Show Dogs: Broadway's Star Pets

Broadway's best animal performers started out in shelters -- but then Bill Berloni trained them to be stars.
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When Bill Berloni saw Mikey at a Connecticut animal shelter, the shaggy mixed-breed had just been rescued. Before that he'd spent five years confined to an outdoor pen with no protection from the weather and sometimes no water. After neighbors repeatedly complained to authorities about his appalling living conditions, the neglected dog was taken into protective custody. But Mikey's future still looked bleak. The pound that had taken him in was a "kill" shelter, and Mikey, a mutt who'd never been socialized to live with people, was the kind of dog that rarely gets adopted.

Fortunately, Mikey's luck was about to change. Berloni, who is the premier animal trainer for Broadway shows, was scouting for a dog who could play the role of Sandy in the musical Annie. Mikey, an expert on living a hard-knock life, was the only dog in the shelter who looked like the famous cartoon canine. Berloni sensed he had star potential and filled out adoption papers.

Back at his house in Haddam, Connecticut, Berloni coaxed Mikey inside with nonstop treats and cuddling. "He didn't trust anyone," Berloni says. "But gradually he caught on that he was safe and started enjoying the attention." After the dog had been in training for about a year, the understudy for Sandy in the 30th anniversary touring production of Annie suffered a stroke. Berloni drove Mikey to Seattle, where he joined the tour. The shelter mutt understudied for two years and was then promoted to the show's leading canine role, which he's still playing.

Mikey isn't the only dog out there with a shelter-to-stardom story: Whenever Berloni accepts an assignment to find and train a dog for a show, his next stop is the pound. He picks rescue dogs partly for humanitarian reasons, since his day job is director of animal behavior for the Humane Society of New York. But altruism isn't his only motive. Berloni believes that throwaway dogs actually make the best animal actors. "After a life of despair, they're finally treated well -- and they're grateful," he explains. "They respond better, they're easier to train, and they're more excited to perform than dogs from happy homes."

The chief star quality Berloni looks for is a calm demeanor. Dogs who can keep their cool in a dirty, noisy, overrun shelter will easily cope with the stress of performing on a stage. He bypasses both shy, cowering pups and slobbery, overenthusiastic loudmouths in favor of friendly, laid-back dogs who "hang out, stretch, and eventually trot by to say hello." A sweet disposition is also key: "I want dogs so good-natured that if a toddler shoves them," he says, "they'll be apologetic rather than cranky."

A mutt can actually be easier to train than a purebred, says Berloni, who has worked with both. "Toto in The Wizard of Oz, for example, needs to be a cairn terrier, historically bred to pounce on vermin," he explains, "but I need a dog who'll just sit quietly while Dorothy sings 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' I have to find a cairn terrier too lazy to look for a rat."

Over the past 30-odd years Berloni has coached animals for 23 Broadway shows, 21 off-Broadway productions, and 13 national tours. But it was his first training job -- and his first Sandy -- that proved to Broadway that dogs could step up to stardom. Flash back to 1976, when 19-year-old Berloni was interning at the Goodspeed Opera House, in East Haddam, Connecticut. Its production that summer was an unknown new musical called Annie, which included a substantial part for a dog, an innovation that no one was quite sure how to handle. Berloni was drafted to train the dog, a mutt he bought from the pound for $7 and named Sandy, after the character he'd be playing.

Continued on page 2:  A Star Was Born

 

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