One of vaudeville’s best-known animal acts was Swain’s Cats and Rats. Here’s a copy of a vaudeville program where this act is featured. For some reason–probably carelessness–the name is wrong. It was Cats and Rats, not Rats and Cats. But then, look how they misspelled vaudeville–twice!
Swain’s Cats and Rats was famous. George Burns joked about it in 1976, recalling his own days in vaudeville by saying “I was so bad, once I was on the bill, and the headliner was Swain’s Cats and Rats.” A newspaper review describes the show: “One of the best animal acts in vaudeville and misses greatness by the man’s mild showmanship. The rats and cats fraternize like lodge brothers and execute a difficult routine of wire walking and jumping and balancing stunts. One of the feature tricks is a cat stepping over seven hurdles on top of each one a rat is reclining.” Vaudeville player Joe Laurie, Jr., noted in his memoirs that the cats were fed right before each show. The rats were kept semi-starved and docile.
Before he developed Cats and Rats, Mr. Swain (I couldn’t find a first name) has at least two other animal acts, Swain’s Alligators and Swain’s Cockatoos. Evidence for the bird act exists from as early as 1907 to at least 1918. It played all over the country: Denver, Brooklyn, Cincinnati. “A novelty from birdland,” one reviewer said, and he rated them “very good.” I found no information at all about the alligators–perhaps it was a short-lived act.
I was so taken with Cats and Rats that I worked the act into my (as yet unpublished) mystery, set in 1925. Just a quick mention as part of a description of a vaudeville act–here it is.
The next-to-last act was Jack Benny, whose straight face and knack for timing brought laughter to the simplest lines. He screeched when he played his violin, not from lack of skill but on purpose to add humor to his act. Many’s the time I’d heard him play his old instrument better than any pro in the pit. His gags flopped, but I whistled and applauded like a madwoman. Never mind, I’m sure he could tell from the tepid audience response that tonight his schtick was off. Cats and Rats ended the show, astonishing the audience as rats rode peacefully on cats’ backs around a track, crossed tightropes, and for the finale, walked across a raised platform carrying miniature American flags.
“However do they teach them to do that!” exclaimed Valerie as we worked our way out of the box and down the side steps.
“They stuff the cats and starve the rats,” I said bluntly. “Come on.”
I could find my way backstage at any theater in the world blindfolded, with nothing but my sense of smell to guide me. The wings teemed with performers dodging in and out of dressing rooms, musicians packing up their instruments, and stage crew hauling down lights, sweeping floors, and repairing scenery for Monday’s new line-up. Shouts, scrapes, crashes, arguments, and warning calls—“Watch out! Heads up! Coming through!—surrounded us. Boys who worked for free to see the show trotted alongside electricians, scene shifters, and carpenters like young apprentices eager to help. Everything was confusion and noise. It sounded like home.