Dr. Paul Koudounaris is a local author, photographer, scholar and raconteur who has gained a large following thanks to his wide range of unique interests. Besides authoring a trilogy of books on death, the local legend has been giving talks on everything from Sicilian sex ghosts to the history of American cats. While researching the latter, he realized that Los Angeles has the richest cat stories of any American city, so on Wednesday, he gave a talk at Hyperion Tavern called Los Cat-geles: A History of L.A. Cats. We sat down with Dr. Koudounaris to get the lowdown on L.A.’s feline history and learn more about why L.A. is home to the coolest cats in the country.
According to Koudounaris, domestic cats aren’t indigenous to Southern California, and while some cats may have come over on ships with the Spanish, there’s no evidence that the Spanish ever let their cats off their ships. Instead, they used them as tools to keep away vermin, so they were closely watched. And anyway, those were working cats, not domestic ones.
Koudounaris believes that the first domesticated cats to come to Southern California arrived with the missionaries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Documentation points to one man specifically: a priest named Father Uría, who owned four felines and named them all after Catholic saints. His favorite, San Francisco, had a penchant for chasing tarantulas, but eventually got bitten by one and died, leaving his owner heartbroken. Uría’s remaining cats evidently formed an ad-hoc procession into a church in Ventura, right toward a rope leading to the church bell, which they allegedly rang.
“Those cats lived their entire lives in churches. They knew churches and they knew the bell,” Koudounaris maintains. “Those cats would have understood something about the bell. And these are smart animals. It could happen.”
Still, when it came to owning cats, Father Uría was eccentric, and keeping domestic cats was not common. Back then, cats that did live in the area were generally considered to be wild and dangerous. In fact, Koudounaris dug up an article in the L.A. Times instructing people on what to do in the event they should encounter one of the tough, feral creatures we now know as cute little kitty cats.
“That’s the one thing about Southern California cats, and I think it’s been passed down,” Koudounaris says. “They were tough and independent-minded.”
By way of example, Koudounaris cites another story in the L.A. Times from the late 19th century: an eyewitness account of an unlikely altercation involving a pair of cats, a chicken and an eagle. After an eagle swooped down to nab a chicken, two stray cats suddenly emerged and began attacking the eagle. One cat was left dead and disemboweled, but the other kept fighting until the eagle was also dead. (The L.A. Times reported two fatalities and one survivor: the cat.)
At the time, however, cats were still not popular, at least not living ones. “There are more ghost stories in Los Angeles about cats than anywhere else in the entire world,” Koudounaris reveals. One story has to do with a mysterious lady in white at the San Fernando Mission. Whenever she supposedly appeared, all the neighborhood cats would gather to follow her around. When she vanished, they did, too.
Then there was the story of the haunted stove inside a Monrovia train station, where a poor cat who was just trying to stay warm burned to death while sleeping. “Some guy reported that he opened the stove and something jumped out and clawed him, and then he looked around and nothing was there, and he had all these scratch marks. And they were like, ‘Yeah, that’s just the ghost cat that lives in the stove.'”
But perhaps the strangest cat haunting involved a black cat named Beelzebub who showed up at the Ambassador Hotel back when it first opened in the 1920s. The hotel manager instructed the employees to get rid of it, so they took it down to Long Beach and let it loose. “The next day, he was back, and there were seven more just like him, but small,” Koudounaris says.
Ghost cats aside, felines were still not really considered suitable pets at the end of the 19th century. “The first newspaper account that mentioned a cat club in Los Angeles mentions it in terms of weird clubs,” Koudounaris explains. Along with a club for one-legged men, an organization for people who slept in coffins and a sailing club for folks with no boats, there was a club for people who keep cats as pets. “That’s what keeping a cat was like; it was considered really weird. It was about the same as having a possum as a pet. It was considered eccentric.”
The shift that occurred in our attitudes toward cats coincided with the rise of the motionpicture industry, especially because the earliest films were silent. “When you’re just reading title cards, an animal is just as viable an actor as a human being,” Koudounaris points out.
Unlike movie dogs, cats were still considered untrainable — that is, until a little chubby charcoal-gray stray kitten made its way to the soundstage of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Someone decided to point the camera at her, and the kitten proceeded to ham it up. A star was born, and they named her Pepper.
“All I can tell you is that Pepper has it,” Koudounaris attests. “I found an old film clip of her just playing with a piece of string, and I sat there watching it and watching it, and it didn’t even dawn on me that it was just a loop.”
Pepper went on to act with such early silent-film stars as Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops. Her first big role was as a bird-hungry villain in the 1913 short The Little Hero, where she played opposite her real-life best friend, Teddy the Wonder Dog. While she’s largely forgotten now, Pepper was a big star at the time, and even got written up in the gossip columns. But when Teddy the Wonder Dog passed away, Pepper quit acting, and soon died herself. The Sennett studio was left without a cat. Eventually, they replaced Pepper with Pussums, who belonged to a pair of sisters, would-be starlets who wound up getting only bit parts while their pet cat went on to become a much bigger star, earning more than 10 times the sisters’ day rate.
Perhaps the most famous movie cat was a marmalade-colored tabby tomcat by the name of Orangey, whose 12-year Hollywood career included roles in Bewitched, Mission: Impossible, Village of the Giants and, most famously, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The cat was so successful that his beleaguered trainer, a man named Frank Inn, requested to be buried with the ashes of his beloved meal tickets: Arnold Ziffel the pig (Green Acres), Higgins the dog (Benji) and, of course, Orangey the cat.
Like Pepper and Pussums before him, Orangey was a stray. His film career began in 1950 after producers of a movie called Rhubarb put out a casting call for a dour, scratched-up, mean-looking cat. Orangey fit the bill and went on to be “the biggest money-making cat in the history of cinema with the largest contract ever awarded to a feline,” according to Koudounaris.
Still, Orangey remained a largely feral bastard who would hiss at his employers, scratch his fish paste–slathered co-stars and regularly run away off-set, eventually forcing the studio to hire a bloodhound to sniff him out.
“So in other words, this was the consummate Hollywood personality,” Koudounaris quips. While Orangey was difficult to work with, everyone tolerated him because he could act. In fact, Orangey is the only two-time winner of the Patsy Award, the animal version of the Oscars. At the Burbank Animal Shelter today, his paws are preserved in cement in what was supposed to become the Walk of Fame for animal actors but never quite took off.
The question remains, though: Why were all these cats strays? “I think it’s because stray cats are smart and they know how to survive,” Koudounaris theorizes. “I don’t think Orangey liked acting. I think Orangey just realized pretty quickly, ‘OK, if I put up with this crap, it’s gonna end sooner and I’m gonna get rewarded.’ I think that’s why they were stray cats, because they’re super smart.”
Koudounaris’ research into L.A. cats includes other notable movie felines such as the MGM lion, who is buried with his best friend, a domestic cat named Cinderella. There’s also Syn the Siamese, who was cross-eyed and emaciated when he was discovered by an animal trainer at a local shelter. The trainer adopted the cat and eventually landed him the title role in the film That Darn Cat. The film was so successful, it knocked The Sound of Music out of first place at the box office.
But legendary L.A. cats aren’t just tied to the film industry. There’s Pooli, a cat with the U.S. Navy who quelled the fears of World War II sailors whenever they found the cat sleeping in the midst of a fierce battle. Also associated with the U.S. Navy, Pico the singing cat would regularly join in on live renditions of “God Bless America,” leaving a legacy as a patriotic pet, even though no one really knows for sure whether Pico was actually singing or just yowling in misery.
Then, in 1950, an L.A.-based cat-food brand launched an award for heroic cats called the Puss ‘N Boots medal. Recipients included Clementine Jones, who walked from New York to Denver in order to reunite with her human family, as well as a cat in Louisiana who acted as a guide to a blind dog. Another winner of the medal was Bibi the election cat, who manned a Torrance polling booth.
But for Koudounaris, “the quintessential Los Angeles cat” showed up at the Elysian Heights Elementary School in Echo Park back in 1952, and stayed with the students for 16 years. Its name was Room 8, and it was so beloved that there are tributes to the cat around the school preserved in concrete to this day. After Room 8 died, the school asked for contributions toward a funeral. They wound up getting so many donations that now, Room 8’s grave is the second-largest memorial in the Los Angeles Pet Cemetery in Calabasas, after only the MGM lion.
“I think that tells you all you need to know about cats in Los Angeles, and what they’re capable of — the bond they can make, and the connection they have with society, when they choose to allow that connection to occur,” Koudounaris suggests. “I think it’s an incredible story, and it’s kind of a testament to the history of Los Angeles cats. Room 8 is the descendent of those cats wandering around in the Santa Monica Mountains in the 19th century: that tough, resilient stray cat. Room 8 is that cat.”