I was sitting at Andy’s Cabana enjoying a fish taco when I heard someone mention the cat herder. A cat herder? Impossible.
Everyone knows you can’t herd cats. Ah, but there was a man who could.
Didn’t I know about the Catman? He’d performed at Mallory Square. Surely, I’d seen him.
Actually, I hadn’t.
I had been coming to Key West for years, but somehow had missed this act. When I moved to town full-time in 2019, I still couldn’t find the Catman and his flying cats. (He had moved the show to the docks at the then-Westin Resort.)
For me, he remained a Key West mythic figure, a bit of the elusive magic of the island.
Then last month, I was at Frenchie’s Cafe having lunch with friends when a charming man with curly gray locks and a French accent came through the door. “Dominique! Dominique!” everyone said.
“Who’s that?” I asked. My friend turned to me.
“Dominique LeFort. The Catman.”
It was an incredible moment. The Catman! Finally, my opportunity to get the scoop on the show, the man, the real story behind the flying cats of Key West.
Dominique graciously agreed to be interviewed. We met again at Frenchie’s the next week, where he began to unspool the fascinating tale of how this legendary show came to happen.
A quick search online showed me what had enthralled thousands in Key West over the years. I saw cats flying through the air. Cats leaping through rings of fire. And I saw the Catman in action, a whirlwind of stagecraft, magic and performance that was as amazing as the cats themselves.
And here’s where the story of the legendary show begins. Not with the training of the cats, but the training of the Catman.
It begins in Paris, where Dominique LeFort studied drama, opera, mime and acrobatics at the famed Ecole Internationale de Theatre LeCoq. He went on to great success as “Rou Dou Dou the Clown,” performing in Canada, Las Vegas and Florida.
Eventually, he moved to the States for good.
One day, his young daughter begged him to get her a kitten. She adored it, but like any toddler sometimes pulled the kitty’s tail. The kitten, Chaton, began coming to Dominque for protection and the two bonded. As he watched the cat, he noticed the acrobatic playfulness and got an idea: Why not add the cat to his act?
The “Flying House Cats” were born when he observed the natural leaping abilities of felines and their extraordinary capability to land on four feet from a high distance. He taught Chaton to jump on a stool upon command by placing treats on it and encouraging the leap. Then he added other stools for the cat to leap on and off across the room.
Dominique’s philosophy on training is that first and foremost, the cat must choose you. All of his performers, he says, have been island cats with no special talents, except an interest in being with him. His training tips are pretty basic: Start slow, reward with dry treats and keep the training sessions very short at first. Repetition and patience are key. You are building a relationship, not just an obedient kitty.
After Chaton came Marlene. She was the cat he owned at the time he visited Key West for vacation. The weather and the performers at Mallory impressed him.
“I thought, why not live here?” That was in 1984 and the show grew to three, then four cats.
Along with Dominique’s outsized charisma and extensive training as an entertainer, it took off, leaping from the docks of Key West to stints at Las Vegas and Disney World. He and his
fantastic felines — Oscar and Cossette, Sara, Chopin, George and Mandarin — have been on national television and garnered media attention around the world.
And then came March 2020.
“COVID came and everything was shut down. At that time, my oldest cat was 18 and another was 17 and it was time for them to retire,” he said.
That’s when Dominique realized he, like his cats, was at a point where it was time to stop working and enjoy life.
The cats spend their retirement as regular house cats, sleeping a lot during the day and being active at night. “They do what normal cats do,” he says. “Sometimes they play, sometimes they want to be alone.”
I asked if they missed performing. “Oh, yes. Like all animals, they like their routines. Performing was part of their routine.”
Then I asked if he missed performing. He grinned. “Of course. It was my life.”
These days, Dominique spends his time writing, “playing with his neurons” (thinking), and prowling the town on his own.
And his timing is right. Fire is no longer allowed at Mallory Square, and other longtime performers at the Sunset Celebration, such as Will Soto, are leaving town.
But Dominique is still here. You can find him at Mallory Square most evenings (part of my routine, he jokes), kibitzing with the performers and taking pictures with his fans. You can also see his show online at catmankeywest.com. Or stop by Frenchie’s Cafe on United Street, where he’s known to grab a cup of coffee and chat in his native tongue with owners Frenchie and Stephanie.
With Saint Patrick’s Day coming up, I suggested he help the Key West community by taking his cats out of retirement and training them to herd our rats into the sea, much like St. Patrick of Irish lore.
“Not interested,” he said. “Besides, cats don’t work in a team. They’re not dogs.”
He had already told me he doesn’t work with dogs. “Not challenging enough.”
So, Dominique LeFort is passing on a chance for sainthood. But who needs that? How can you top flying cats and the magic of being the Key West Catman?