My Pop Life #215 : Top Cat – Hoyt Curtin

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Top Cat  –  Hoyt Curtin

“The indisputable leader of the gang”

*Warning : Cat Porn*

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Yes, that Top Cat.  The wise guy cartoon alleycat from New York City with his gang always trying to get one over on Officer Dibble.  It was a staple of my childhood in the 1960s and certainly contributed to my impression of the city where I now live.  As did the music.  Like many of Hanna Barbara’s cartoons – Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons – the music was composed and recorded by Hoyt Curtin, a Californian specialist in the punchy joyful bright slices of cartoon sound.  Top Cat the Theme Music is only 42 seconds long and is thus the shortest piece of music in My Pop Life to date.

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From the funky horn fanfare to the stuttering trumpet intro to the glamorous celebratory vocal shout (which reminds me somehow of Isaac Hayes’ Shaft (see My Pop Life #60)) and the crisp xylophone punctuation, this mini cartoon symphony is a marvel of crushed sound & misheard lyrics.

Top Cat ! whose intellectual close friends get to call him T.C.

Strode right in, it’s whipping to see…Top Cat !

Hmmm.  Well that is what I’ve always sung, from the age of five.  Nonsense.  Wait. OK according to the lyrics bible Genius.com (which is highly recommended by the way…) it is :

Top Cat ! whose intellectual close friends get to call him T.C.

Providing it’s with dignity…Top Cat !

I genuinely just found that out.  Prefer my five year old version somehow.  Anyway.  The  music always made me feel that it had been played on a single that jumped – we had some of these – a scratched record – where a groove was missed and the tune would jump forward 15 seconds.  Somehow Top Cat does this in its second 20 seconds.  Check it out – it is completely wild, and probably quite hard to play.  It is a masterpiece theme tune to a masterpiece cartoon that ran from 1961 for only 30 episodes.  Which were endlessly repeated.

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Top Cat, Benny the Ball, Fancy Fancy, Choo Choo, Brain & Spook

The format was as follows – a street gang of cats living in dustbins by a fence eating fish-heads, and thrown-away fast food.  Led by smart status symbol Top Cat – T.C. –  Benny the Ball, Choo Choo, Brain, Fancy Fancy and Spook were all expertly delineated characters in bright colours and working-class NYC accents.  Their enemy was Officer Dibble who was a human, constantly trying to foil their get-rich-quick schemes.  I suppose there was a strong symbolic element here – a representation of the poor underclass, finding ways legal or usually otherwise to make ends meet.  The voices were all superb.  Arnold Stang voiced T.C.

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Mimi, Roxy and Boy in Brighton : a very rare picture of them together

Cats.  Sacred scavengers.  Furry babies.  Highly evolved to be cute and employ human servants.   Back there in Sussex where I grew up we always had cats – indeed apart from a brief spell at the LSE and a handful of years in Los Angeles, I have always had a cat, or two, or three.  I believe them to be superior to dogs.  They clean themselves.  They bury their toilet. They give themselves their own status. They are spirit animals who give your home life and soul.  When they die, I am bereft for a long long time.

My first cat was called Caesar, a big male tabby given to me when I was one year old.  I remember burying him in the garden of our house in Selmeston when Dad was still at home, so I would’ve been seven or eight, and so would Caesar. Then we got white tortoiseshell Sheba and black & white Kitty Little.  I have no definitive recall of these animals apart from their names and colours.  We also had dogs during this period of my youth – Corgis Raq and Bessie, and then Welsh Sheepdog Brutus who used to chase cars.  When we became homeless in 1970 (see My Pop Life #84 ) I don’t know what happened to the animals.  After nine months the family were re-united in Hailsham and I think Sheba and Kitty Little were still with us but this may be a feline hallucination.  I’ll ask Mum.  I have a memory of finding Sheba dead under the kitchen tap one school morning in Hailsham because she had eaten string and was trying to drink water to lubricate herself.  Pets give you these horrific moments and even if they live long lives, they will inevitably die before you do.  Certainly by the time Rebecca was born we had grey/white Lucy who lived a very long life and eventually died as Becky turned 18.   Once I moved to London for university in 1976 there were no pets allowed in Halls of Residence beneath the Post Office Tower, however when I lived in Finsbury Park with Mumtaz in the early 80s we had Monty, another tabby.  Montgomery was named after Mr Clift the actor whom I had discovered as a young man.  We called the cat Montgomery Keshani Brown LLB., MCC & Bar with full English pomposit and when I left, in 1985, he stayed.  Or did he? I think maybe he moved in with me for a bit, then went back to Mumtaz…

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London 1990 – Honey, Hardy & me

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In the mid-80s I got a flat in in Archway Road N6 and when Jenny moved in we got two beautiful Siamese kittens, siblings Hardy and Honey.  It was our first try at having two cats, and we’ve stuck with the plan ever since.  It was also our first try at pedigree animals.  Large ears and inquisitive natures.  Proper child substitutes.

Hardy and Honey, about six months old

Such beautiful animals, they both talked a great deal and were sweet companions.  One night when we came in from a theatre show they were missing – then a small miaow led us to the top of the wardrobe where they were hunched, nervously looking down.  Then a movement under the bed – and a Ginger Tom ran out through the cat door into the back garden.  He had entered the sanctum.  Bullied them.  Eaten their food.  Ginger Toms apparently.  Or is that cattist?   Anyway a few weeks later the same thing happened.  There Hardy and Honey were again, on top of the wardrobe.  We had discussed what we would do if it happened again.  Plan A.  Jenny walked down to the cat door and locked it.  Then the Ginger Tom (for it was he!) ran back there and got trapped in the bathroom (which was the back room due to the weird Housing Association conversion we were in).  I ran a tap and filled a jug. Ginger Tom was hissing and growling and Honey had come down for a ringside seat and got trapped in the room too, but safely on the towel shelf.  I tipped water onto the Ginger Tom’s head until he submitted with a final hiss, then finally opened the catflap and out he went.  We never saw him again. Nor did Honey or Hardy.

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Hardy in Highgate, 1992

When we went to Scotland on holiday once a year – a 12-hour drive up to the West Coast & the islands – we would take the Siamese with us.  They would be locked in the cottage when we went for walks.  I remember Hardy growling at the sheep one morning.  They were good travellers.  When we were in Los Angeles early 90s Jenny’s school friend darling Betty would stay in our flat and look after them.  We would go back and forth.  Then when we returned from Los Angeles in 1995 we knew we wanted to move out of Highgate.

Honey got out the front door on the day we packed up the van to move temporarily to Kilburn and sometime that night got run over on that busy road.  Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to describe it.  I had to scrape her body off the road with a shovel and bury her strangely heavy body, heavier than she had ever been when alive, in the back garden, under the horse chestnut tree.  I felt sick.  We felt for Hardy who was now solo and missing his sister, so a little later we got another strange Siamese called Tia who never quite fitted in, never liked Jenny but used to swoon at me.  Hardy and Tia came to Brighton with us but we were away so much during that period – in LA and elsewhere that we eventually gave them away to a lovely old lady who had just lost her two Siamese and needed some grown ones because she couldn’t bear raising another kitten.  She would write to us about them every now and again which was lovely.  They died there in the Sussex countryside about ten years ago.

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Marvin aged 20 weeks

At some point in 2004 we visited Stockholm with Amanda Ooms and met her sister Sara who had helped Andy Baybutt and I with The Murmuration (see My Pop Life #87) and met her new kitten Otis.  What a great animal!  He was a Devon Rex breed, with only one type of fur (most cats have three : down, fur & guard fur) and he was super-intelligent and friendly.  Bless Otis he passed away last week (Feb 2019) aged 15.  Anyway we were ready to re-cat ourselves and decided to get a Devon Rex, then found Marvin from a breeder.  Such a beautiful little boy he was, who would climb up from the ground up my legs, my body up to my shoulder and sit there.  He lasted a mere 9 weeks before cutting his mouth on a wicker basket and getting very weak. We took him to the vet who did a blood test and told us he had a factor 8 deficiency which meant his blood couldn’t clot and a transfusion wouldn’t work so that he would never live a long life.  That was simply awful.   I held Marvin’s little body to my chest through the night listening as his breathing got shallower and shallower, stroking him and whispering love into his absurdly large ears until he gave a big sigh, a final tiny rattle and passed over.  Jeez that was sad.

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Chester

Eventually in April 2008 we decided to brave another Devon Rex and Chester arrived.  What a cat he was.  Like an old chinese man.  Very communicative.  Very funny.  He would crawl under the duvet every night.  He had at least fifteen distinct expressions. After a year we decided to find him a mate.  By then we’d found a breeder that we liked, Michelle on the outskirts of Sheffield, whom we’d dropped in on one day while visiting my dad who lives in West Yorkshire.  Her house was full to the brim with cats, all friendly and smiling, purring and relaxed, draped over the furniture, window ledges, feeding kittens, greeting us.  She had all the queens inside – about twenty five females, plus the kittens, and all the males outside in the yard and a back shed.

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some of Michelle’s queen Orientals

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Devon Rex mum and smigel kittens at Michelle’s

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Mimi’s mum, and, possibly, a very young Mimi

It is an extraordinary house.  We saw the new brood upstairs of tiny little pieces of Russian Blue Cornish Rex fur and said we’d be back in 10 weeks for a girl.  Mimi came back with us in the Jeep on the 200 mile journey and Chester fell in lust as soon as he laid eyes on her.  He became a rape cat. We had to separate them for a few nights, then it was obvious (from the howling) that we would have to spey dear Chester. After that they got on famously….most of the time….

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Chester, me, Mimi – late 2008

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Mimi kitten with Chester aged 15 months

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Despite this clear blow to the head, Chester was not very good at fighting

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A very special animal, Chester also had a congenital problem, this time with arrhythmia – an uneven heartbeat.  He died aged four while I was filming in Nashville and Jenny and I weren’t getting on.  I flew back and we buried him in the back garden in floods of tears, his early death re-uniting us as a kind of awful sacrifice.

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Mimi we felt was lonely then.  We worried about her.  Michelle heard about Chester dying young and offered us another Cornish Rex so I drove up to Sheffield again and came back with the most affectionate cat I’ve ever met – Roxy, a bonkers tortoiseshell female.  Mimi hated her.

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Roxy is a one-off weirdo.  I would actually say she has special needs.  In the nicest possible way of course.  She loves to sit on a shoulder.  Feels safe up there. Then she will purr and push her face into my beard, squirming with joy.

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She would get out of the garden and wander down the road shouting at the top of her voice as if she was lost.  People would pick her up and say hi where do you live?  I could hear them over the garden trellis. We put a collar on her with the address and my mobile phone number engraved on it. One day, sitting in the Peace Statue cafe in Hove with Andy my phone went…

“Hello, do you have a cat called Roxy?”

“Yes I do”

“She’s in the hospital”

“OK thanks I’ll come and get her”.

Luckily I was on my bike and when I got home there was a nurse on my doorstep with Roxy and her winking eye, like butter wouldn’t melt.  After three months, Mimi still hated her. Roxy tried to make friends but no.  What to do?

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Boy’s first night in Brighton – oh god, there’s two other cats here…

Get another cat!  This time it was to Basingstoke and the last of a litter, a beautiful black Oriental.  I met his father who was a Siamese and his mother who was a mushroom Oriental softie.  Roxy swooned for the Boy as soon as she saw him.  She licked him, chased him and bit his throat which was rather alarming.  But that is what cats do when they play.  She was teaching him how to fight.

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She has taught him everything since.  They sleep together, wash each other, play and fight together. Mimi kept her disdainful character intact, and when it was that we came to move to New York City, we brought Roxy & Boy with us and left Mimi in Brighton.  Mimi is an outside cat, she was the queen of that hill in Kemp Town.

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Mimi & Delilah-Rose, Brighton 2008

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Eventually we found her a home with a lovely family in Norfolk and later received some  photos of her looking very pleased with herself as a nine-year old girl’s pet and the only cat in the house (her one true desire).

Roxy we wouldn’t allow outside because she got lost every time, and Boy could take it or leave it – and he liked to bring back worms and slow worms (legless lizards) from outside and leave them – alive – in the kitchen.  But we’d already decided not to let the cats out in Brooklyn because of

TOP CAT!

THE MOST EFFECTUAL TOP CAT !

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The local alley cats here have thick fur because they sleep outside in all weather. They slouch and have scars and behave like tough guys.  They are huge.  They are contemptuous. They probably have leukemia.  We imagined them meeting Roxy & Boy and speaking in Brooklynese :

Yo. What’s your name – puss-in-boots?  What you doin’ down here? Welcome to the hood.  You is European?! Don’t make me fuck you up kitty kitty.

Scarcely anyone in New York speaks like this anymore, they’ve all moved out to Long Island or Westchester, or Jersey.  I mean it’s noticeable when you hear that Top Cat twang on the streets, like an endangered species.  But I think the cats still talk like that even if the people don’t.  The cats haven’t been gentrified yet (although there are gangs of “cat lovers” who go out and spey them and give them injections for leukemia).   So Roxy and Boy stay in. They have space, pretend trees to climb, food, beds, water, toys, windows to look out of with sunshine coming in.  Now and again Boy demands go out out onto the stairs so he can scratch the stair carpet.  Actually he is very dog-like.  He plays fetch and guards the perimeters.  They are content.  I love them with all my heart as I have loved all my cats, but maybe a little bit more.  They are, of course, our little kids.

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Mimi & Chester in Brighton

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Boy & Roxy in Brooklyn

 

These are the two opening sequences I remember :

A sample of one episode ‘the maharajah of pookajee”

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