This is a piece that I wrote some time ago for my ominous creative non-fiction class. When I first heard about the Astor Theatre in 2011 and the resident pet Marzipan, I was determined to ‘journey-plan’ my trip to that theatre and make friends with that damn cat at whatever cost. Unfortunately, the occassion never arose. I could convince no one to join me at one of the many Grease sing-a-longs at the theatre, and slowly 2011 turned into 2012 and then again into 2013—funny how that happens.
Then in March my friend texted me to let me know that Marzipan had sadly passed away. I was dumb-founded for a few days after that. A missed opportunity of the worst kind. In any case, long story short, I went to the theatre that same month to write and pay tribute to Marzipan the cat. I let a lot of time passed as I wrote this article, and so, for many people, the passing of Marzipan has faded into newsworthy irrelevance. But I thought it would be worth showing here.
Photo: Loz Dalton – The Age, 25 March 2013
Marzipan the Astor Cat
There’s a reoccurring theme in the Astor Theatre. Amid the rounded pleather seats and faux velvet chairs, something that needs to be pinned behind the layers of peeling paint, the eclectic range of pastel pinks, minted greens and mustard gold. A weird sense of haunted kitsch descends. For the solid brick, art deco cinema, placed firmly on Chapel Street, everything that is wrong is suddenly right, clichés are reinvented here and simply experiencing it once, will never do the moment justice. Much like the cult classics that the Astor brings to life, the theatre refuses to fade into social irrelevance.
Gathering on the pavement, a line has already snaked across the foyer floor. It’s a double feature event tonight- two movies for the price of one. The soft hum of a non-descript 80s techno beat joins us, warming the mood. Looking up I notice the budded lights below the Astor Theatre sign. The nostalgic sense of the golden age of cinema flashes in warm halos around the crowd. People are excited. I’m excited. It’s a John Hughes tribute on a Monday night. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off followed by a fix of Sixteen Candles.
This is my first time at the Astor Theatre. My first time entering the foyer and inhaling the faint must. I know that I am not the only person here, buying a ticket to a movie that I have already seen multiple times—but the movie is only part of it. We’re all here for Matthew and Molly it’s true, but what’s more important is that we’ve come to see them here. The Astor has called us to attendance. With only one screen to share one or two movies a night, the theatre has created an event.
But despite the allure of the stairs leading to the theatre doors above, I feel disappointed. I’ve arrived a week late. Immortalised on the wall, I read the cards and touch the flowers that have been laid at Marzipan’s paws. With blown up photos commemorating the Astor Theatre’s prized pet, I am surprised by my own emotion evoked by the photos. I feel overwhelmingly miserable, actually. I missed the cult classic calico cat.
Behind the ticket booth I talk to Anne Zomer. Linger long enough in the foyer and the crowd will slowly disperse into the Astor’s single theatre. Alone, you can hear snippets of the movie, the resounding opening titles that seep in whispers below the doors. An alarm bell shrieks into panic, just to let everyone know that the movie has officially started. The sound of the bell unnerves me, the space, suddenly made larger by the splintered echo. Another eerie feature of the Astor set to scare the bejesus out of unsuspecting victims.
Zomer is hesitant at first to talk to me about Marzipan. I later realise that this was perhaps not my own insensitivity of approaching a subject still so raw, but because words suddenly become feeble when trying to describe the genuine significance of a silent pet. “What do you know about Marzipan?” she asks me instead.
Marzipan lived at the Astor Theatre for 21 years—she was born here. As the story goes, one day in 1992 a stray calico cat somehow managed to sneak into the old Theatre and proceeded to climb into the bio box. It was there that the stray was later discovered with a newly delivered pair of kittens. The Astor decided to keep Marzipan, calico like her mother. The two cats lived together in the theatre for a while, until one day it was just Marzipan. Since the death of her own mother, Marzipan had reined supreme over the Astor Theatre, coming and going as she pleased and sitting on whichever patron she pleased, whenever she pleased. In the end, the peaceful passing of Marzipan was a relief to Zomer. After all of the years the cat resided next to a traffic blown road, it wasn’t the vicious Princess Highway and Dandenong Road intersection that took Marzipan, it was sickness, old cat age.
Zomer is well fitted to the theatre. Older, her quiet demeanour portrays friendly efficiency as I watch her deal tickets to the movie’s latecomers. “The movie started two minutes ago,” she reassures them behind the glass of the booth. I crane my head to look further inside; movie posters are pinned along the wall, tributes to vintage classics and favourites. The posters are there, I realise, as much for the Astor’s employees as the paying ticket holders. Zomer was after all a patron long before she began to work at the Astor. With grey ringlets that fall carefully around her face, Zomer’s black spectacles balance on her nose to frame kind brown eyes. There’s a moment, she describes in her own experience, a moment and feeling when a pet that was once loved so much finally dies, “they become larger than life for a while”. It’s barely been a week since Marzipan’s death, and this is where Zomer is at the moment. The Astor cat’s presence still lingers, and will linger Zomer assumes “for a long time to come”. But Marzipan was not her cat.
Zomer sits behind the counter, kind but guarded, we are alone in what feels like the entire establishment. There are so many unnamed doors in the building it is hard to tell how infinite the Astor actually is, a fact probably only discovered by Marzipan herself. Zomer’s green and silver bangles snap together as she leans forward, she has “lost track” of her time at the Astor, all she is sure of is that, though it “has been a while” she “wouldn’t work anywhere else”. And she is blunt to add that she received “the same response from Marzipan as all patrons”. That was the way with Marzipan after all; somehow she became more than one person’s cat, more than the ‘Astor cat’. In the end, Marzipan, embodied a movie-going experience, and in that sense was quick to be owned by all movie-goers. She was old enough to be shared across generations. There is something special about working at the Astor theatre for Zomer, something special in the relationship between the patrons and the theatre itself. “People come in here,” Zomer describes, “and they are awestruck.” There’s a sigh of relief, a feeling of familiarity and friendship when someone exclaims, “I haven’t been here in ages!” A rapport is created between patrons and the Astor Theatre’s foundations. For 21 years, Marzipan was a strong part of that, simply because “everyone knows her”.
After her death, the Facebook page dedicated to ‘Marzipan Astor Cat’ announced on March 25:
“For Marzipan’s many friends it is with much sadness that we say that she has gone to stalk the great cinema in the sky. She sits on the laps of angels now. Rest in peace, our furry friend and thank you for the delight you brought to all who visited The Astor”.
The page’s cover photo was then changed to a picture of sunrays in the clouds, resembling heaven. The social media site was quickly filled with messages of remorse and condolence for the theatre, and nearly 500 ‘likes’ on the announcement. One of the more ironic moments that come with using a social media site that is only able to ‘Like’ things. With 2,226 friends, Marzipan’s death sparked a response that quickly flowed onto the Astor Theatre’s blog itself.
“While alive she met more people than the Prime Minister ever will and was better liked.” Simply and matter-of-factly stated Graeme and Lucile on the blog.
While other comments, stung with a feeling of bittersweet regret. As is common in memorialising a friend. Comments posted across the Internet rang of people trying to confide their last messages to Marzipan.
“Farewell Ms. Marzipan,
You were always a dignified and welcoming presence on the couch and strolling the foyer. You will be missed by me and I’m sure thousands more.” Philip Byrt
What is to come next is unclear. Zomer admits that Marzipan “was a part of the Astor so much”. With stories tightly bridged together in a wave of celebration and remorse across both Melbourne and its Internet community, it almost seems as if Marzipan has become a fable of some sort. For myself, I will never get to share my adoration for all things small and all things cat with Marzipan and because of this, I can’t help wonder what shine of the Astor I have never known, without the creak of a mischievous cat behind my chair.
Finding a row to sit in front of the Astor’s screen, there are simply too many seats to choose from. Yet the crowd continues to file and fill the space well. Close together, friends yell out to one another from across the aisles. A golden curtain, so thin it could almost be a moss green, conceals the screen. A man on a microphone introduces our double feature and reminds the audience to turn off their phones. The noise dims with the lights to a preparatory bustle as the audience settles into the dark. Of course the man with the broadest bare shoulders finds his seat in front of mine, his blond topknot an added feature as he miniaturising the chair and girl that clings to his arm. But at the Astor, with a screen as large as this, the man soon fades into the foreground of many heads and obscure hairstyles. When Ferris Bueller takes the screen he is all I see, he fills my consciousness completely. This is how movies should be shown.
There are stories I hear of Marzipan, roaming the aisles of this theatre, lurking behind the fake palm trees sprayed with fairy lights. She would wait, Zomer tells me, until the most heightened moment of the feature, until the suspense was just ripe in the audience, before launching herself into someone’s lap. She would brush against ankles, the tip of a tail wisping just enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. She was anyone’s friend who would act as a slave for a couple of hours, try to move while she occupied your lap and a thigh full of nails would apply from the feline.
There was a time that Marzipan was feared to be gone for good. Last year, the cat went missing. With the busy intersection and tramline always lingering in the back of the Astor’s mind, Zomer thought Marzipan was surely dead. Nevertheless, posters for the cat were pasted across the busy Chapel Street. After a short time had passed however, the Astor received a call. It was Marzipan, safely found across the intersection in a temporary home. She had relocated to a local Chinese Laundromat. That was the last adventure Marzipan was known to have had. Contented on chewing moth wings that she found in the corners of the Theatre. Marzipan’s health was something to slowly dwindle away along with an injured hip.
“Some [other] cat may appear one day” Zomer shrugs, and suddenly, I feel absurd for asking the question. Insensitive to even suggest the replacement of a cat that was older than I, and with many more Facebook friends. Zomer’s eyes move to distract some tears “They’ll always be welcome” she adds and smiles. After all, Marzipan was the second cat. But “the fact that she was here was pretty special”.