By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Cat people come in all stripes.
There are cat owners, cat lovers, cat ladies ... and cat fanciers.
It’s this latter group that appreciates the finer aspects of the finicky, furry animals. It’s also the audience that most likely is to cozy up to the Feline Historical Museum, which opened this summer in downtown Alliance.
Housed in a stately building that once was a bank, the museum is really about the cat’s place in popular culture throughout history.
It’s the cat as art, if you will, with equal helpings of kitsch, toys and memorabilia.
There are display cases full of figurines, ceramics, miniatures and sculptures, accompanied by informational placards that provide insight. Paintings and photos hang on the walls of the high-ceilinged hall.
Sets of delicate figurines by Royal Doulton, Lladro, Staffordshire and Belleek occupy several glass cases.
The cat’s presence in advertising also is represented: There’s a napkin from the Chesapeake railroad system, with the famed logo of Chessie the kitten tucked into bed, one paw sticking out.
An antique wooden cat carrier from the 1900s is there, as well as a silver collar that was awarded to Cosey, the winner of the first Madison Square Garden cat show in New York City in 1895.
There are also puppets and toys as well as a nonlending library of books and periodicals.
Plans call for opening a gift shop in the near future, as well as converting two smaller rooms at the rear of the museum into galleries for rotating exhibits by cat clubs.
The Cat Fanciers Association is the world’s largest registry of pedigreed breeds. Formerly based in New Jersey, it moved to Alliance last year and is housed on the second floor of the Feline Historical Museum. The CFA Foundation was set up to operate the museum.
How did Alliance wind up becoming the new home of the organization and its museum, which claims to be the largest of its kind in the world?
A little bit of feline good fortune played a role, according to Vince Marion, planning and development director for the city.
“We found out through a member of CFA who lives in Alliance that the association was looking to make a move,” said Marion. “They were looking at 10 other cities, and we were the last place they visited.”
The city offered a $550,000 loan to the CFA, which was impressed with the elegant building on the corner of East Main and Arch streets in the center of downtown. The building had been vacant for about eight years.
Funding came from the city’s revolving loan program for development projects. The CFA already has paid back $250,000 with the proceeds from the sale of its former headquarters. The project brought 12 full-time jobs to the city, all employees of the CFA.
The museum is the central building block in the city’s newly created arts and entertainment district. The goal, said Marion, is to revitalize downtown Alliance, which is now plagued with empty storefronts.
The city already has received several inquiries from potential businesses, including coffee shops, art galleries, restaurants and museums, said Marion. Jupiter Studios, an art gallery-restaurant-music venue, opened about a year ago just down the block.
Though attendance at the Feline Historical Museum has been slow — most days it sees just a few visitors — the Alliance Chamber of Commerce is working to bring in bus tours.
Visitors go through the exhibits at their own pace, but Fred Pisani, manager of the museum, offers guided tours if requested.
Pisani spends the bulk of his days sorting and cataloging the museum’s ever-growing holdings and creating displays. Most of the items in the permanent collection — which now includes more than 2,000 pieces — come as donations from citizens and organizations, he said.
In February, the current exhibit, which has a Christmas theme, will be replaced by one on Maneki Neko — Japanese for “beckoning cat” or “lucky cat.”
The Feline Historical Museum has the world’s largest collection of Maneki Neko memorabilia, said Pisani, a retired supervisor from the Hoover Co. in North Canton who holds a master’s degree in museum studies.
The Maneki Neko cat’s chief characteristic is a raised left paw, which appears to be waving hello. Figurines of the cat often are found in Chinese restaurants.
The exact origin of Maneki Neko is shrouded in the mists of time.
But according to one Japanese legend, a wealthy man took shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm when he saw a cat at a nearby temple making the motion, perhaps washing its face, said Pisani.
It looked as though the cat was beckoning him, so the man ran to the temple, just before lightning struck the tree.
In gratitude, the man donated a fortune to the temple and made it prosperous.