74° Good Afternoon
74° Good Afternoon

Cat trainer Samantha Martin has felines jumping through hoops&舒;when they feel like it, of course

It was just a half-hour before the opening of the sold-out show, and the normally close-knit band had completely fallen apart. The lead guitarist had shut herself in a dressing room and refused to come out. The pianist—in an apparent attempt to self soothe—groomed her hair obsessively. Meanwhile, the drummer had bolted off stage and hidden under the bleachers, where she ignored the pleas of two fawning assistants.Such temperamental, pre-show meltdowns have become typical of the Rock Cats, a trio that––even their manager admits––is known more for their looks than their rock 'n' roll talent.

"Their music sucks. I mean, when they're playing, they're not even playing the same song," said Samantha Martin, the band's manager, who stood at the edge of the stage wearing a black velvet body suit and a headband topped with felt cat ears. "I don't think they realize they're supposed to play together."

Yet fans are flocking to see the band. T-shirts and buttons are flying off the shelves. Tickets to shows at the Gorilla Tango Theatre have become among the hottest in town.

And once again, Martin had found herself at the mercy of the increasingly high-strung, unpredictable performers: namely 13 cats—mostly orphans and strays—who walk the high wire, roll the barrel, ride a skateboard, leap to platforms and, of course, play miniature musical instruments.

"I know they all huddle before shows and draw straws to be like, 'Who is going to screw her over today?' " said Martin, 44, laughing in the face of a feline walkout. "This is why you don't see trained cat acts. Because people––namely, the managers–– can't take the humiliation."

Performers these days.

Martin never knows when one of her stars will not be in the mood . She keeps two backup drummers (Waldo, a short-haired tabby, and Fiji, a long-haired Himalayan) at the ready, just in case. Often, mid-performance, a cat will walk to center stage but instead of doing the long-practiced trick, the cat will streeeeetch , lick her paws and stare absently at the audience. Martin is left with nothing to do but smile, throw up her arms showgirl-style and––ignoring the goof––triumphantly declare "ta-da!"

Amazingly, the audience loves every minute. They cheer and applaud whether the cats jump through hoops or not. Lynn Casey, 51, of Bucktown, owner of two cats (Curley and Leo), came to see the show because, she said, "I can't get my cats to do anything."

Surveying the audience on a recent night, the fan base seemed surprisingly diverse. "Sure, you'll see the crazy cat woman. The 60-year-old lady with the hair that is not quite done and the crazy fuzzy sweater with cat hair all over it—I'm probably headed there myself," said Kelly Williams, Gorilla Tango's publicity coordinator. "But we also get a lot of couples, a lot of families, and a lot of twentysomethings. We had a 7:30 p.m. show Friday; it was all adults with glasses of wine in hand."

More sexy cat woman than frumpy cat lady, Martin adjusts the tone of the show to the audience, peppering her act with witty banter to cover for the moments when the cats decide they would rather preen than perform.

Martin's earlier gig had been managing a troupe of rats. (You might remember her as Chicago's own Rat Lady, whose domesticated rodents jumped through hoops, played basketball and answered a telephone—achievements that landed Martin on " The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.")

Eventually, Martin found that the rats lacked marketability. She expanded into exotics and ran the business out of her apartment, moving often because her landlords would figure out what she was up to. She founded an animal talent agency, which she still runs today, supplying dogs, cats and other animals for television (Comedy Central, History Channel and "ER") and advertisements ( Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and PetSmart).

Then, around 2004, "it dawned on me," said Martin, who holds a degree in animal behavior. "There's so many cat lovers out there. And then I'm thinking that you don't see any trained cat shows."

Despite an inauspicious start—she was literally "herding cats"—Martin found herself playing to a packed house every week. The cats' fame grew, Martin bought a used RV––tricked out with cages and a play area––and the band hit the road, crisscrossing the country for shows in Missouri, Wisconsin and Florida. Last summer, the cats landed a sponsorship deal with Evanger's Dog and Cat Food Co., further fueling dreams of hitting it big.

"If the right person sees the cat band," said Martin, "these cats could be like the next Taco Bell dog."

Martin remains single, quipping that "you can only hide this many cats for so long." She shares her modest, two-story home in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood with 20 cats, four raccoons, three groundhogs, five chickens, two kinkajous, a Chinese bear cat, one African serval, two chinchillas, one hedgehog and an alligator named Arnold Schwarzen-gator who, in the winter, lives in her basement. (Yes, she's licensed.)

But the felines have become her focus and, after scores of performances, Martin has learned a thing or two about managing a cat act. The most important lesson: Cats simply won't perform if there are any dogs in the first three rows.

"The cats are really like diva actresses," Martin said. "They can't be pleased and they're always walking off in a huff."

On that recent night, the cats seemed to pull themselves together just before curtain. As circus music filled the darkened theater, the cats—one by one—tottered across the high wire. The show picked up its pace, and the cats ran an obstacle course, swung from a rope and competed in a bowling contest against a chicken (Tuna, a white-haired mix, won with a strike).

For the grand finale, the Rock Cats took to their instruments, drawing ooohs and ahhhs from the crowd. Amid the waves of applause stood Martin, resplendent in her velvet cat suit.

After the show ended and the crowd rushed forward for photos, someone asked Martin if she ever regrets getting involved with the cats.

"No, not at all," she said, feeding the guitarist some tuna. "Because, when it works, it's a great thing. It's something that no one else is doing. There aren't a lot of people who are excited about getting up in front of a crowd and being humiliated by a bunch of cats. So, you know, I feel like I've got a corner on the market." The Amazing Circus Cats will perform Saturday at the Gorilla Tango Theatre. For tickets go to or call 773-598-4549. For more information about Martin go to


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