Two Odes to Billy Joel

We were absolutely elated when Beth Stern reached out to us to design and construct special cat items for the Billy Joel free-roaming cat room at North Shore Animal League America.  Read on to hear the whole story!

The Call that Started it All

When Beth Stern called Square Paws to see if we could create some special cat items for the Billy Joel free-roaming cat room at North Shore Animal League America, we were elated! It felt like so many things had led to this moment: we had done two cat-room renovations at a local Florida shelter several years prior and had completed three iconic lifeguard cat-towers for The Cat Cafe South Beach in 2018, feeling that we were prepared and poised to do more artful cat work in the public eye. Plus, North Shore Animal League America is not only the world’s largest no-kill animal rescue and adoption organization, but they work tirelessly to assist other shelters and rescue groups to find safe homes for thousands of animals.  To help the people that save lives would be an honor.

Introduction to North Shore Animal League America

Beth introduced me to Joanne Yohannan, Senior Vice President of Operations at North Shore Animal League America, at the helm of managing the “Bianca’s Furry Friends” project.  Working closely with Joanne was Bob Kelterborn, Project Manager for the Bianca’s Furry Friends project. Joanne and Bob had several conversations with me about the importance of having the rooms reflect Billy Joel’s status as a New York musical icon after which we went to work creating designs for the room.

I knew that we had to make some reference to Billy’s prowess as a piano player. And, after years of following a talented pianist in Turkey named Sarper Duman on YouTube, a man who lulls his kitties to sleep in his lap by playing his electronic keyboard, I proposed that we somehow incorporate a working piano in the room. A functioning piano would provide three advantages: 1. It would pay homage to Billy Joel’s prolific musical career; 2. The dulcet tones could calm the cats, who are so often ill at ease in a strange environment; and 3. It might inspire North Shore Animal League America visitors young and old to learn to play!

Building the "Piano Cat"

After multiple test-fits of a full piano on the floor plan, we opted to “hinge” the baby grand piano shape and turn it upright onto one of the walls. We would place an electronic keyboard within the bottom section and create cat-platforms housed within the piano shell above. Inspired by the “waterfall” silhouette that cats make when standing still, I found poetry in how we might work the curve of a cat’s back into the shape of the piano shell. So we took to making a 2D silhouette of a cat as the backdrop of the entire piano.

For advice on what keyboard to use, we tapped our dear friend, a musician and TNR expert named Adam Myatt, known better in the cativerse as the Catman of West Oakland.   Adam suggested a Casio PX-160…very functional but not too costly should it need to be replaced.

To complement the piano, we designed a series of kitty amplifiers to be located adjacent to the piano and close to the entry door, giving a place for cats to jump on and to hole up within. We tweaked the classic “Fender” logo to become the “Feline” brand of amp, and we had fun with the control dials. (“These go to 11”) Replaceable sisal-wrapped face panels would give the cats plenty of scratching area.

The Catwalk

Then, to the right of the piano we designed a high catwalk with wall-mounted musical notes from the first bar of the song “Piano Man.” The notes and musical staff were machine-cut from PVC, and the catwalk was built from bendable and solid plywood to have a slightly curved shape. We thought this would reflect the fluid nature of music itself and highlight the playful, jumping nature of cats, too.

"We were off and running on the design details of the New York icons."

As the design got underway, though, North Shore requested that the adjacent room also be dedicated to Billy Joel and asked us to incorporate elements of life in New York City that would honor Billy. Our solution: the first room would be the “Piano Cat” Room, and we would use Billy’s “New York State of Mind” as the inspiration for the second room. We came up with a grouping of iconic New York buildings and structures that we could place around the room to allow for cats to jump and play on.

These consisted of: the facade of Yankees Stadium (a nod to Billy Joel’s Yankees fandom), the spire of the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and a NYC subway car. We asked the existing project millworker to make some adjustments to his various seating benches, and then we were off and running on the design details of the New York icons.

Yankee Stadium and the Empire State

The facade of Yankees Stadium was designed to serve as both a frame through which one peers into the room, as well as function as a connecting catwalk along two walls. From there, the cats can jump to a series of cloud “cat-shelves” and land atop the observation deck of the Empire State Building. We created the Empire State in plywood framing and clad it with two-tones of PVC sheeting material in an effort to make something very durable and washable for the Animal League America staff. The antenna portion of the Empire State is outfitted with a sisal-wrapped post that can be unscrewed and re-clad when the cats have torn into the sisal.

NYC Subway

To the left of the Empire State spire and facing you as you enter the room, sits a NYC subway car mounted to the wall. With a wall-mounted rail and railroad ties and entry and exit holes at top and bottom of the car, cats have means of climbing up and down to the bench and floor below. Sisal-wrapped subway posts give additional locations for kitties to sharpen their claws and mark their territory (though we hope it’s only a short time before being adopted). A shallow light-blue ledge mimics the bench seat of the New York metro, and we used speckled paint to imitate the vinyl flooring of the subway. Vertical poster ads make direct references to the lyrics of “New York State of Mind,” and the banner ads up at the top of the car use familiar NYC advertisements that have been geared towards their feline clientele, which we hope will make human visitors laugh and smile.

The Subway cornice ads...

Brooklyn Bridge

From the subway car, the cats can jump to the left of the two Brooklyn Bridge towers or on to the bridge platform itself. The towers have the neo-Gothic arches and copper-gray stone coloring that make the Brooklyn Bridge an emblem of 19th Century masonry and engineering. The bench it sits upon is made extra deep so visitors can sit in the window and interact with any cats that might be lounging on the bridge. We installed a single aircraft cable at the window side of the bridge to complete the suggested form of the bridge, but to still allow free space for cats and people on the room side to interact unimpeded.

The Ribbon Cutting!

On October 30, 2019, North Shore Animal League America held a private ribbon-cutting event to unveil the finished extension project to its various Board members and benefactors.  I was invited to the event and was given the honor to personally present our design and construction approach directly to Mr. Joel and his wife, with Beth and Howard Stern, Rachael Ray and husband John Cusimano on hand as well.  At long last, Beth’s surprise to Billy Joel was revealed.  With a calico kitten in his arms, Mr. Joel took in the room elements with quiet wonder.  At one point, Mr. Joel did a subtle, but spot-on, Brando impersonation from the opening scene of The Godfather, something both humorous and perfectly apropos.  (The fact that I was likely the only one who heard it made it even more perfect.)  By the end of our brief tour, I think that Mr. Joel could feel the love, warmth and respect shown to him by the entire team.  

From left to right: Mario Arbore, Joanne Yohannen, Billy Joel, Beth Ostrosky Stern, and Howard Stern. (Photo courtesy of Rob Rich,

As the evening waned and the guests of honor had all departed, I found myself and a few of the North Shore staff members in the Piano Room.  Then, without provocation a pleasant surprise occurred: “John from Facilities” (one of the staff) sat at the piano and began to play Billy songs, exactly what we hoped this room would engender!  See the video of John’s impromptu performance below.

Square Paws

As with all our Square Paws work, we hope to have provided comfort and utility to the North Shore Animal League America cats that occupy these two rooms in the coming years, as well as to have honored the humanitarian legacy of North Shore Animal League America and the musical legacy of the phenomenally-talented Billy Joel. And, if we make you marvel, smile or chuckle…well, that’s just gravy on our canned pate’!

Endless thanks to Beth Stern for granting us this amazing opportunity!

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