George Ney was just another carpet and tile salesman in Mundelein, Ill., until about 10 years ago, when the cat scratching posts he had been making out of rug remnants became such a hit that he went full time into the cat furniture business.
Today, Ney, 60, is a cat celebrity. From his store, Cat House Originals, he sells an assortment of scratching posts shaped like rocket ships and gingerbread houses that retail from $20 to $95. He has a cable TV show in Chicago and he crisscrosses the country in a battered blue van with a troupe of trained cats able to play dead or eat out of a highchair on command.
During the weekend Ney and the old blue van with three cats and lots of scratching posts rolled into the parking lot of the Thomas Jefferson Community Center in Arlington where the National Capital Cat Fanciers were staging one of the largest cat shows in the country.
There were 259 cat exhibitors from 50 states, as well as 425 entries representing such varieties as Japanese bobtails, Russian blues, Abyssinians and Turkish angoras. That's not counting another 100 or so cats and kittens for sale at the show, and tables full of cat paraphernalia, including "I Love My Cat" T-shirts, bookends shaped like cats, and candy pink velour litter box slipcovers.
By early yesterday afternoon, Ney was doing a booming cat furniture business ("A lot of people like cat houses -- heh, heh, heh"). He was joined by other feline experts, including Madame Minou, a cat astrologer, and Lucille Regan, who had been sent by the Kitty Litter Company to give free cat grooming sessions with her "demo" cat, Sweet Talker.
An estimated 5,000 spectators showed up at the two-day event, according to show spokesman Rannie Vernon. The proceeds benefited the National Capital Cat Fanciers, feline welfare and research groups. Don Williams, a judge of all-breed cat shows from Ocala, Fla., described the competition as "stiff."
"This is a big show, but it's a friendly show," said Dorie Eckhart, 46, of Gettysburg, Pa., who came to exhibit her Maine coon cats as well as drum up business for her CoonFederate Cattery ("furry rebels raised near the battlefield").
In a cage with a Rebel flag-draped bed was her "prized stud," Abe LinCoon. He was related to other feline luminaries -- Ghengis Coon, George WashingCoon and Daniel Coon, she said.
There were cats with paper plates and bibs affixed to their necks so they wouldn't drool while eating, cats resting on white coverlets atop miniature brass beds.
"I like cats," said Irene Edmonds, 48, an Arlington school employe who spent the weekend cleaning up cat-box filler and sweeping cat hairs. "I saw that little bobtail one, and I really like that big fat one -- I think his name is Kojak."
"We have three at home, so I just wanted to come out and see what was here," said Judy White, 40, a spectator from Alexandria.
Ney last year took home a stray from the annual Arlington show -- an orange feline named "Oscar" whom he described as pure alley. This year, he brought back Oscar (who has since starred in a Chevrolet commercial) to visit his roots.
In addition to selling his cat furniture, Ney was busy dispensing plenty of cat advice, although it did not include how to keep cats off kitchen counters. "Honey," he said, "I tell people I'm a cat trainer, not a magician."
The best cat, as judged in the show, was Klasikat's Rainbo Connection, an exotic shorthair owned by Dick and Judi Mason of Salinas, Calif. The best kitten in show was Windborne Guardian Angel, a white Persian, owned by Vicki Dickerson and the Farrells of Phoenix.