Los Angeles pet lovers.
Dick Van Patten
By Lori Golden
It was the animal loving Dick Van Patten whom I first spoke with six years ago, for a little newsletter I was publishing that would later become The Pet Press. At that time the pet food company he had co-founded, Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance Pet Foods, was fighting to get shelf space in pet supply stores throughout California. Since that first interview, when we formed a special bond due to a common interest in playing certain games of chance, we have run into each other at numerous pet events. And so it seemed that, in honor of my fifth Anniversary, I should reconnect with this now pet food magnate and introduce him to all of you.
As a child Dick Van Patten grew up in a Victorian house in Queens, New York, where every Saturday his father would take him to different pet stores around New York City. “One week we’d go to Brooklyn; the next week to the Bronx; the next week to Manhattan,” explains Dick. “Every week I’d buy a different pet. The whole third floor of our house was my menagerie. I had my own little pet shop up there. Everything- snakes, turtles, horned toads and more. In the back yard I had rabbits and a goat. And of course, there was Skippy the dog and Beauty the cat.”
When he was 8-years-old he dreamed of one day owning a pet shop, but then he became an actor. And what a career he’s had!
As Dick says, “I’ve probably had more jobs than any other actor living. I was in 27 Broadway plays, and 3 of them got the Pulitzer Prize.” He’s also been in more than 600 radio shows, 24 feature films and 7 TV series. But, coincidentally, it was his love for animals that caused him to be banished from The Music Box Theater on Broadway when he was 14.
At that time he was playing the telegram boy in The Skin of Our Teethstarring Tellulah Bankhead. With plenty of free time in between acts, Dick would go across the street to The Music Box Theater and hang out with animal trainer Gil Mason. (He had a trained dog act in the show, Star and Garter, with Gypsy Rose Lee.) Gil’s act also included a chimp that was trained to wreak havoc on stage whenever Gil yelled the name “Frank Buck.” One day while Dick was hanging out in Gil’s dressing room with all the animals, Gil was called to the phone. Curious to see what would happen, Dick disobeyed the trainer’s warning and said the forbidden name- “Frank Buck.”
As he explains, “the chimp went berserk! He took all the makeup… he broke all the mirrors… he threw the wardrobe all over the place… he went absolutely nuts! The stagehands came up; the trainer had to calm the chimp down, and I was never allowed backstage at that theater again.”
Although his love for animals always stayed with him, the idea of owning a pet shop lost its appeal as he got older. In 1989, while appearing on the The John Davidson Show, Dick met Joey Herrick, the show’s drummer, during a lunch break. Joey talked about his passion to save dogs as well as a desire to create a healthy food for animals, and Dick talked about his lifelong desire to own a pet shop. A partnership was born. They enlisted the help of veterinarian Edith Van Marthens, who Dick played tennis with occasionally, to create a better dog food with no filler, no wheat, no corn, no soy and no by-products. The end result was named Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance Dog Food.
One might assume that a man who makes dog food would have dogs. But these days Dick’s menagerie is down to just 2 cats- Helen, who is around 6 years old, is named in honor of Dick’s late mother-in-law who had about 40 cats. “She just appeared in my backyard one day. I heard this squealing and I thought it was a baby bird or something. She never really had a mother. She can’t meow, though. She purrs, sometimes, but she can’t meow. And we have a feral cat in our backyard called “AC,” which stands for Abandoned Cat. Someone moved away and left the cat. She’s very timid. We go out every morning and evening to feed her. She’s a black and white cat… not as pretty as Helen. In fact, she’s sort of homely, but I love cats. I feel very sorry for her. I did manage to get her in a box and had her fixed. We can’t bring her in the house, but it’s actually working out well. She has the whole backyard, and I feed her in the pool house, so in the winter it’s nice and warm for her. But she doesn’t want to be a house pet. She really doesn’t. My son Nels is the only one who can touch her. She runs away from everyone else.”
“We don’t have dogs, but we live next door to my son Vincent, who has 1 dog that’s in my backyard all the time. His name is Freckles, and he really belonged to Sandra Bullock. Vincent and his wife were driving along about 10 years ago and found this dog they thought was abandoned. So they took it home and named him Freckles. About a year later a friend of Vincent’s was going with Sandra Bullock and they came to Vincent’s house. As soon as she saw the dog she yelled, ‘that dog. That’s my dog. That’s the dog that I lost.’ It had run away and she lost it. But even though the dog knew Sandra, she let Vincent keep Freckles.”
Dick continues, “I love animals… all animals. But there are dog people and there are cat people. I’m a cat person. I’m just intrigued by cats. I can sit and watch them for hours. They just amaze me!”
At the time of my first interview with Dick Van Patten, his company had just come out with their holistic dog food. And their Natural Balance Rolls were already doing very well as a healthy treat, especially among trainers. But at that time they hadn’t yet developed a cat food.
“It took about 10 years for us to come out with our cat food,” explains Dick. “We were working so hard perfecting the dog food, a holistic food like that, that we couldn’t interrupt it with making the cat food. So we waited until we perfected the dog food and then we worked on the cat food. It’s doing well, but even though it’s not going through the roof the way the dog food is, I think it will catch on eventually.”
I wondered how involved Dick Van Patten, age 75, actually is with his namesake pet food company. “I’m pretty involved. I go in there 3 or 4 times a week. Especially now that we’re feeding all these zoos. And that’s getting bigger and bigger.”
Dick is referring to the Natural Balance Zoological Formulas developed for lions, tigers, cheetahs, polar bears, snakes and carnivorous birds. In addition to feeding major zoos around the country, including the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, it’s also the food of choice at Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve in Acton and at Moorpark College’s exotic animal training program.
These days Dick is especially excited about their new snake food. “That’s going to go through the roof, because people don’t like to feed live mice and rats to their snakes. Now we have a regular meat food that they will eat. 90% of the snakes will eat this food and love it. What we do for the other 10%, if they don’t eat it, and I know this sounds disgusting, is we add rodent urine to the meat and they gobble it up. That does it! The snake food isn’t out yet… but it should be in about two months.”
Next to Dick Van Patten’s picture on his products is the line “Help Me Help Animals.” “We donate a lot of food to rescue organizations,” explains Dick. For those wanting to be part of this program, they should contact the Natural Balance office directly or visit their website at www.naturalbalanceinc.com to read about their special coupon redemption program for charities.
Dick Van Patten is a big supporter of the local rescue groups in the LA area. He attends many of the fundraising events you see listed in this publication, and has donated lots of Natural Balance Food for raffles and give-aways. One group dear to his heart is Much Love Animal Rescue. It’s founder, Niki Wior, is the daughter of Dick’s wife Pat’s best friend. “They’re very close. When I heard that Niki loves animals and rescues animals, I asked if there was anything we could do for her. We do try to help her a lot, because I know they do a lot of great work.”
"California people are very aware of helping and rescuing animals, but I don’t know if it’s that way around the rest of the country. I come from New York originally, and it certainly wasn’t that way there, not to the magnitude that it is here in California. I hope it gets that way because Californians have been wonderful about animals. These animals are so nice and so good and so sweet and intelligent… it’s a crime not to help them. To be hungry must be awful".
“The only honest reaction and true loyalty that we get is from our animals. Once they’re you’re friends you can do no wrong. I’ve seen people that don’t treat their animals well and yet their animals are still just as loving to them even though they’re not treated that well. It’s very hard to find that kind of loyalty and love and affection in human beings.”
Difficult for many people, but not if you’re a member of the Van Patten Family. Dick and Pat, childhood sweethearts, celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary last April. Their son Nels lives in the house right behind their home, Vincent lives next door, and Jimmy lives just a few blocks away. When I asked Dick if he had any special projects coming up to promote, he mentioned that his sister Joyce is in a new play on Broadway, his brother Tim was nominated for two Emmy Awards for directing The Sopranos and Sex and The City, and his son Vincent is hosting The World Championship of Poker. They are all extremely close, as was evident in the recent TV Land special about A Day In The Life of Dick Van Patten, which was produced by Nels’ wife, Nancy, and which featured the entire family swimming, playing tennis, and playing poker together.
Dick still keeps busy acting: when he appeared on Life with Bonnielast season he brought the entire cast cat and dog food when he found out they all have animals. He recently appeared with his wife Pat on Seventh Heaven. And a few months ago he was in Harvey at the Laguna Playhouse with Charles Durning and his son Jimmy.
Indeed, Natural Balance is more than just the name of Dick Van Patten’s pet food company. It also represents the way this vibrant animal lover juggles those things that are most important to him – his work, his family, and having fun with the people he loves most.
First published in August of 1999, The Pet Press has become THE only local resource for
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