Tova Fruchtman: CNJ staff writer
Whoever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks should meet Gregory Popovich and the dogs and cats that have become performers in his unique show.
Named the top family attraction in Las Vegas, Nev., Gregory Popovich’s Comedy Pet Theatre has been featured on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and will soon be seen on the stage at Marshall Junior High School in Clovis.
It’s a show with some unconventional stars — a fourth-generation Moscow State Circus performer, 14 cats, eight dogs, five doves and some white mice.
Popovich got a job in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and came to America after performing as a juggler in the Moscow State Circus for 28 years. But performing in the circus didn’t give him exactly what he was looking for, so Popovich started his own show.
“United States gave me a great opportunity to create my own show, and I’m really proud to work here in America,” said Popovich, who speaks with a strong Russian accent. “It’s like my dream come true.”
His show combines his abilities as a juggler and his love for animals.
“We try to do a story with our animals, so that our pets look like actors,” said Popovich, who performs six months out of the year in Las Vegas and takes the animals on the road in a customized trailer.
Popovich’s mom, also a performer in the Moscow State Circus, trained dogs, so Popovich said he spent his childhood with pets.
When he moved to Las Vegas to start his own show, he wanted to incorporate animals, so he went to the Clarke County Animal Shelter.
He was impressed that the American government supported such a nice facility for animals. In Russia, there are no animal shelters, he said.
But a wagging tail became a whimper when Popovich found out that often animals in shelters are pets that people just don’t want to keep or have been abused.
“I found out how pets came to shelters, and it was very sad for me … That’s very painful for animals,” Popovich said.
“I try and send a message that all pets have personalities, and humans have responsibility for them.”
In his training of the animals, Popovich employs each pet’s personality, especially in training for his favorite segment: The “kitty-cats.”
“Every cat has some trick which sits inside their body,” said Popovich, explaining that the independent-minded animals won’t just do what they are told.
“I have to look to what each cat would like to do,” he said. “I don’t ask each cat to make many different tricks.”
In one scene, a cat pushes a dog that’s in a stroller. In another scene, a dog will move Popovich’s chair, forcing the entertainer to fall on his rump.
But there are setbacks: Some of the animals don’t want to do tricks. But Popovich doesn’t take them back to the shelter.
He said he just has them sit on the stage and show everyone how cute they are.
Faye McCalmont, the executive director of Members Region Arts Council in Silver City, said Popovich on Friday brought his show to Silver City.
“They were terrific,” she said. “He is a world-class juggler. The group that’s with him is very good at physical comedy.”
McCalmont said the animals were the big hit, too.
“The animals are truly the stars of the show and they are great,” she said. “There are cats on tightropes and parallel bars. Training a cat to do anything — that’s pretty amazing.”
McCalmont said the audience enjoyed the performance and the animals as much as she did.
“My audience just raised the roof,” she said. “They just couldn’t get enough of them.”