NORTH HILLS — It was an idea that Mike Spalla kept bottled up inside until he could no longer contain himself.
And when, at age 33, he quit his job to pursue this dream, this grand notion, his wife figured he'd gone insane.
This holiday season his dream materializes, in the form of a compact disc, at record stores nationwide. "Jingle Cats: Meowy Christmas" includes such Yuletide favorites as "Silent Night" and "Deck the Halls." Unlike other forays into pet pop--the barking "Jingle Bells" and the "meow-meow" cat food commercials--it features real animals uttering real animal noises, note for note.
This required months of chasing cats, both his own and strays, with recording equipment. A black cat named Sprocket provided the sustained meows. Cheese Puff merely bleated, a baritone in the kitty chorus. Spalla tempted them with food and shiny toys.
In all, it took more than 1,000 meows, screeches and growls to assemble 20 melodies.
"The 'Nutcracker Suite,' " Spalla explains, "was a monster."
The first carol he recorded, "Jingle Bells," has played over local radio stations the last couple of Christmases. Now that the full album is completed, a pet food company is negotiating to include a cassette version in boxes of its dry food. An agent is peddling Spalla's script for an animated "Jingle Cats" television special. And Spalla's wife, Jennifer, is greatly relieved.
"I was getting a little nervous," she says. "I'd come home and he'd say, 'I've got a great song. You've got to hear it.' It would be 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies' with all these cats meowing. I'd think, 'My God, what is he doing?' "
Spalla was, in fact, flying in the face of tradition. When it comes to vocal ability, cats have historically been stereotyped as back-alley screechers. Yet, by tightening and relaxing the muscles in its mouth and throat, the common house cat can produce a rich variety of phonetic and tonal patterns, according to a 1944 study published in the American Journal of Psychology. The study suggested that cats wail, snarl, purr and murmur to communicate everything from bewilderment to refusal.
Spalla didn't know any of this. The North Hills man only knew that he was drawn to the furry little creatures. This fascination began, as fascinations so often do, in childhood.
"When I was a little kid, we had 25 cats and kittens," he says. "I really loved cats and thought it would be great if I could work with them. But you can't make a career out of cats."
So he studied music at USC--which spawned novelty-song king "Weird Al" Yankovic--and earned a graduate marketing degree in 1987. From there, Spalla took a job at his father's production company in Hollywood, where he composed music. Every December, he found himself adding holiday soundtracks to assorted Christmas videos.
Cats . . . music . . . Christmas. An idea was born.
Spalla was careful not to let the cat out of the bag, knowing that some people would merely howl, while others might steal the idea.
"It was a diabolic plan I had all this time," he says.
Finally, in December, 1990, Spalla used an electronic keyboard to record "Jingle Bells" with computerized meows. He played the tape at a family gathering. "Everybody was in stitches," Jennifer recalls.
But faking a feline serenade wasn't good enough for her husband. Not nearly good enough. This man had a vision.
By the following Christmas, Spalla had recorded about 40 meows from his own cats and put together an authentic version of the carol. Power 106 and KIIS-FM played the song. Executives at City Hall Records in San Francisco--mindful of the millions of pet owners in the United States--thought it was the cat's, well, you know.
"I supposed that cat fanatics would be clawing their way into the stores," said Robin Cohn, the independent distributor's president.
A crude cassette with nine songs was rushed to Los Angeles stores last Christmas, selling more than 1,000 copies in 10 days. That's when Spalla decided to devote himself.
"He told me one morning," Jennifer says, recalling that the plan didn't take her breath away. "I guess I appeased him a little bit but I didn't think he would take the following 11 months off work."
So the couple survived on her paycheck--she designs movie posters. Spalla did occasional free-lance video work but spent most of his time prowling after Sprocket, Cheese Puff and Binky. He also recorded Twizzler, Max and Cue, who belong to his mother. Because the cats shied from the microphone, he had to concoct various ruses:
* A microphone hidden in the kitchen would record the cats meowing for supper. Sometimes Spalla would follow the cats around with bits of chicken or fish. "Now you know why my carpet's filthy," he says.
* The cats also responded to silvery tassels and a fuzzy toy at the end of an elastic band.
* Binky, for one, hated to be picked up. Spalla would take microphone in one hand and cat in the other to record growls.
An entire day of such machinations would produce one acceptable recording.