Tour with the Cat Circus – A History


We heard of the famous Cirque Mexicain Los Gatos Caballistas in our much younger days.

It was a time when cat circuses were all the rage.  Small towns like Mystic Hollow, Illinois would anticipate the shows for weeks; stoked by the colorful cat circus poster (like the one pictured to the left) that promised excitement and danger.

Cat circuses have all but disappeared today.  Some say it was concern for the animals’ safety, or the heavy cost of feeding an ever growing group of felines (this was before mandatory spaying and neutering of feral cats came into law).

Some say the cat circuses were taken over by human-centric circuses where audience members could understand the ringmaster.

Kit shows (as they were called by those in the know) usually had a cat ringmaster and while his meowing had some meaning to his fellow show members and the roustabouts setting up and tearing down the acts as the show progressed, it was lost in translation for the mostly human audience.

Many a kitten, though, was entranced by the circus life and there are tales a plenty of kittens (as young as 15 weeks – we don’t know what that is in metric) leaving their mothers and siblings to join the exciting world of circuses.  A few became entranced by string or yarn as well — but this post isn’t about them.

Humans were needed not only as audience members but also logistical help.  Our father’s chief assistant, Paw Lawton, worked several cat circuses in Canada and South Texas.  He would help set up the tent and the double rings for performances.  Once the scene was set, he would work the ticket booth and occasionally fish for the large dinner needed to feed so many of the very hungry performers and workers.

The cat circuses reached their nadir in the US in 1973 when they appeared as a novelty on ABC’s Wild World of Sports.  In fact, the circus featured was the one pictured above and the star of the show was the cat pictured.

Cuidado was the star of the Cirque Mexicain Los Gatos Caballistas from 1966 through 1974.  He was reckless and never backed down from a challenge.  Ride a horse?  No problem.  Wear boots whilst riding a stallion? Easy for Cuidado. Hold a cat-sized rifle whilst riding? Everyday for the spry, enigmatic star.

Cuidado allegedly came from McAllen, Texas, not far from the border with Mexico.  His understanding of Spanish and English was fostered by his family and, later, the folks he met along the way.

He began as a schlepper.

He would carry equipment and help Paw Lawton set up grandstands and occasionally make popcorn and cotton candy.

He loved children and it is rumoured he was the father of hundreds throughout Mexico, the US and Canada.  He tried to keep in touch but the life of a cat circus member is hard and communicating with loved ones without a written language made it even harder.

Cuidado got his big break in Davenport, Iowa, when the star of the show came down with a horrible stomach pain that turned out to be a seven kitten litter.  Cuidado leapt into the ring, a hat was tossed to him as he jumped on to the silver horse and away he went.

The audience loved him.

Paw said he extended his performance because of the standing ovations and demands for encore after encore.

At the end of his first performance, he gave the crowd what became his trademark sign-off: he would hiss, jump to the ring, remove his hat and bow.  He held the bow longer than most and when he lift his head to the thunderous applause, he smiled and walked off into the darkness of the circus tent.

The Des Moines Tribune Circus Critic, Monty LeClaire wrote, “We’ve seen cats, we’ve seen circuses, we’ve even seen cat circuses.  But what we saw last night at the fairgrounds was none of those.  It was the birth of a star we hope will shine for many years to come. Cudado (sic) has something special and the audience provided thunderous applause in appreciation for what he offered them last night.”

On the Wild World of Sports, Jim McKay prefaced the pre-taped piece of Cuidado as if it was just a novelty act.  After seeing it, he exclaimed, “I am speechless.  I have never witnessed something so daring and exciting!”  Television audiences agreed and the circus began setting dates well in advance of their normal tour dates.

In 1974, Cuidado was injured while mounting his horse for the run-in to participate in the big opening parade.

The circus vet set his broken leg and advised him to rest a while.  True to his name, the now middle-aged cat stretched the boot, squeezed his splinted hind leg inside and completed his act.

Audience members had no idea that though he smiled at the end of his traditional bow, he was in excruciating pain.  He walked slowly into the darkness of the tent, removed the boot and curled up for sleep.

He was out — they say — for two days.  Paw had to carry him in his pick-up to the next stop, 200 miles away.  Cuidado said nothing during the ride and had no interest in standing to watch the scenery.

The next stop was Chicago and the circus was to appear at Chicago Stadium (the old one).  Cuidado just shook his head when Paw asked if he wanted help getting out of the truck.  He slept some more and followed the doctor’s orders.  He had performed his last.

Without Cuidado, the Cirque Mexicain Los Gatos Caballistas lost its popularity.  Cuidado said, in Spanish meows, that he didn’t miss the circus but he did so with a straight, hanging tale and tears in his bright blue eyes.

He retired officially in 1974 and lived with the former feature performer — the same feline whose absence allowed his entrance — in a neighborhood on the northside of Chicago.  There they raised the seven cats that were born on the road.  They loved hearing about the circus days from both parents.  On good days, when the pain wasn’t intense, he would ride the young kits around on his back, bucking and moving as a stallion.

In 1975, millions around the world were saddened to hear of Cuidado’s passing.  It came peacefully with his children and 27 grandchildren around him.  His last words was his famous hiss and his smile.

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