Gulfport man recalls building sets for the hit Broadway show ‘Cats’ 38 years ago

One Mississippi writer helped to originally design the most famous junkyard to ever grace the Broadway stage.

38 years later, set designer for ‘Cats’ remembers designing for the Broadway smash

GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - The Broadway musical “Cats” is still on tour 38 years after its debut on the Great White Way. The allure of the show’s classic songs and energetic cast will propel it to the big screen in less than three weeks.

Dick Lancaster didn’t grow up with a love of theater. He actually joined the Marine Corps in lieu of finishing high school. When he arrived to train for his job, instead of training in combat, he went into art and fabrication. When he finished his tour of duty and left the corps, he had no diploma and, in his opinion, no real skill or trade to his name, save for fiberglass working.

He joined forces with a small fiberglass company that employed only the owner and himself. In the middle of building a custom boat for a customer, the owner took flight overnight leaving the shop (with rent due) and the boat to Lancaster.

The customer, who Lancaster didn’t know was a big-time set builder and designed in New York, came in to discuss the boat. After coming to an agreement about the boat, Lancaster completed the job. The same customer came back and sourced Lancaster for more work, horse repair for a little Broadway show called “David Copperfield.” That work led to another job on a lesser-known show, “Cats.” By the time he was working on one of the most famous musicals ever written, he’d never even seen a show, until he got a call about building a tire from a guy he was building a fiberglass boat for.

One Mississippi writer helped to originally design the most famous junkyard to ever grace the Broadway stage.
One Mississippi writer helped to originally design the most famous junkyard to ever grace the Broadway stage. (Source: Photo Dick Lancaster)

“This guy turned out to be connected, Peter Feller is who it was. He was connected in New York in the theater business for years and years. I’d never seen a high school play before that, so I didn’t know nothing about what he did," Lancaster said.

So Lancaster built the original tire and pieces of the junkyard out of fiberglass. However, during show previews, there was a problem.

“I was working on stage during the previews because they made the tire too light, they changed the show, there’s cats dancing on it. I said man this thing isn’t gonna hold up. I was making a scenery piece, not a prop," exclaimed Lancaster.

One Mississippi writer helped to originally design the most famous junkyard to ever grace the Broadway stage.
One Mississippi writer helped to originally design the most famous junkyard to ever grace the Broadway stage. (Source: Photo Dick Lancaster)

The new tire was ready by opening night, and the show did so well that the creative team decided to take it on the road.

“They called me and said we’re going on the road. I said we don’t have any stuff. He said we’re gonna have you make some more stuff. That’s when we did all four roadshows and the Canadian show at my shop in Florida. That took until ’86 when we finally wrapped that up. Then my showbiz career was over," Lancaster said.

As serendipitously as he fell into show business, he found his way into writing.

“I came up here to Mississippi because Northrop Grumman recruited me for that big ship they were doing. They fired me in four days. I was in the unemployment office for four months every day just like a job. I was getting nowhere. So, I wrote a book. I wrote a book called ‘Dennis’ Shadow,’ and it got published," Lancaster said.

Lancaster joined the Southern Mississippi Writers as a cartoonist but has since gotten back into writing. While the days of “Cats" are long gone, he remembers them fondly.

“That was 40 years ago. The experience was, for a guy who had never seen a high school play before, it was like magical,” lamented Lancaster.

“Cats” will return to the big screen later this month. A musical fantasy film based off the original Broadway show is set to hit theaters Dec. 20, 2019, featuring a star-studded cast list, including Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson and more.

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