When I was a child—possibly 7 or eight 8 years old—I attended a production of Cats at a dinky Jersey Shore community theater attached to an ice cream parlor. I wasn’t particularly interested in musical theater as a kid and knew nothing about Cats. Not the plot, not the music. I just knew there were cats in it, doin’ cat things. But nothing prepared me for the moment in the show when the titular animals, wearing some monstrosity of pantyhose, fake fur, and Sharpie’d on whiskers, jump into the audience and crawl in the aisles, peering closely into the faces of me and my younger brother, as if they were actively trying to scare us. This brief moment before the cats returned to the stage was undoubtedly freaky and really the only thing about the show that actually stuck with me as a child.
When the trailer for the new Cats movie came out and inexplicably magnified the weirdness of Cats to grotesque heights, I remembered how bizarre that moment in the audience felt, being confronted by these large, fuzzy, vaguely sensual actors. Were there other people out there who were similarly weirded out by these cats, as children? Of course, there were. In my search for answers, I spoke to three people who were mildly traumatized by Cats as a kid. Their responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
“These things that were on stage were coming out to get you”
I grew up on the West Coast, but some of my family lived on the East Coast. It became a tradition to go see Broadway plays while we were there, and the first one was Cats. I must’ve been, I guess, 7 or 8. I was a cat freak kid; I had cat wallpaper. I had tons of cat stuffed animals. I always wanted to dress up like a cat for Halloween. Everybody was kind of talking about the play and I feel like I knew the music before I went.
I just remember the show being so dark and so creepy. Now, listening to the music, there’s so much minor tone, minor keys. I remember being scared and being like, this is not what I expected. I thought: this is going to be magical, but it’s scary! Those outfits don’t make them look like cute little cats. Like, I used to love The Aristocats, but then these cats were just so not cute.
And then I will never forget when they came out into the audience. You never know if it’s your real memory or if you just made it up, but I feel like one of them came up to me and almost touched me. I think I hid and was just running away, I couldn’t be near it. It was the total opposite reaction of what I had expected would have happened. I was just like, no, no, get away. Terrifying. I remember seeing their hand with that glove with fur, like they had claws. I really feel like they came and caressed me. It probably was so innocuous, very cool as an adult, but as a kid it just felt creepy. These things that were on stage were coming out to get you. —Angelica Florio
“I was mostly just terrified that it was going to happen again”
I was approximately 8, but could have been 7. I saw its New York run at the Winter Garden in the ’80s. My parents took me and I remember listening to music from it and [my parents] were like, whatever, it’s about cats and we like this song.
I have two major recollections. One is that the woman who sat in front of me had this giant perm and it was a struggle to see around her head. Then, eventually, that became a benefit, because I didn’t necessarily want to see it. But the thing that really crossed the line in my mind as a kid was we were sitting towards the aisle and in the show some of the cats are coming down the aisle and lightly touching the people who were in the aisle.
I definitely wasn’t a shy kid, but I wasn’t comfortable with a lot of strangers walking up to me. But definitely when you’re in the theater, at least in my experience, no one had done this. I was not expecting a cat from the stage to come and touch my arm, however innocently. They looked like werewolves. But that was it and it happened early on. For the rest of the show, I was mostly just terrified that it was going to happen again.
It’s funny, later on I was living in New York and my parents gave me a gift of tickets to see the Lion King. The [seats] were these little boxes on the side and it was the same thing, where they send one of the lions up into the boxes, so we had a lion creature coming from behind. And immediately it all came flooding back, everything that I hated. —Tom Ceraulo
“He stopped singing like a cat and started talking to me like a normal human being”
I was around 9 or 10 and I saw a traveling production in Miami, something above a local production. My parents definitely bought us tickets, it was certainly born out of a working, middle class sense of: we’re going to do the arts with our kids. I remember the set was kind of like a spaceship that moved around and I was like, oh, this is going to be a whole show about people dressed as cats. I don’t think that occurred to me, you know? But I was in fifth grade and I was like, it’s art, I guess this is what art is. [Laughs] I understood the cats were having a meeting and they had to introduce themselves, but at the time I didn’t understand that they were arguing their position to be reincarnated which I think is the plot of Cats, but I’m not 100 percent sure?
During one of the numbers the cats came into the aisles and we had “good seats,” so I was sitting on the aisle maybe like six rows in. A cat—and it was very clearly a man—pulled me out of the aisle to dance with the cats. And I remember him holding my hands, spinning me around. I clearly looked terrified, I remember I started to tear up because I’m not a big crier, but I was so freaked out by it. I remember he was really strong because he could easily twirl me around in a circle.
I remember I must have had a terrified look on my face in the middle of it because he stopped singing like a cat and started talking to me like a normal human being. He was like, oh, it’s okay, I’m going to sit you down in just a minute, to calm me down. I think it made it even weirder because then I had to contend with the fact that this cat was just a person. Doing a performance, being on stage, is not appealing to me in any shape or form. So beyond the fact that this was weird, and this guy had makeup and fur glued to his face, I also didn’t want people to be watching me. The only thing I remember now much later in life about Cats is being forced to dance with a guy dressed as a cat. —Stassa Edwards