"Hurry up! You are making me look stupid!" said Dominique LeFort to one of his eight domestic short-
hair cats preparing to leap through a ring of fire. Dominique and his felines entertain large crowds
virtually every sunset at the Hilton Resort pier. The cat act has evolved over the years from a black and white
household pet to the well-trained team of cat athletes he works with now. He has proven that house cats are not
However, they are independent and they exert a certain amount of control over the act. They are not simple slaves to the routine. Each step of the way, the cats philosophize. The cat man respects that.
Mandarin, (an orange cat, naturally) is poised atop a specially-designed pedestal, crouched to jump through the blazing ring of fire. He ponders the scene, quivers a bit as though ready to leap, then settles back as if almost ready to tend to that pesky tuft of fur that needs licking on his shoulder.
That would elicit an outraged shriek from Dominique. "No grooming onstage!" He has to have standards, you know. Performers of any species do not stop to freshen their look - not if they are professional. The first cat, Chaton, was Dominique's daughter's kitty when Dominique and his family lived in Canada. The then five-year-old girl was a little too boisterous for the cat, which sought refuge with Dominique. Pretty soon, he was part of the act.
By the time his daughter Vanessa was 11, Marlene, a wise tabby, was the star of Daddy Dominique's show. Vanessa was living with her mother in California when Dominique came to Key West. Now, the catman's daughter has graduated from UCLA and finished her masters at Cornell in nuclear physics, funded by Dominique and his cats.
This continues a family tradition of ancestors back to the 17th century who excelled in arts and sciences, including one who was a member of the Beaux Artes and another who worked for the Czar of Russia. In the mid-1980's, Dominique was "Rou Dou Dou:' a clown in the French tradition, twisting balloon creatures and entertaining with strong Parisian accent. Marlene became the focus of his Key West show and then more four-legged actors were added to the troupe. The team went on the road for a year or more, doing cat product commercials and TV spots.
Since then, Dominique and his cats have settled on the southernmost island, traveling to occasional gigs on the mainland. "The cats love to travel," he said. They live and travel in a giant RV. Dominique spends a major part of time with the animals. Training and performance is full time work, but he likes to spend free time with them in the RV. It is a valuable part of his rapport with the cats.
Dominique talks to the felines the way all of us with cats at home do. "Do something!" he chided Mandarin. The cat brings his attention back to the task at hand. "Oh, you mean now?" he seemed to say. "Okay." And he leaps gracefully and easily through the blazing hoop and onto the far pedestal.
||"If you ask me how I do it, I do not even know myself," said
Dominique. Getting them used to an audience and the sounds of the performance arena is the hardest part
the trainer noted. "Cats like to hide and watch. When they catch a bird or
a mouse, they hide and wait."
He trains them before his show with whatever audience comes early. Originally he put in four hours a day with them elsewhere, but found it more effective to work with them on the performance site. "We all live and work and travel together:' he told us, "so we all know each other and trust each other."
The urban sound track can be distracting for the cats. "If they hear, for instance, the schooner Western Union shoot its cannon, they look at me and wait on me. If I go on with the show, they do. They rely on me." And he, of course, relies on them. The cats have three distinct shows now. Oscar ("She was Wilde."), Cossett, a Manx cat, and Sara do one set. His oldest cats at eight and one-half years old, Piggy and Sharkey have an act of their own. The newcomers, Georges (after the hurricane), Chopin and Mandarin work the tightrope and fire hoops. "Cat people will come back to see all three shows:' said Dominique.
"The key things about a cat: he has to choose you first: I wait for them to come to me. And then you must care for them:"
The cats however are only one part of the show. Humor is another part. Laughter is a very important part of Dominique's life and his show is full of clever wit, pronounced in Maurice Chevalier "Franglish:"
Dominique wanted to be a clown since early childhood and trained in France in pantomime, improv, clown techniques and theater. He designs all his equipment for the cats and structures each performance into a proper stage presentation.
His patience has paid off in popularity, which is the economic basis of entertainment. He and his cats have been recognized on national TV, in print and news coverage around the world.
You can visit the cat man at www.catmankevwest.com.