Yuri and Dmitri Kuklachev are a father-son team of Russian clowns and proprietors of a cat circus called Moscow Cats Theater. They began training cats in 1977, were one of the first Soviet-era performers to tour the United States, and are famous in 80 countries. They’ve won awards, been commemorated on stamps, and are beloved by children, grandmas, and cat fanciers everywhere.
Last year, Yuri and Dmitri toured the United States and performed at the Seattle Rep.
Except they didn’t.
The Russian clowns who performed at the Rep last April were, apparently, impostors. (Copycats, if you will. And you will.) According to a lawsuit filed by the real Yuri and Dmitri Kuklachev, the impostors stole the real Russian clowns’ names, clothes, and hairstyles and toured the country as the Moscow Cats Theater.
The Russian clowns are pissed. They’ve filed a suit in New York against the impostors, the impostors’ U.S. promoter (Mark Gelfman), and every theater where the impostors performed, including the Seattle Rep.
“We don’t know anything about this,” the Rep’s communications director, Ilana Balint, said this afternoon. “We haven’t been served any papers.”
“Well, they’re gonna get served papers today or Monday,” said the Russian clowns’ lawyer, Gary Tsirelman. “We’re just beginning a lengthy process.”
The Russian clowns have filed the suit in Brooklyn and are suing for: “federal and common-law trademark infringement, false endorsement, unfair competition, false designation of origin, dilution of a famous trademark, and violations of anti-cybersquatting law, rights of publicity and privacy, fraud, conversion, prima facie tort and unjust enrichment.”
(Tsirelman was referred to the Russian clowns by a colleague. “They needed a vulture in court,” Tsirelman said, “someone very vicious who does not take no for an answer. They said, ‘find us the biggest a-hole out there.’ And that was me.”)
Some history: The Russian clowns have been doing their cat-circus act since 1977. Sometime in the 80s, an assistant stole the Russian clowns’ act, names, costumes, and hairstyle, and tried to tour the USSR. Soviet police eventually shut them down.
Fast forward to December 2006: The real Russian clowns finished a real tour of the U.S. and returned to Russia, expecting to come back for another U.S. tour in 2007.
From the complaint: “Within days of Yuri Kuklachev’s departure, his [U.S.] promoter, M. Gelfman… secretly filed a registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to register the famous Kuklachev’s ‘Moscow Cats Theater’ mark in his own name.” He also bought www.moscowcatstheatre.com
Then Gelfman (allegedly) trotted out the impostors, changed their names and dyed their hair, and sent them on the road.
The Russian clowns are currently seeking $10 million in damages, but that might grow—Tsirelman says he’s still getting calls from across the country (and the world) from people who saw the ersatz Kuklachevs. “I hear their show was pretty bad,” Tsirelman. “A lot of disappointed grandkids.”
So why are the Russian clowns suing individual theaters, like the Rep, when the theaters were duped like everybody else?
“Trademark law does not require defendants to have knowledge or intent to deceive,” Tsirelman said.
In short: Ignorance is no excuse.
Gelfman and his defense lawyers have not returned requests for comment.