The bright lights of the Strip don’t just shine on showgirls and singers. Amid the scantily clad outfits and magical acts are household pets sharing the stage with world-renowned juggler Gregory Popovich.
The “World Famous Popovich Comedy Pet Theater” inside the V Theater at Planet Hollywood has been showcasing tricks by former homeless pets for the past 10 years.
“Instead of a sound check, I start by doing a smell check,” Popovich said. “We have my pets go on stage and walk around, so they understand the stage. This is really a show that’s fit for people of all ages.”
Popovich, 52, is a fourth-generation circus performer from Russia who grew up with a juggler father and a mother who performed with dogs. He spent his childhood traveling from show to show and claims that many of his first friends and babysitters were dogs.
He performed his first solo act when he was 13 as a juggler and hit fame after working as a juggler in the Moscow Circus.
The North Las Vegas resident holds a world record in a balancing and juggling feat in which he stands atop a 9-foot, free-standing ladder and juggles nine rings.
Popovich came up with the idea to incorporate household pets into his show while working at Circus Circus. After he had a dog and a cat on stage with him and received overwhelming applause from the audience, he decided to try something new.
He started his comedy pet theater in May 2006. Working with animals wasn’t the hardest part — it was getting someone to believe in his vision. As a well-known juggler, Popovich was getting offers for shows, including Cirque du Soleil, but there was little interest for his pet theater in a city that thrives on adult entertainment.
Nevertheless, there was a need for a family-friendly show.
“I knew that whatever he did, it would be top notch and that he is a class act,” said David Saxe, owner of David Saxe Productions and V Theater. “(Few) shows that get pitched for Las Vegas don’t get picked up. Of those, (roughly) .1 percent that do, (many) won’t make it past one year. Popovich’s show has been performing in my theater for over 10 years. This is a tremendous accomplishment.”
He began adopting pets from different animal shelters, including Las Vegas’ Lied Animal Shelter. He currently has 14 cats, 12 dogs, four doves and two parrots.
He said his bird performers came from the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary.
His comedy pet theater show incorporates classic vaudeville-style entertainment with European-style physical comedy that features pets as the main actors.
Popovich said he trains his pets with positive reinforcement and uses their natural instincts and abilities to create characters for the show.
For example, there’s one performer who Popovich describes as a lazy dog because he moves slowly. Popovich gave him the part as the lazy student in the classroom scene who forgets to do his homework.
He said he doesn’t look for a specific breed or color — personality is key, and it all starts with a toy.
Some animals stick out with their outgoing and playful personalities, but even those who seem scared or fearful of humans have a second chance.
“There was one dog who had such hopelessness in his eyes, I just kept coming back to him,” Popovich said. “He was hurt by a car and had some scratches on him. He would just lie down all day and looked so sad. I decided that I was going to adopt this dog whether or not he was a performer. After four months passed, this dog was running and jumping, and he performed with me for 12 years.”
It takes Popovich between three and six months to train dogs and roughly six months to train cats to perform on stage. He said he starts by playing recorded music in the living room while his family applauds, so that the animals see that music and applause do not hurt.
“It’s a smooth and delicate process,” Popovich said. “After they realize that they’re OK and that nobody wants to hurts them, they can start working. I don’t force animals to do different tricks. Training is supposed to be fun. I find what they like to do and build a trick based on their natural habits.”
Another secret that Popovich shared is that for every cat that knows a trick, he has three understudy cats. That way, in case one cat doesn’t want to perform the trick or is fixated on a specific person, the show can still go on.
All of the animals live inside his home. He said he built two extra houses with air conditioning for the dogs and cats.
Recent animal abuse allegations were made against him and the way he stores animals after animal rights advocate Hani Levi shot a five-minute video of the animals inside crates. Popovich said the video does not reflect truth and that he loves all of his pets.
He added that he has all the needed licenses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, State of Nevada and his veterinarian.
“World Famous Popovich Comedy Pet Theater” runs at 4 p.m. daily inside the V Theater at Planet Hollywood.
He starts and ends his show by showing one sentence on the screen: “Animals are people, too!”
“If after my show people want to adopt an animal from the animal shelter, then I feel like my mission is accomplished,” Popovich said. “My main focus has always been to help homeless pets.”
To reach North View reporter Sandy Lopez, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-4686. Find her on Twitter: @JournalismSandy.
“World Famous Popovich Comedy Pet Theater”
The show runs at 4 p.m. daily inside the V Theater at Planet Hollywood, 3667 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Visit comedypet.com.