cat Blackie lives on the terrace and runs away when he sees people."
"He's a very shy cat," explained the mild-mannered Schoor. "I mean he doesn't even like me to pick him up."
Schoor's modest tract home was the first stop on a weeklong, six-city trip around the country for Goldstein and the crew to tape-record and photograph the six feline contest finalists. Three of each cat's best tape-recorded meows will be played for a celebrity panel of judges Oct. 30 at Lincoln Center in New York City, with all six cats--and their owners--in attendance.
This year's contest theme is to find the most "magical, musical meow," Goldstein said.The cat with the best meow will win a $25,000 grand prize and a starring role in a Meow Mix brand cat food commercial.
Chance at Stardom
But Schoor's cat was holed up in the enclosed patio, refusing to utter even a single meow. His big chance at stardom was at hand, and Blackie was being temperamental.
"This is not wonderful for a beginning," Goldstein said.
"He was meowing all morning," said Schoor's 20-year-old son Kendall.
"Of course," said Goldstein, launching into a brief discussion of possible ways to coax Blackie to meow into the microphone.
They could, Goldstein said, place the cat in the closet. Or, as Kendall Schoor suggested, they could put Blackie in the cardboard pet carrier box in which they take him to the vet. Blackie always meows when going to the vet, he said.
"I guess we better start our motors, gentlemen," Goldstein said finally, as soundman David Fine and animal photographer Robert Pearcy began setting up their equipment.
"Do you have to go through this with the others?" Schoor asked Goldstein.
"This is not the worst," she said. "Some are easier than others. But there are very few that don't have some problems."
There was, for example, the cat that refused to meow unless it was behind a closed closet door. Another cat would only meow when sitting in the car. And then there was the cat last year who would meow only when it was in a tree.
3 Best for Judges
The idea, Goldstein said, is to tape-record as many meows as possible so the owner can select the three best to be played for the judges. (Although the audience at Lincoln Center will see slides of each cat contestant, the judges will be blindfolded.)
Asked if Blackie's meow is unusually musical, Schoor said: "I don't know. I never really paid much attention to it. But I hope it's musical now."
Schoor, who works at IBM in Orange, said he has no idea what breed of cat Blackie is.
"He just showed up one day, I fed him and he never left," said Schoor. "There's not much I can tell you about the cat. He's a good hunter, catches a lot of birds."
Schoor entered Blackie in the Meow Off several months ago after seeing an advertisement for the contest. Although it was a first for Blackie, Schoor said he has been entering contests for the last three years.
"I have a whole bunch of entries over there," he said, gesturing to a stack of several dozen addressed envelopes on the kitchen table.
Has he ever won anything?
"Nothing big," said Schoor. "I won a small television set, luggage, a smoked turkey--small things like that."
Even if they don't win the $25,000 first prize, Schoor and the five other finalists are already winners of sorts: Each cat owner will receive a first-class ticket to New York City for two, in addition to the cat, who will ride in the plane with its owner.
("Listen," said Goldstein, "the cat is worth a potential $25,000. Are you going to put him with the luggage?")
The owners--and their cats--will stay at the Plaza Hotel in New York where, Goldstein said, "they get wined, dined, theatered, limoed--all of that. But what's interesting is what happens in their hometown: They become celebrities."
Last year, the winning cat from Billings, Mont., not only made it onto the front page of the newspaper and the local evening news but was greeted at the airport by the high school band.
Schoor thinks his--and Blackie's--chances of winning are good.
"I think I have a chance in every contest I enter," he said. "Otherwise I would have given up after three years."
A faint meow was heard from the enclosed patio. Things were looking up.