After stints as a juggler and clown with two major circuses -- the Moscow Circus and Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey -- Gregory Popovich was looking for a change.

Part of that was accomplished when he was asked to join the circus at Las Vegas' Circus Circus casino. That was a good gig, he said, but something else was gnawing at him.

"I harkened back to my childhood in Russia and my parents' work with dogs," said Popovich, whose Russian accent is still pronounced. His parents had also been circus performers, and performed along with various animals.

"I started working with one dog, and that picked up, one animal at a time."

Working with animals in a circus performance context felt right for Popovich, who left Circus Circus to start the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater. Now, he travels with 15 cats, 14 dogs and a handful of other animals in a custom trailer, designed for them to travel in comfort and safety.

Popovich will be one of the featured performers at the Chevron Family Theatre Festival, which on July 19 will fill the Lesher Center for the Arts with theater, music, visual arts and dance performances. For the eighth year, the event is presented by Chevron and produced by the Diablo Regional Arts Association and the Lesher Center. Its purpose isn't only to provide a day of family fun, but also to offer a glimpse into what it would be like to become a performer or support person.


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Among the returning performers are Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, a central Contra Costa native and now a star puppeteer with Sesame Street; Alex Ramon, a Richmond native whose Alex Ramon Magic made its debut at last year's festival; Fantasy Forum Actors Ensemble, who will perform their interactive musical version of "Cinderella;" and the Emmy-nominated Pushcart Players, performing "Red Riding Hood and Other Stories," a blend of folk tales from around the world. Many other various entertainers will perform in and around the Lesher Center during the course of the day.

Popovich has toured 25 countries and has appeared on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "Late Night with David Letterman," "Good Morning America" and other TV shows. This is Popovich's first time at this festival, and he said he's never been part of an event like the Chevron Family Theatre Festival, designed in large measure to introduce young people to the joys of the arts, and perhaps to become part of that world themselves. As for sharing with the world, more so than the spreading the message of the wonder of performing, Popovich looks to promote the cause of finding homes for homeless pets.

"Animals are people, too!" he said, only partly kidding.

"All my animals were homeless, I got them all at shelters. That's my message, I think -- helping homeless animals."

Chevron Family Theatre Festival
The eighth annual festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Lesher Center for the Arts in downtown Walnut Creek. Ticketed shows are $5 each; many free activities will be going on in and around the center. For tickets, call the Lesher Center ticket office at 925-943-SHOW (7469) or go to www.LesherARTSCenter.org