Dozens of dogs, cats, and other animals watched and listened while their owners sat onstage with them and told stories about how they met. It was the open-mike portion of last year’s Holiday Bar-K, an annual cabaret-style event at Randolph Street Gallery that includes videos, performances, and a consultation with a pet psychologist. Remarkably, “there were no accidents or fights,” says organizer Joan Dickinson. “It was a very social scene. There was a lot of butt sniffing, but that’s a part of their life.”

The idea for the event came from Bar-K host Matthew Owens, who had used his late bull terrier Maggie in his performances. Owens was looking for ways to eliminate the barriers between audience and performer, the “us-and-them kind of thing,” he says. “It seemed like a completely perfect concept. It always sells out–there’s no difficulty getting people to bring their pets to the gallery….We’re finding that people seem more comfortable if you’re taking the focus away from them and putting it on the animal. Half the audience is canine and feline anyway, and don’t care if you’re a good public speaker or not.”

Guests at last year’s Bar-K included a psychic, who told one hamster’s owner that the pet was “asking for a companion.” This time around there’ll be a pig named Junebug, an animal masseuse, and videos on worm composting and interactive ant farming. A life-size manger will be set up for holiday pictures (with pets posing as Jesus and their owners as Mary), and people can bring ornaments to hang on a holiday “fire hydrant.” There’s also an intermission when “everybody goes out into the alley for a bathroom break,” says Dickinson.

The only blight on last year’s show was a man who took the stage to talk about how he beat his dog. “He told the story like he thought people were going to enjoy it somehow,” says Dickinson. “Instead, all the dogs started growling and barking at him. It was as if they knew what he was about. And then the people followed suit and started booing.”

The Holiday Bar-K runs three consecutive Saturday nights, beginning this Saturday at 8. All domesticated animals are welcome. It’s at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee. Admission is $10, or $6 if you bring a pet. Call 312-666-7737.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Matthew Ownens photo by Randy Tunnell.