Lil BUB, Pudge, and the creator of Henri Le Chat Noir occupied the same stage. A small army of robot cats interacted with humans on a crowded floor of vendors. More than 70 rescue cats found new homes. Reporters from more than 50 news organizations prowled the premises. Some 10,000 people — many in full cat costume — experienced the two-day spectacle in downtown Los Angeles.
I’m describing CatConLA, a weekend event that exceeded expectations of nearly everyone involved — organizers, performers, rescue workers, journalists, vendors, and every attendee I spoke with. Buzzfeed called CatConLA “THE place to be in L.A. for the weekend.”
Other speakers and performers included Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh, Scott Stulen of the Internet Cat Video Festival, Simon’s Cat creator Simon Tofield, and Emily the Strange artist Rob Reger. Sponsors included Animal Planet and Rachael Ray Nutrish cat food. Best Friends Animal Society, which facilitated cat adoptions with the help of FixNation (the chosen benificiary of the event), found homes for 74 cats — the line to enter the adoption area at times contained at least 50 people. About 100 vendors participated; many reported selling out of items and wishing they’d brought more stock.
Full disclosure: CatConLA was produced by Susan Michals, a friend of mine since our college days at San Francisco State University longer ago than either of us would care to admit. Last year, Susan asked me to be on the CatCon advisory board and also give my own presentation. A couple of weeks ago she asked me to be master of ceremonies for an impressive lineup of humans and cats. I accepted.
With great enthusiasm.
She described the two-day event as “like Comic-Con … for cat people.” A sort of cultural convergence of entertainment, products, education, and rescue, CatConLA is decidedly different than blogger conferences such as BarkWorld and industry/product shows such as SuperZoo. Whatever it was, there was obviously pent-up demand.
The first year for any conference can be seen as something of a test-run. Performers, presenters, vendors, and sponsors are as apt to “wait and see” as they are to commit. If the first CatConLA was a test, it scored a solid A. Those who passed up a chance to participate probably began a frantic search for Susan’s contact information Saturday morning when they saw the hundreds of people waiting to get in.
Early Sunday, attendees began to ask whether there will be a CatCon 2016. Three reporters who interviewed me each asked their own version of, “Did anyone expect it to be this huge?” By midday, attendees’ questions about 2016 sounded more like demands. By day’s end, Susan confirmed there will be a CatCon next year. She said Tuesday that every performer and vendor she has asked wants to be part of it again.
Here are the five things I like best about being part of CatConLA:
This was transformative for me. Before CatCon, I’d not spent more than 20 minutes on stage at a time. The auditorium at CatCon holds 450 people; the biggest audience I’d addressed was about 50. I’d never helped produce something this big — 16 hours of talks and performances over two days with no real breaks. The assignment came on short notice. Yet I accepted it without hesitation. I wrote the material quickly, and with the help of a tight, supportive and expert production crew, we held to schedule almost exactly.
I loved developing my stage presence — by Sunday I was at ease, ad-libbing most of what I said and did on stage. What I loved more was helping so many talented individuals do their best work and give CatCon attendees a great experience. Sure, it was fun working alongside people and animals including Mike Bridavsky and Lil BUB, Mayim Bialik (who announced a partnership and contest with Petsmart Charities), and Jack McBrayer (who appeared on the finale, Lil BUB’s Big Show), but it was profoundly satisfying to talk to performers and keep them calm and level in a makeshift green room before going on stage, then revving up the crowd, then watching the performers give audience members exactly what they’d come to see.
These people were remarkable, and I had lots of great conversations with them after the fact. I can’t say enough good things about Ben Huh (who killed with this humor), Rob Reger, Scott Stulen, Will Braden, Simon Tofield, Joann Biondi, and Mike and BUB (who I met in 2013 and interviewed).
I also loved introducing Angie Bailey (Catster writer and author of Texts From Mittens) and Francesco Marciuliano (author of I Could Pee on This). Angie is an old friend, and Francesco now feels like a new friend.
When I visited the adoption area before CatCon opened, a tiny gray-and-white kitten named Maya stopped me in my tracks. When it comes to adoption, I prefer adult cats to kittens, but this one killed me. She was lying down, paws folded, and she looked right at me. I knew I had to leave before my heart became a conflagration.
When I returned later Saturday, Maya had been adopted — along with more than half the cats there. Knowing that one little cat who touched me was going to a new home helped me know just what that meant for every cat.
I love accessories, and I’ve bought several keychains from Jon Watson and Mary Spencer. They run Outlaw Kritters and also sell items under the name Watto. The two also make belt buckles, pendants, and t-shirts, among other things. On Saturday, one of my keychains failed when it got caught in the slats of a bench. My wife, Daphne, visited the Outlaw Kritters booth to say hi, then told Jon and Mary what happened. They handed her a new keychain to replace mine. On Sunday I expressed my thanks and chatted with them. These are good people.
Many cat guys attended CatCon, and several others spoke or performed. My talk was called “You Can Be a Cat Guy … and Still Be Cool.” It’s an updated version of a Cat Dandy column I wrote earlier this year. Men who love cats were well represented at the conference, helping erase negative stereotypes. I was proud to be part of that.
Zoomer Kitty is the robot cat I mentioned above. I’ve not taken it out of the box, so I’m not 100 percent sure what it does, but I look forward to finding out — and seeing how Thomas interacts with it.
I’ve been back more than a day and I’m still exhausted. It’ll be a while before I’m over CatCon. I’m looking forward to CatCon 2016.
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About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster.