Movie about tiger trainers screens at L.A. Film Festival

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‘Cat Dancers’ pieces together the story of Chuck Lizza and Ron and Joy Holiday. It ends in tragedy.

By Sheigh Crabtree, Times Staff Writer
June 20, 2007

Like a hyperbolic tale ripped from the cover of Weekly World News, the documentary film “Cat Dancers” is steeped in exotic animal fur, nude portraits, a love triangle, spandex, headbands and rhinestones and the mauling deaths of Joy and Chuck — exotic-animal trainers who were each killed by Jupiter, a white Bengal tiger with a bad attitude.

Director and producer Harris Fishman began piecing together the documentary about Chuck Lizza, the assistant-turned lover to exotic-animal entertainers Ron and Joy Holiday almost a decade ago.

Yet, somehow — after spending seven years poring over personal photos, newspaper clippings and some 160 hours of 8-millimeter films and videos — the filmmaker still marvels over their larger-than-life lifestyles and the tragic 1998 deaths.

“It’s ludicrous, right?” Fishman said, driving through downtown Los Angeles rush hour traffic Monday night. “Suicide by tiger?”

He’s referring to Joy Holiday’s decision to wander into Jupiter’s cage five weeks and one day after the Bengal tiger attacked and killed Lizza.

Was Joy, deeply depressed over Lizza’s death, simply visiting the tiger that she refused to put down after the attack? Or was she trying somehow to follow Lizza’s fate?

The film screens Saturday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with Fishman and Ron Holiday, and screens again Monday and July 1. The film will also screen next month at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

Fishman, who made the film for less than $500,000 — financed largely by HBO and Cinemax Documentary Films, which owns domestic television rights — says he prefers to let the Holidays-and-Chuck relationship speak for itself.

“I chose not to judge them,” Fishman said. “In documentary we’re bound by fact-based reality, but what’s interesting about them is they lived in this other world.”

Inspired in part by the moody nostalgia of “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and the observational sensitivity brought to outsider culture by the Maysles brothers with “Grey Gardens,” Fishman’s film is a stretch-velvet quilt of archival footage hot-glued together by the outlandish and sentimental storytelling of Ron Holiday, the big cat act’s lone survivor.

“We grew up in a farm town,” Holiday said Tuesday during a telephone interview, his voice quivering. “I knew Joy since she was 7 and I was 11. We were married for 41 years.” That’s the genuine sentiment.

And then there’s Holiday’s fanciful showmanship: At one point in the 75-minute film, Ron describes how Joy, a plain Jane from Maine, ended up in New York City dancing at Radio City Music Hall after seeking advice at a Catholic school. “Mother Superior said: ‘Go to New York and dance for God,’ ” he explains with a shrug.

In their glory days, Ron and Joy were top adagio dancers, showered, as he says, in limos, flowers and champagne.

Later, after their dance careers faded, they became one of the world’s first exotic-cat acts in the 1960s and aspired to fame a la Siegfried and Roy.

Their act and love life changed dramatically when handsome young circus performer Lizza joined the pair in the 1980s. Soon, they added Jupiter, an exotic white tiger, to the pack.

At that point the story goes dark and lonely.

Suffice it to say, only one man, and not one animal, emerges alive.

Holiday plans to leave Florida for the first time in eight years to attend the premiere Saturday night.

“I’m nervous … apprehensive,” Holiday said. “I haven’t traveled anywhere since Joy and Chuck died. They’re not physically with me, but I know, with anything I do now, I’m never alone.”

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