By Jenny Kalahar
Our local animal shelter recently had a volunteer call-out, and as a result jolly, bespectacled Mrs. Winthrop came to be a regular presence amongst the cats, dogs, and other workers and volunteers.
Mrs. Winthrop came from a musical theater background and had moved to Indiana two years ago from New York, where she’d performed and directed numerous well-received (we’re told) off-Broadway dramatic and musical productions. She liked to rattle off the names of the actors, singers, and dancers she had worked with over the past few decades, but, I’ll admit, I wasn’t familiar with any of them since I’ve never been to an off-Broadway dramatic or musical show.
At any rate, Mrs. Winthrop, newly in place at the shelter, felt her talents did not run to feeding and watering, cleaning floors, and handling adoption paperwork. She instead wanted to use her skills to produce a sort of dog-based stage play to encourage adoptions. Old Mr. Durham, in charge of saying yes or no to these things at the humane society, was caught off-guard coming out of the supply room with his arms full of a large bag of dog kibble and had said “yes” without thoroughly thinking about what he was agreeing to that morning.
And so that is how “Dogs, the Musical” began. Mrs. Winthrop came into the shelter very early each morning, and, after a dinner at home, returned to work with the older dogs late into the evening. She’d brought in a CD player to play a disc of three of her very own Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque compositions that she’d recorded sometime during that last year before finding herself ready for retirement to the Midwest. One of the songs was, everyone agreed, too similar to “Three Little Maids from School Are We” to think it anything other than an obvious parody.
“The trick,” she said to Miss Felton at the front desk, her hands sailing through the air for emphasis, “is to get the dogs to dance in time to the beat. The accuracy of their footwork is secondary to keeping a firm rhythm going. I had this trouble when I worked with toddlers once for a show about eating vegetables and healthy whole grain foods that was held in the break-room of a dishwasher manufacturing plant. Long story.”
“Oh. Yes. I can see what you mean. Well, good luck with that,” said Miss Felton with an uncertain smile, hoping that she wasn’t about to be recruited as a dog dance instructor or similar.
Miss Felton needn’t have worried, though. Mrs. Winthrop was quite used to working alone—or nearly so—on her shows. After five or six weeks, during which time several cast members were adopted and other newcomers joined the troupe, the happy director declared that her musical would be performed the next night at the center of the local shopping mall, so she would need several workers there, ready to handle inquiries about adopting the talented pooches.
I was the first to sign up to be at the grand event, and there was no shortage of volunteers on site that evening. We were all fabulously curious to finally see the result of so much practice. The three songs were so familiar to us since we’d heard them for hours on end over the past weeks, but when we heard them played live by their composer on (of all things) the accordion and with never-before-heard hilarious lyrics sung along, it was no wonder the dogs had a bit of a puzzled expression for the first several seconds. They stood still at the center of the mall, ignoring the crowds in the audience, and actually looked as if they had no idea as to the proper moves they were supposed to be making.
And then Mrs. Winthrop stopped playing, rolled her hands through the air rhythmically for a few beats until all of the dog heads were bobbing in unison, and then she started the first number over again. This time there was … well … a beautiful perfection! Each dog danced to the beat his or her own inner joyful dance. Some in circles, some bounding up and down on two feet or four, others in pairs wiggling their tushies together, or wriggling nose-to-nose. The crowd laughed and clapped along to the accordion, pointed to particularly adorable dogs, and generally fell in love with the whole cast all at once.
By the time the third number—a slower, poignant song with lyrics about yearning for a place to call home—had ended, the line at the adoption information table was twenty people long!
I helped to reattach leashes after the show, and as Mr. Durham was crating up the last Golden Retriever, I found Mrs. Winthrop packing her instrument and gave her one of the longest hugs I have ever given. We were both silently emotional for a long moment afterward, and then she wiped her nose and eyes with a tissue and said, “I’ve decided to take my show on the road. There are so many shelters in Indiana that need a good dog musical show, aren’t there? I’ll start looking for my next venue tomorrow. Onward!” she exclaimed, raising a finger high above her head with a look of determined triumph.
I never saw her again, but an internet search revealed that her show is scheduled to take place in Wabash next Tuesday. I’ll be there, and this time I’m going to video record the production. I’m absolutely certain that it’s going to be amazing!
Jenny Kalahar, her husband Patrick, and their pets live in Indiana where she sells used and rare books and writes novels and poetry. She is the author of a fantasy novel about teens stuck with the worst-ever magical power, This Peculiar Magic. Her two novels about fostering cats are Shelve Under C: A Tale of Used Books and Cats, and The Find of a Lifetime. Her collection of nostalgic and humorous poetry is One Mile North of Normal and Other Poems. For more, visit her blog.
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