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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Greater L.A.

Pussyfooting Around

March 22, 1998|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a dazzling city of castles and pirate ships, nothing lights up the faces of children brighter than Gregory Popovich's performing house cats at Circus Circus Las Vegas.

Popovich has trained 12 felines to jump through hoops, swing on a trapeze and menacingly swat the air with their claws like lions. The star of the show, Tolstoy, pushes Phillip the dog in a doll carriage and, for a finale, leaps aboard the pooch and rides off stage. In a brightly lighted ring in a mobbed carnival-like midway right over a jangling, clattering casino, it's all an astonishing demonstration of patience by the 34-year-old cat tamer.

Popovich was born to perform. His parents had a dog act in the Moscow Circus. He immigrated to America, joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and attracted attention as a ladder-scaling comic juggler. But he was still looking for a gimmick six years ago when he arrived at Circus Circus.

"I try to find something unusual for American audiences," he explained from behind impishly leonine makeup. One day he brought a couple of pet cats to work to do tricks while he juggled.

Audiences lapped it up, so he headed to an animal shelter to enlist more performers. He brought them home, fixed them up with their own room and began to rehearse. The cats quickly taught him that they were not to be hurried. His secret: He studies each animal at great length and then does what they want him to do.

"Some cats like to jump and other cats like to walk around your legs. Some cats like to climb the trees." But never try to get them to try any turn they wouldn't undertake naturally, he says. "If cats don't like to do something, they will never do it."

He starts when the cats are no older than six months and works them no more than 20 minutes a day. Felines, he said, learn best with repeated play. For instance, some are most inclined to track and pounce on a length of yarn, so he builds on that bit of play to get them to leap from one stool to another, gradually moving the stools apart. When they are ready, he introduces a hoop.

When cats grow distracted, they are done for the day, he adds. And Siamese take twice as long as other cats to learn tricks.

It took a lot of work to rehearse his show. Now he co-stars up to 18 times a week in "Cat Skills," one among a lineup of free performances at the resort.

Popovich will perform through the rest of the year at Circus Circus, where, according to stagehands, customers ask about his act the most. Someday, Popovich plans to produce a show he will call "Pet Theater."

He knows that capitalism rewards persistence and showmanship--after all, magicians Siegfried & Roy have made a fortune just a few blocks away with a pack of white tigers.

"We're in the same business," Popovich said. "They have big cats, I have small cats."

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