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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Furry Thespians in Danger of Losing Stage

MTOne of Kuklachyov's favorite feline charges, Boris, became famous after starring in an commercial. The theater now has a whole show about Boris.
The building at 25 Kutuzovsky Prospekt is prime real estate, sharing the street with Gucci and Prada stores. But there is no designer retailer inside, just 100 cats and a stage where the felines do paw stands, ride bikes and sit docilely on top of the head of owner Yury Kuklachyov.

Moscow's only cat theater has starred in New York and Paris, but Kuklachyov now fears that he and his cats will be back where he found his first talented cat -- on the street. The theater is under threat from some branch in the city government, said Kuklachyov, adding that they wanted to move him out and were putting pressure on him. In May, the police's economic crimes department raided the city-owned theater, rummaging through the office after a charity show.

The police questioned Kuklachyov after they found the theater full but only 20 tickets sold at the box office. He said most of the children were watching the show for free and that the remaining seats were sold to last-minute arrivals. The department of economic crimes could not be reached for comment despite repeated calls.

Before that, mysterious opponents collected signatures from residents in the building saying the theater smelled and was noisy.

A group from the local health commission, however, gave the theater a clean bill of health, he said, pointing to ventilators around the theater.

Kuklachyov, a near 40-year stage veteran, normally paints his face before donning a giant hat with a purring Russian Blue perched on it, but he was bareheaded and looking worried as he held a news conference recently to tell of his fears that he would be thrown out of the theater where he has worked since 1990.

"We have no official information so far," said Sergei Khudyakov, the head of the city's cultural department, "but the worries of Yury Dmitriyevich disturb us."

Kuklachyov would not be forced out, said Khudyakov. Cultural venues, like the Muzei Kino at Krasnopresnenskaya, have been pushed out of prime real estate in Moscow despite public outcry and city assurances.

"The entranceway is smellier," said Kuklachyov sniffily. He said there was a garbage dump nearby that emitted a more pungent odor than his 100 plus cats. Nevertheless, the theater does have an unmistakable but gentle whiff, which is undeniably cat.

"The noise from Kutuzovsky Prospekt, which blares out morning to night, is louder than if music is played" in the theater, he added.

The theater has become a family business with Kuklachyov's daughter doing the artwork and his wife appearing on stage. But his main helper is his son Dmitry. In "My Favorite Cats," 70 cats are on stage with Dmitry, even though he is allergic to cats. As a child, his face would swell, but thanks to special breathing exercises he can now control the allergy.

"It's really well put together, really well thought out," said Olga, a recent theater patron who brought her daughter Katya, 4. "Children don't get the least bit bored. They love it. I didn't go as a child, but my friends did, and they were always telling me about it."

"I like the cat theatre a lot! I like it when the cats jump!" Katya said.

Wandering around the theater Monday was a film crew for a cat food advertisement, casting both cats and actors for a new advertisement. Meanwhile, Dmitry Kuklachyov, Yury's son, gently coaxed two white British Silver Tabbies called Betsy and Elf to run, jump and paw the air in the manner of a cat food commercial, with the help of a piece of turkey on the end of a stick.

"We do not use force. A cat is not an elephant or a bear," Kuklachyov said. "If you tease them, then they will run away from you."

"There'll be no problem with these cats," said the director, who asked that his name and the name of the cat food company not be used because he had signed a confidentiality agreement. "I know a lot of cat trainers, but I haven't seen cat trainers like these."

Before the cats took over the theater, Kuklachyov kept his troupe in an old pioneer palace until the day he received a call telling him that they had been thrown out after a visit from the local health inspectors.

"They were out on the street. It was a nightmare," said Kuklachyov, who moved them into his flat before persuading the city in 1990 to let him use the old cinema on Kutuzovsky. He had just moved in when the problems began.

Two suspicious men said they wanted to turn the theater into a casino. When Kuklachyov went to the police, he was advised to disappear.

He moved to a circus in Yarmouth, England, but the strict quarantine rules stopped him from bringing his own felines, so Kuklachyov caught some new ones. All it took was a cage with some cat food in it, and he soon had 18 stray cats. He released all the ones with collars after being warned by the circus owner, Peter Jay, that the English did not take kindly to cat burglars. "It was very difficult. I did not think that it was possible to do something with them. They were little tigers."

Still, they must have done something right as Princess Diana attended a performance.

When Kuklachyov returned after eight months in Britain, the attempt to take over his theater had subsided. Over the next 17 years, he built up a collection of 11 shows such as "Cats from Space" and "Catnappers."

Trouble began again in 2004 when he was approached a second time and was asked to sell the theater. It was then that the problems with residents started.

In response, Kuklachyov asked Mayor Yury Luzhkov to take the theater under the wing of the city. But this year he found out that the city's architectural council had discussed moving the theater as if it were a done deal.

The Mayor's Office, the city's property department and its construction department did not respond to requests for comments Thursday.

Kuklachyov had his first dancing cat, Ryzhik, or Ginger, when he was a child. The cat had a passion for Valerian, the ubiquitous Soviet tranquilizer, which inspired him to dance a jig for a sniff of the stuff. Kuklachyov would hold a piece of Valerian-soaked wool and say, "Dance, Ginger, dance."

He began working with cats in the 1970s after meeting a stray kitten on the street and watching how she skittered and somersaulted when he took her home.

Those two cats inspired him to start up his cat show. He got the cats, which he initially picked up off the street, to do their amazing tricks by watching them to see what they enjoyed doing.

Kuklachyov's cat tricks quickly drew attention.

When touring Canada in 1973 at the height of the Cold War, Kuklachyov was invited to have dinner with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a move that angered the KGB agents traveling with him, who thought he would try to defect with or without his cats in tow.

"They grabbed me by the hand after the meeting. They were scared I had so much success, I would become like Baryshnikov," he said, referring to ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974.

But he did not defect. Nor would he ever appear in "Sex and the City," like Baryshnikov. Instead, he taught his cats more tricks and played off Broadway, toured Japan five years running and captured Parisian hearts with shows like the cat version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker."

The most recent threat to take over the building came just as Kuklachyov was planning to make his charges more comfy by adding a garden with trees for them to climb. These days, they are kept in three separate glass covered areas and taken care of by 10 assistants and a team of veterinarians.

When the cats get old, they retire to a pensioner's room in the theater, he said. Where they will retire if he loses the building, nobody knows.