Mary Phillips-Sandy: I love to cook. I just also have an allergy to cleaning up after cooking.
Al Silber: May I make an unsolicited suggestion?
Al: Cleaning while cooking.
Al: Because then you get to the end and you're like, oh, there's no dishes.
Mary: But we're not here to talk about what a terrible domestic housekeeper I am. We are here to talk about something so much better. Al Silber, do you know what we're here to talk about?
Al: My favorite!
[UPBEAT, SLIGHTLY FRANTIC ELECTRONIC MUSIC: Let’s talk about cats! Let’s talk about cats!]
Mary: I'm noted cat lady Mary Phillips-Sandy, and this is Let's Talk About Cats. And you are fellow noted cat lady Al Silber.
Al: That's me.
Mary: And let's just run down your credits really quickly, for whoever might not know. You're an author, novelist—After Anatevka, memoir—White Hot Grief Parade, and incredible actress-
Al: Thank you!
Mary: -on Broadway. When this airs, you will be starring in Cabaret, one of my all-time favorite musicals.
Al: Me too.
Mary: At the Olney Theatre Center outside D.C. And that runs through October 6.
Al: Oh my gosh! Yes.
Mary: Check it out.
Al: Get thee to the Olney!
Mary: But most importantly, Al-
Mary: You are the catpanion of Tatiana Angela Lansbury Romanov.
Al: That is correct.
Mary: Could you please give us her five-word memoir?
Al: Russian royalty becomes showbiz diva.
Mary: I love it. We're going to talk so much more about- Tati is her nickname?
Mary: Yeah, I mean, it is a mouthful.
Al: But it's wonderful when she does something bad. You know, it's like, "Tatiana Angela Lansbury Romanov! Is that what we do?" And she shrugs and walks away.
Al: But it's, you know, it's evocative.
[FAST ROCKING AWESOME GUITAR MUSIC]
Mary: It is time for a segment that we call the Cat Quiz.
Al: I can't wait.
Mary: Okay. So I don't know if you're familiar, but here's how this works. I'm going to ask you five questions. There is a prize at stake. This is very important.
Al: Oh my gosh, okay.
Mary: Okay. Are you ready?
Al: I'm ready RIGHT MEOW. Oh, sorry. Sorry, not sorry.
Mary: Today's Cat Quiz, Al Silber: How much do you know about cats and musicals, but not Cats the musical?
Mary: You know, we don't play like that.
[CAT QUIZ MUSIC: FAST DRUMS AND RUMBLING PURR SOUNDS.]
Mary: First question. This 10-time Tony Award nominee, in their downtime, reportedly enjoyed feeding feral cats in upstate New York. Who is it?
Al: Betty Buckley?
Mary: Oh, very close.
Al: So close?
Mary: So close. It was Chita Rivera, 86 years old, still performing.
Al: And has the name of a cat.
Mary: Yeah, that would be a really good cat name, right? Okay, question number two. Cole Porter famously allowed his two cats to climb on his grand piano. Apparently you can still see the claw marks. What were their names? I'll give you a hint. Together, their names are the name of a play for which he wrote the music and lyrics.
Al: This is very advanced. Plain and Fancy?
Mary: Oh, that would have been really good. I'm so sorry. The cats' names were Anything and Goes. Really good cat names, right?
Al: Really good.
Mary: "Goes! Get off my piano!" Question number three. This is a tough one. But I think you've got it. A few years ago, the Yankee Candle Company launched nine candles inspired by the song "My Favorite Things," of course from The Sound of Music. "Whiskers on Kittens" combined two delicious scents. Can you name one of those scents?
Al: I'm going to go with cinnamon.
Mary: I'm sorry, the scents were sandalwood and vanilla. Question number four. You've got this. Andrew Lloyd Webber, been in the business a long time, he's used to critical reviews. But in 2007 his kitten Otto delivered the harshest feedback of all: He destroyed the entire score of a new musical he was working on. What Andrew Lloyd Webber play did Otto try to stop?
Al: Love Never Dies?
Mary: Correct, Al Silber! Love Never Dies, the sequel to Phantom of the Opera. Otto, maybe you had the right idea. All right. Final question. In 2014 there was an unusual audition for the Broadway revival of a 1936 classic. Quote: "We had the desk they have to sit on, and a little bowl of food." The hopeful stars were of course kittens from the New York Humane Society. What play were they auditioning for?
Al: The Winslow Boy?
Mary: Oh, so close. So close. You Can't Take It With You with James Earl Jones.
Al: Ahh, yes.
Mary: And the kittens who won the audition were Alfonso and Louise. By all accounts, they gave a great performance. Al Silber, you won the Cat Quiz, congratulations!
Al: Thank you!
Mary: Here's your prize. I know that you like to make lists.
Al: I do!
Mary: So here, your prize is this cat notebook. But wait, open it up. And you will see inside?
Al: Dear listening audience. So these are planner stickers of cats in newly cat-themed musicals. For example, we have a cat in Catousel. My Fur Lady. And "who lives, who naps, who tells your story?" Hamilton stickers. These are actually unbelievable. Did you make these?
Mary: No, I got them from Etsy. And shoutout to An Actor Plans on Etsy, who custom-made those.
[FAST ROCKING AWESOME GUITAR MUSIC]
Al: I always do a quiz in my cabaret show. And I usually bring, like, dingy concierge bells.
Mary: Love a dingy bell.
Al: Who doesn't?
Mary: Well, this segment is called the Hot Topic debate. Where are you and I are going to resolve a divisive feline issue once and for all. Okay, today's topic: Would cats make good detectives in small-town coastal Maine?
Al: Of course they would.
Mary: Okay, tell me why.
Al: Cats, by their very nature, are curious.
Al: And curiosity, though we have learned sometimes kills the cat, is a crucial part of solving mysteries, particularly crimes, particularly murders. And I think that they could be of great benefit to some of the town's great crime solvers. Such as, I don't know, J.B. Fletcher.
Mary: Isn't it odd that she didn't have a cat?
Al: Yeah, it's ridiculous that she didn't have a cat.
Mary: It seems like an oversight. I agree with you. But I'm going to offer a slight counter argument.
Al: Hit me.
Mary: Cats themselves are murderers. The Smithsonian and the Fish and Wildlife Service did a study a few years ago, they estimate that domestic cats kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals per year. Now, they did not specify what they meant by mammals. Could people have been included in that figure? I don't know.
Al: Okay, yeah.
Mary: Now, there are theories also, online, right? Why were so many people dying in Cabot Cove?
Al: Population 3,650... and rapidly dropping.
Mary: Right. I know there are some dark theories about her involvement-
Al: That she killed them all. Yes.
Mary: So that she could have something to do.
Al: In her retirement.
Mary: Does that take away at all from your theory?
Al: I don't think so. I want to say I would be very interested on a psychological level to know what the definition of a murder is. And also maybe a legal definition of that. Because though cats kill, are they murdering?
Mary: Interesting. Is it murder? Is it birdslaughter? I don't know, yeah.
Al: I mean, because obviously we can't hold a creature who is a hunter, by their natural instinct, to the same standards that we hold a human.
Mary: That's a very good point. Have you ever visited small-town coastal Maine?
Al: I have. I have been to Kennebunk.
Mary: A lot of tchotchke shops.
Al: Oh, indeed.
Mary: Lots of stuff to climb on and knock over. Very appealing for a cat. Also fishing, a lot of fishing operations, bait fish lying around everywhere. Snacks, just in plain air!
Al: Who needs treats when there's fish right there?
Mary: And I will say this, this is something else that a lot of people don't know, a lot of small towns in Maine no longer have police departments because they can't afford them. So instead of having to rely on the county sheriffs, who might be five hours away, you just have a cat who you don't have to pay, you know, an $80,000 salary to. You just have to pay some scrap fish to.
Al: Right? Indeed.
Mary: It seems like it could not only be good for the cat, it could be good for the town.
Al: For the community!
Mary: And for the community, and for the economy.
Al: You know, I think we just solved a lot of problems.
Mary: So if my home state is listening, I think there needs to be a reality show. And I think we need to have "Small-Town Cat Detectives of Maine" on the air immediately.
Al: Right. Let's do it.
[FAST ROCKING AWESOME GUITAR MUSIC]
Mary: It's time for my very favorite part of the show. Let's talk about your cat.
Al: With joy.
Mary: And I'm going to say her name again, just because I like it. Tatiana Angela Lansbury Romanov. Before we talk about Tati, I want to talk really quickly about a story that you told in your memoir, which is a gorgeous book that I could not put down.
Al: Thank you!
Mary: Right after your dad died, he visited you as a cat.
Mary: I am really curious to know if that has happened again.
Al: No, it never has. I'm really glad you brought up that story. I choose to believe I got a visitation from my dad as a cat. Yeah, it was maybe about two weeks after. And my boyfriend at the time was staying with me, as were a lot of my heroic 18-year-old friends. And we were taking a sort of late-autumn, but still very warm in the air, evening walk. And on the way home, this ginger cat, out of nowhere, sort of started following us home. And the cat was sort of excessively friendly. No collar. Nothing at all that indicated that this cat belonged here or in this neighborhood. Followed us all the way home, and then walked inside our house as if he owned the place, and the cat sort of walked all the way around the house. And with great sort of deference, walked into my parents' bedroom and sat directly on the spot on the bed where my dad had passed away. And it almost fell out of my boyfriend's mouth, he went: "Mike?!" And the cat turned around and made contact with us in this way that was like, "Absolutely, yeah." And then ran out of the house, never to be heard or seen from again. I had a dream a couple nights later, where my dad was back. And I had a lot of these dreams at the time. You know, sort of, dad's back, no one thinks it's weird but me, which are quite common just-after-grief dreams. And I spoke to him. And I said, "By the way, the cat. Was that you?" My father had a very, very beautiful quality. Everything was a miracle to him. And he said, "Yes, I knew that you would be really scared of a ghost, or a spirit, or an angelic presence. I knew that you would need to know that you saw it and touched it. But I just needed to make sure everything was okay." It was such a moving and validating experience. I had never done a lot of work, at that period of my life, on thoughts about what happens beyond. But I think the belief in this event and the fact that it brings me extraordinary comfort. And a kind of faith that is productive, and emotionally relevant, to me is perhaps what faith in its best essence can be about. And I'm going to believe that this happened, because these things do happen.
Mary: Oh, absolutely.
Al: It was like the beginning of a real opening of my heart. And certainly a great moment of healing for me.
Mary: Cats are really good for that.
Al: They are.
Mary: I mentioned I have young child, and it's, you know, lovely to watch them grow up, but it makes you think about your own mortality in a very strange way. And I was thinking like, oh, man, that's a great idea. You know, that's exactly what I would do, too.
Al: That's so lovely.
Mary: Right? Because cats are both familiar and also unknowable. And I fully believe that they can travel between realms in ways that we don't quite understand. And yet, if one shows up on your doorstep, you're not going to freak out completely. And so I filed that away in the back of my eternal mind.
Al: That's so lovely.
Mary: How did you and Tati meet?
Al: So in 2014 I was doing a musical at the Vineyard Theatre, off-Broadway, a beautiful theater that, you know, focuses on original works. And I was doing what was ostensibly a one-woman piece. It was a one-woman musical. And it was very difficult. It was a very, very emotionally draining huge task about a woman waiting for her husband to come back from an unknown war in the Middle East. And you know, it was this very isolating experience. And it was also January. So I would, between shows, I would often kind of walk around and air myself out. And one of the things that I loved to do was walk through Union Square, and sometimes make a little lap around that Petco which is on 17th Street.
Al: Where they have cat adoptions.
Al: And just look at the kitty cats. And I did think to myself, "I think I'd be a good cat mother. I dunno, boo boo boop." And one day, I come across what looks like a teen cat. Going "Meow! Meow! Meow! Meow!" This panicky, "Timmy's in the well, boys!" And she had given birth to five kittens. She needed help, and she picked me to help her. And I had no skills, but I knew where the Petco was! So I go and I say, here's my information. Let me know how the story ends. To which I then was sent like, a lot of really emotionally beautiful photographs of the kittens from the foster family. And the follow-up is, I go to visit who is now Tati, but at the time was named, quite unfortunately, Sweetie.
Al: I know. And her little face remembered me. It was like "Dunnn nah nah nah nah," like full-on Love Story theme. She put her paw through the little cage and she put it on my arm.
Al: Yeah. And then they informed me all the kittens have been adopted, but no one wants mommy! And I was like, oh. Oh, fine. I'll fill out the paperwork. You know, that day, I wasn't expecting it at all. I just wanted to see how the story had turned out. And she'd been spayed and she'd nursed the kittens and she was the best mommy. She was only a little over a year old, so she was a teen mom. And I took her home in a state of total shock. And she was immediately my family. That is how we met. She picked me.
Mary: That is incredible.
Al: I know. It was fate.
Mary: What a beautiful story. If you could cast her as a character in any play, who would she be?
Mary: I love that.
Al: She's Auntie Mame.
Mary: That's amazing. I love that. Can I tell you who Grendel would be?
Mary: She'd be Louise in Gypsy.
Al: Oh, oh, oh, that makes me so happy. When I get really showbizzy with Tati, you can see some Louise. Like "I'm tolerating being on Instagram" face.
Mary: Are you Mama Rose?
Al: I am Mama Rose!
Al: You are probably wondering how her name came to be.
Mary: Yes, that was my next question.
Al: I love all things Russian.
Al: Maybe not contemporary politics, but certainly Russian literature and more ancient Russian arts, if you will. And so when I moved into my apartment, I thought, you know, I'm Alexandra and I'll name this the Winter Palace. And that'll be my little home. You know, it became just sort of a little bit of a joke. And then when she came into my life, I thought, Oh, I wonder if she's one of the little royal princesses. So let me ask her what her name is, you know? So I said, Please tell me you're not Anastasia, because that would just be so on the nose. And she, you know, sort of scowled. Yeah. Okay, good. Okay. I said, I hope your name is not Olga, because I don't think I could handle it. No. And then I said Tatiana, and she flipped on her back and spread her arms, like, "That's my name!" And as the weeks were on, it just became very clear that Tati was meant for showbiz. And she was a great theatrical dame. And the only thing that I love more than my cat is Angela Lansbury. So I thought, I will give her the middle name Angela Lansbury. And it became Tatiana Angela Lansbury Romanov, and it just feels right.
Mary: Now, you met Angela Lansbury.
Al: Oh, yeah.
Mary: I don't presume to know what goes on in Angela Lansbury's head. I feel like if someone came up to me and said, I named my cat after you, it's like the most flattering thing ever. I mean, so many people must go up to her and say, "Oh, I loved you in this." "I loved you in that." But "I named my cat after you."
Al: So I know she knows that I named my cat after her.
Mary: Oh, she knows?
Al: The way it all came to be was, when I was in Fiddler on the Roof in the last Broadway revival, in 2016, it was the year of her 90th birthday. And I thought, I better get on the horn about publicly declaring why I love her. I wrote basically an open letter to Angela Lansbury on her 90th birthday. And I- obviously we all have like our kitsch loves of vintage television shows. But I also wanted to express to her that she was, on a very serious level, my inspiration. You know, I think one of the things that she embodies is that no matter what stage of life any of us are in, or at this internal fear, where we're always examining whether or not it's too late for us.
Mary: Ahh yes.
Al: Right? And I, you know, I put that in quotes, like, "It's too late for me to find a partner." "It's too late for me to achieve my dreams." "It's too late for me to travel the world, or have children"-
Mary: Or get a cat.
Al: -get a cat, whatever it may be, right. I think we live in a world where that is a real question people examine often. And what I love about Angela Lansbury is this is a woman who, at 18 years old, got an Oscar nomination. Was completely providing for her family. Completely reinvented herself in her 30s as a Broadway star, always focused on her family first, and wasn't really an international household name until she did Murder She Wrote at 60. And the thing about Murder She Wrote, as delightful and vintage and somewhat kitschy as it is, the story of Jessica Fletcher herself has the same story.
Mary: Yeah, exactly. I was just gonna say, it's very similar.
Al: Right. Which is just like- it's never too late for anything.
Al: I've always admired and loved her. But at the time that the sort of real intensity of my appreciation before it started, I was in a place where I was asking all those questions. Is it too late to start over basically, and looking to her, saw me through that. And I guess what happened was, our producer at Fiddler on the Roof is very good friends with her socially, found the blog and sent it to her. And she wrote back to me.
Al: Then a couple days later, we were in previews. And over the loudspeaker, our stage manager said, "Al Silber, you have a very special guest waiting for you on stage." I couldn't think of who it could possibly be. And then I come out into the hallway, and I come around the corner, and I see the hair. And I lost it. And I was like, okay, don't tell her about your cat. Don't tell her about your cat, keep it together, say the things you want to say. And what I realized was my cast had come down not to meet Angela Lansbury. But to watch me meet Angela Lansbury.
Mary: To see you lose your mind.
Al: And it was everything you hope meeting your idol would be.
Mary: Amazing. Amazing! You've also written about going through a pretty tough health challenge a couple years ago, you've come out the other side of it, for the most part?
Al: Yeah, definitely.
Mary: How did Tati help you in your healing process?
Al: You know, that was actually something that was so beautiful to witness. I have an autoimmune disease called ulcerative colitis. And it really affects your digestive tract, and particularly your colon. You know, basically, it's where your immune system over-functions, and it can attack- it does attack healthy tissue. And a lot of autoimmune diseases are one of those diseases where you can kind of brush aside symptoms for a really long time, and really only recognize and deal with it when it's really advanced. And the weeks leading up to, and the very first few weeks of rehearsing Fiddler on Broadway, I was in a complete hurricane of just trying to get by. And sort of, you know, balancing that with an unbelievable opportunity. I was in the middle of going, "I am in my favorite musical of all time, playing a role I've dreamed of playing since I was a teenager, in a Broadway 50th anniversary production." And I can't do any of the things if I'm not here.
Al: Just this incredibly humbling experience of, yes, it is important. And it's also meaningless, because life is both of those things. The dramatic and harrowing and the hilarious. It's, it's both. And I think that one of the things that was so crucial was, Tati was really the only person to bear witness to all of it. And in the very, very bad days, I remember there was just this one- I came home. And we were in previews, which is an extremely difficult time in the theater world, because usually it means that you're rehearsing for the whole day and then you're also doing the show at night. So these are very long 10- to 12-hour days. I came home and I was just completely empty. And I fell into the bed. And I remember Tati jumping up on the bed. And she usually sits right next to me. But she jumped up on the bed and very, very slowly climbed onto my stomach, and just gave all her weight over to my stomach and closed her eyes. And I thought, How does she know that? That's where I'm sick. But I could feel it. And she did that until I started to get better. And then she moved back over to the side.
Mary: Oh, wow.
Al: Yeah. They're just these empaths. And I was so grateful. And I, I think that there is some something to be said about the element of wordlessness that's shared. I have learned so much about love from this cat. And it's taught me a lot about how to translate that into making all of my loving relationships better. You know, one of the things we all love and appreciate—and sometimes don't love and appreciate—about cats, is that they they do things their way, they have very, very specific personalities and ways. Ways they receive love and ways they offer it. And if you think about it, if you have like a conflicting love language with a human being, you talk about it. You go, you know, I really need words of affirmation, I just need you to touch me more, or whatever it may be. And you can improve those things. With a cat, you're like, you're not appreciating the way that I want to love you. So how can I- you start to learn how they receive it. And then also you start to receive what they offer on their terms much more thoroughly. And it's taught me to translate that to my human relationships.
Mary: Isn't that incredible?
Al: Totally. And you just have to experience it in that beautiful, wordless place.
Mary: That is exactly something that a language person would notice. You're a language person, I'm also a language person. And so I am also fascinated by that. You know, the way I interact with Grendel- I think about that all the time. About how language would actually detract, how it would detract from what she and I share. Which is something that again, someone who relies on language as a safety net-
Al: Right, or even as a defense mechanism.
Mary: A defense mechanism! Yeah. Ohh yeah.
Al: Cause, you know, I think when we have strengths, they can also be weakness.
Mary: Oh, totally.
Al: And I definitely think I'm sitting on an essay about like, things I've learned about love from my cat.
Mary: Well, when you write it, will you please be sure to send me a link so that we can share it with our listeners?
Al: Of course. I would be so honored to.
Mary: So our final question for you is, what would you like to say to Tati listening at home?
Al: I have treats.
Mary: There you go.
Al: I mean, that's really the priority.
Mary: That's what she wants to hear. Yeah, that's what she wants to hear. Absolutely.
Al: I feel, though, that we haven't mentioned Tati's Instagram.
Mary: Oh, that's right. Let's shout out Tati's Instagram.
Al: So it became very clear that my cat was very photogenic.
Mary: She's gorgeous.
Al: You know, just knows how to work the camera.
Mary: She really does.
Al: The Christie Brinkley of cats, you know?
Mary: Yes. But she's very natural.
Al: Very natural. Not at all pose-y. I agree. I agree. I'm over-posting about the cat, and I thought, she needs her own platform.
Al: So I have created I Feel Kitty. And please join us for the hullabaloo.
Mary: It is worth the follow. It is absolutely worth it. Has anyone ever come up to you at the stage door and been like, Ahh, I love your cat?
Al: Oh, yeah. This is real. Sometimes people will send me fan gifts or care packages. And there are people that include gifts or, you know, supplications for Tati.
Mary: That's how you know your cat has made it.
Al: Yeah, people are like, Oh, I love your cat's Instagram. And I'm like, I'm, you know, hearing the theme from Gypsy play in my head.
Mary: Yeah, you gotta be careful, though. We all know how that show ended.
Al: I know. I know. And I try to walk the line. But again, another great Mama Rose was... Angela Lansbury.
Mary: All right, we have a shoutout very quickly right now. Shout out to Psmith with a silent P. Psmith, but the P is silent, of Arlington, Virginia, who I'm told moved to a new house a few months ago. Psmith, I hope the transition went well, and I'm told your new place has lots of sunny windows. So happy basking to you. If you'd like to send a shoutout to your cat, or any cat who deserves a shoutout, you can email us: email@example.com. Just tell me your cat's name, city or state, and any message you'd like included. I'll read it out at the end of an upcoming episode. Alright, so as we mentioned, Tati's Instagram is I Feel Kitty. How can people find you online, if they would like to do that?
Al: I would be so honored. I am @alsilbs on both Twitter and Instagram, a Facebook page at Alexandra Silber, and AlexandraSilber.net if you want to check out my website.
Mary: Which you all should! Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for being here to talk about cats.
Al: Thank you for having me.
Mary: And of course we are on Instagram @ltacpod, that's @ltacpod. And you can go to letstalkaboutcats.com for more about this episode, including complete show notes and a transcript. While you're there, please sign up for our monthly newsletter, Let's Talk (More) About Cats. It is well worth it, I promise. And that's all for now. My name is Mary, my cat is Grendel. Our producer is the pretty and witty and bright Lizzie Jacobs. Our theme song is by Poingly, with additional music by The English Muffins. Our show logo is by Julia Emiliani. Thanks so much for listening. I'll talk to you next time... about cats.