Downtown Manhattan, late on a September morning: the East River is running with a breezy chop, slapping hard against tall-masted ships tied up near Pier 17. Quaint three-story buildings drowse in the lee of the Financial District's glassy towers; a gaggle of tourists check out the windows at Sharper Image – and somebody's pet is working on fame, warbling doggedly into a microphone to the strains of "Memories."
The era of singing cats on Broadway may have ended, but there's no shortage of talent in the canine department, as 10 finalists (plus 1 cat), culled from some 300 pets nationwide, compete at the fourth annual singing pet competition to show who is top dog.
Forget blue ribbons and gold medals. The winner of this best-in-show has a shot at real celebrity: a chance to appear in an ad (think of what that did for Morris the Cat) as well as a recording session and a year's supply of flea powder. For the pet owners – coyly called "agents" by Advantage, the pet-product company that's sponsoring the show as a benefit for the Humane Society – there's even some cold hard cash, though nobody's saying precisely how much.
Even before the contest gets underway, these dogs have had their day: They've done the morning news shows, put on the dog for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and held court with Lady Sarah Ferguson. They're early risers, but their command performances have left them dog-tired. Still, the show must go on.
Dalmatian Pongo is a Judge
Pongo, one of the cast of 101 Dalmatians, joins three human judges to evaluate the melodious howls, cries and yodels that make up animal vocals. Back up is provided by owners, instruments or, in some cases, CDs. There are peppy yaps and bays from the smaller dogs and mournful howls from the soulful-eyed larger ones. Chappy, an 8-year-old former racing greyhound howls along to Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," like a good retiree. Greta, a 6-year-old boxer, lets loose with "Memories" from Cats. But poor Brandy the cat loses it by the time she gets to the mike: No matter how well her agent prompts her, she lets out not a sound. Cat got her tongue.
Suzie, a spunky Boston terrier of a certain age, starts off with "O Sole Mio," and segues in to a little something suspiciously called "Singing the Praises of Advantage," an original composition. Who can say how much that affects the voting, but she walks away a runner-up.
And the winner is: Cecil, a 7-year-old fox terrier, who dueted with his sonorous owner, Bill Hagemann, on "Mr. Moon." After he accepts the homage of the audience, he mugs for the film crews, happy to soak up the limelight. Cecil is used to attention, Hagemann says. In real life, he's a therapy dog who volunteers his services to nursing homes and hospitals back home in San Francisco. According to Hagemann, Cecil has been singing since he was a puppy and lets loose whenever he's given the encouraging command "Yes, sing."