Strangerrrrr than Fiction

Cat Dancers is a deeply odd trip into the world of Ron Holiday, complete with wild cats, love triangles, spandex and—ultimately—tragedy. And most strange of all perhaps, it’s not exploitative.

By Steve Korver, 22-11-2007, cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly.

AmsterdamWeekly_Issue47_22NThere’s no way not to be dramatic about this story: bisexual boy meets girl, they get married and together they rule the world as a professional dancing couple—‘limos, champagne, everything’. This is how the lives of Ron and Joy Holiday began. All was glitter and gold. And spandex.

When their bodies started breaking down, they started to move into animal acts—spurred on by their friend William Holden, the star of Sunset Boulevard, who first gave them a black leopard as a gift. The act grew and they needed a third party which came in the form of a handsome, and much younger, exotic animal trainer Chuck Lizza.

Joy said: ‘I saw him first.’ Later Ron would say: ‘Yes, but I had him first’. Soon the three formed a love triangle—a three-ring love circus of sorts. But no one knew. And all was good. Until 1998. Chuck was killed by Jupiter, their prized White Bengal tiger who was like a son to all of them. A deeply depressed Joy followed five weeks later when she entered Jupiter’s cage ‘and was thrown six feet in the air.’

Director Harris Fishman spent seven years on this tale, sifting through 160 extravagant hours of 8-millimeter films and videos, and befriending the lone survivor Ron. The result is riveting and often poetic viewing. And most strange of all perhaps, it’s not exploitative. We talk to Fishman from his home in Los Angeles.

How did you discover this story?
In 1998 my younger brother, Adam, was studying at Amazing Exotics, where Ron was teaching animal husbandry. Ron became Adam’s mentor. My mother told me, ‘You got to meet this guy. I think his story would make an amazing film.’ So I owe a lot to my family for my original inspiration.

I’m assuming that Ron didn’t need much convincing?
Ron was very interested in the idea initially. People had approached him before, even before the tragedies, to turn his story into a movie, but it never worked out. I first spent a great deal of time getting to know Ron and becoming friends with him without shooting any footage, to make him feel comfortable, relaxed and able to trust me. At first, the tragic deaths of Joy and Chuck were still very fresh (for lack of a better word) in his mind. So while Ron is a great raconteur and likes the spotlight in many ways, he was guarded, cautious and at times sceptical. But during the seven years it took to make the film, Ron went through a catharsis that made it less painful for him to share his story. The three of them were very private, and in a sense he was putting [their lives] on display, ultimately knowing that it would open them to outside judgement—not just the way Joy and Chuck died, but his training methods and, most importantly, the love they shared. That was very hard for Ron especially, because Joy and Chuck, as he said, were taken away from him and he felt very alone. I did not want to be a part of that ‘judgement’. As a documentarian, I think it is important to leave the story open to many interpretations. Ron knew I respected him and saw him as a whole person—not just some character living an alternative lifestyle ripe for exploitation. But it also took me a long time to figure out the best way to show Ron—his life then and now—and what I wanted to say. There are so many themes underlying the part of Ron’s life shown in the film: loss and death, alternative lifestyles and ‘otherisation’, man versus animal, sexuality, omnipotence and potency, male versus female, control, animals in captivity, etc. So how to show that and not be exploitive and also engage the audience in the love story and the compassion I feel for Ron was extremely important. I did not want that to get lost through the shock of the tragedies. The film is not a traditional exposé; it’s a love story gone wrong and about one man who is trying to survive the loss of his family and make sense of that, and the life he lived.

It’s suggested that Joy committed suicide, but not really confirmed. What’s your opinion?
That’s a hard one. I do think she had a strong desire to die at the time. Whether her going into Jupiter’s cage was premeditated in the sense that she thought Jupiter would kill her, I don’t know. I’m not sure she consciously thought or believed that Jupiter would do such a thing. That’s why they didn’t put Jupiter down after Chuck’s death. Even though they knew he was inbred, I still think they didn’t want to believe that their baby—their son, Jupiter—could commit such acts. I also found it compelling that Ron spoke about Dr Kervorkian as a hero of sorts and that is why I chose to include his reference to Kervorkian in the film—so as to provoke questions in the audience as they relate to how and why Joy may have died.

Their training method seems to suggest it’s all about love and affection between human and beast. But isn’t animal training more about being the leader of the pack, the alpha male? Could that explain a bit why things went wrong?
Maybe on some level. I do think that Ron was the ‘alpha male’, which is interesting since he is the survivor. When I see footage of Chuck, I don’t know that he ever felt truly in control with the cats. If you compare the stills of Ron and Joy with their cats that are interspersed throughout the film, I think it’s clear they are in charge. But the news footage, for example, of Chuck with Shogun, shows him being a little timid and maybe not completely at ease. But it is hard to say, because it’s clear that some of the animals chose Chuck as their ‘leader of the pack’. Also, the animals were kept in enclosed habitats once they got big, so in a sense they were ‘captive’ and clearly being led by Ron, Joy and Chuck.

Do you see a link with Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man and the theme of ‘you probably don’t want to fuck with nature’?
Yes. That film was an inspiration. I often reflected on the myth surrounding Icarus and how it was relevant to the lives of Ron, Joy and Chuck. Eventually, if you play with fire long enough someone is bound to get hurt. Wild animals should be in the wild—or so goes the logic.

How do you see the current function of zoos and animal acts? Did your views shift during the film-making process?
When it comes to animal acts, my brother is still working with tigers and I worry about him a lot. But it makes him feel alive and connected. I’m still trying to understand the life Ron, Joy and Chuck and my brother, Adam, have chosen in terms of working with wild animals. I have tremendous respect for what they do but it still worries me. There is no doubt that the inherent danger is fundamental to the exhilaration people experience when devoting their lives to these wild animals. That said, the sad reality is we need people dedicated to the welfare and wellbeing of exotic animals because there will always be animals born into captivity.

What’s Ron doing now?
Ron is living in Florida and teaching ballet. In a way, he has gone back to the beginning. One of the great things about the film is that it gives Ron a chance to travel again. When the film was at the LA Film Festival, Ron came for the screenings. It was the first time he had travelled since Joy and Chuck died. It was thrilling and I think reinvigorating for him, which made me very happy for him.


AmsterdamWeekly_Issue47_2Holiday won’t be at the Dutch premier of Cat Dancers—’My ballet company is putting on its first show, Phantom of the Opera, and I’ve designed some amazing costumes.’ But he’ll certainly be there in spirit as he tells us on the phone from his home in Grand Island, Florida.

So how did you end up having such a deeply strange life?
Well, I don’t consider my life strange. Certainly unique from the point of view of others, I suppose… I was raised on a farm in Maine. My mother was a violinist and my father a farmer. Music and animals: it was the best of both worlds. She inspired me to ballet and he to animals. He didn’t love the fact that I was a dancer.

What did you think of the film?  
I  wouldn’t change a hair. Which surprised me. When the whole process began, I had crossed the line of sanity and it took me a while to get back. Harris was so patient. In fact, he’s the most patient man I’ve ever met. I wrote the nastiest letters. I threw him out of the house and locked the doors. It brought up all the horrors again. But the whole process healed me. I’m actually happy now and I never thought I’d ever say that again.

Anything missing from the film?
Well, it could only cover the tip of the iceberg—unless you wanted to make a two-day documentary. But the film represents less my life and more so the whole process of recovery. I had a great life and career. Money. Fame. But then I lost the two people I loved. I was getting sued by four different law firms. One day, I was walking my three dogs down Main Street wondering where I would end up. Burger King maybe? I passed a window where some construction workers were building a dance studio and I just went in and asked if they needed a ballet teacher and that started the ball rolling again.

So you’re putting off your plans to join the monks who live in Thailand with the wild cats when you’re 80?
Yes. I said that when I was still lost. Oh I’m still going to go but I’m not putting a timeline on it anymore.

And do your young ballet students know about your past?
Well, with the internet and all that, they sometimes ask about it. Did that really all happen? And I answer them honestly.

And how did they react?
They just go ‘wow!’ That’s it.

15 Replies

  1. Louise Bennett Apr 18th 2010

    My goodness. I just watched this moving documentary on More4 (English satellite channel). Ron, how you had the strength to carry on is beyond my comprehension. My heart goes out to you, my friend. I wish you every happiness for you and your animals. Yours is such a sad story, but also uplifting in that you have experienced all encompassing love for Mother Nature in all her guises. I wish you well. Take care.

  2. Karen Moore Apr 6th 2011

    Just saw your documentery. I was so moved How do you live with such loss I really don’t know. You are a very speical person. I wish you all good things in your life, may you find peace in your heart, stay strong.

  3. Sandra Fuller May 2nd 2011

    I was so moved by your documentary that I watched it 4 times on More4 and also bought the DVD! I wish you all the best Ron as you have been through so much in your life and thank you for letting us share your experience. I wish you well in your future retirement in Thailand where you will be among your beloved cats again.

  4. I manage Ron’s European work, and he is having a great time. He is aware of each and everyone of your comments and send his best to you all,

    Kind regards, Barry on request and behalf of Ron Holiday.

  5. I also watched this moving documentary on TV NRK1.
    What carisma, love and dedication for life and animals, Ron Holiday.
    Not a 9-5 life… It´s strong to live life full out and for trying to make a different and for trying to give us all joy, love and happines.

    Peace and wish you well. Take care.

  6. brenda kenney Sep 21st 2014

    Ron I just watched your documentary and my heart goes out to you even after all these years. I cannot imagine what you have had to go through. I never had children either and I know how much you must of loved your cats. I breaks my heart that you had to put some of them down. I dont have exotic cats like you had but I have 4 domestic cats and a dog and they are just like my children. I cant imagine my life without them. I always wanted to have money to be able to help the homeless animals have better lives but that just didnt happen for me as I got breast cancer as did 2 of my sisters. So life has been a challenge but I will never give up my hope that all animals will be loved and have a safe place to go. Much love to you and the pets you share your love for.

  7. Intrigued…is an understatement. Attachment…more to the point, and ‘why’ has not yet appeared to me. I know I ‘get’ this extraordinary life of yours above and beyond most others. I will welcome private email correspondence with you Ron if you would care to. I do not enjoy the social media as a group thing. I, also am in the entertainment business as a manager for a premium performer. In meantime, count your blessings! They are many and thank you for sharing your gifted life with the less blessed. The “what if” what if I didn’t say “what if” – Sandra Bracci

  8. Hugh Eckheart Aug 10th 2015

    Just saw the film. Wild animals know how to keep the planet in shape. Three loving, beautiful and wise people.

    From what I have seen in the movie:

    The minute weakness or decay is present, the wild animal will remove this element to keep a strong and vital gene pool. No emotion. No hesitation. Pure natural instinct and law. A beautiful story about beautiful and rare people who knows the law of love, and are taking personal responsibility in their lives. Rare properties of today’s modern man.

    The white tiger may have been inbred. I am not so sure. Maybe it was just as purely bred as can be. Who knows.

    Man (in power) has no respect of the balance and wisdom of nature anymore, and will be set straight by nature, eventually.

    GMO, weather control, chemical industry, privatization and patenting of water and food supply, – the folly of man seems to have no boundaries.

    In loving memory of Chuck, Joy and Ron.

  9. Steve Nov 1st 2015

    Ron Holiday should have gone to prison for the Murder of Chuck, Joy, Jupiter and all the other cats that were put down because of his narcissism and Criminal negligence.
    He is a despicable character that has destroyed all around him.

  10. Aiden Nov 3rd 2015

    I agree, this was no “terrible accident”.

  11. Brian Pellicano Apr 19th 2016

    I just don’t know what to say. Sitting here watching Dancing With The Stars and decided to Google you. I was one of the stage managers at Radio City in the early
    60s. At that time I was married to a Rockette, we had a daughter, Kimberly, and you and Joy are her God Parents. I was shocked to read about Joy passing and I really feel sorry for you, she was amazing. By the way Kim is turning 50 this year.
    Don’t know what else I can say except to wish you well and hope that things have gotten better for you. God Bless!

  12. Ron,

    I just watched your movie “Cat Dancers” on Amazon. I’m crying like a baby.
    I knew that you, Joy and Chuck where very special when we worked together back in the 90′s on the Hannaford show. Your act was one in a million and unique as you Ron.
    I think of you and pray for your peace. Hoping to hear that your are packing your dance bag for Thailand.
    I can say that you were always a man of your words. True to spirit and heart.
    God bless you always, you very special one.


  13. Rosie Lowe Sep 28th 2017

    I just saw the story of Ron, Joy and Chuck on “Fatal Obsessions”. When will people get it that being raised by hand does not make a wild animal any less dangerous. The deaths of Joy and Chuck were needless and tragic. And once again a wild animal is put to death. I simply don’t get it.

  14. Jessy V Mar 6th 2020

    Negative and rude comments are not necessary. People talk big behind their keyboard. Shame.

    Anyway, Ron… just saw your story on Fatal Attractions so I found the movie and also watched it. Such a great love for chuck and joy and for the cats. Such an incredible career and life. Such huge loss. I’m terribly sorry beyond words for your loss. I admire your strength as you keep pushing on, one day at a time. Thank you for sharing your story. I’ll be praying for you. I’ve requested you on FB in the hopes that I will one day see you realize your life in Thailand. Prayers and love,
    Jessica V

  15. Christine Mills May 18th 2020

    I often think of Ron I wonder how he is doing would love an update!

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