Show Dogs: Broadway's Star Pets
A Star Was Born
"Before Annie the conventional wisdom was that you couldn't depend on an animal to perform," says Berloni. "But I didn't know that." He took only two months to train his Sandy to play an important character with a real personality and a major impact on the plot -- not just a furry prop. The dog and costar Andrea McArdle, who played Annie, bonded instantly, and Berloni based his training methods on the simple idea that if the dog loves the person who's onstage with him, he'll go to her.
Soon after the show closed in Connecticut, director Mike Nichols asked Berloni to train Sandy for Annie's debut on Broadway, and a star was born. The rescue dog performed in 2,377 shows over seven years -- and paved the way for many more canines to come. "For the first time people saw that you could depend on a dog to deliver a flawless performance eight times a week," Berloni says. "And they started writing more roles for dogs."
That meant that Berloni was increasingly in demand, too. After Sandy's success, Berloni was asked to train a stray sheepdog to work with Richard Burton in Camelot. One assignment led to another until he became the go-to trainer on Broadway, a role that's taught him a lot about animals' acting abilities. Dogs thrive on repetition and pleasing the people they love, says Berloni, so they can, in some ways, be better performers than their human counterparts. "And dogs don't usually get opening-night jitters, because the animals ignore the audience and focus on the other actors, feeding off their emotions and energy."
That sensitivity can be a problem, Berloni admits, when the human cast's nervous energy rubs off on the animals. Take the Broadway debut of Chloe, a bulldog Berloni got after she'd been rescued from a crate in her original owner's auto-repair shop. Chosen to play the role of Rufus in Legally Blonde: The Musical, the outgoing dog loved performing so much that the director gave her a second scene. But the new scene and new costars must have overstimulated Chloe. In a preview performance she was so worked up that she bounded onto the stage -- and vomited. The actors were horrified but the trainer wasn't fazed. "That's exactly what bulldogs do when they're excited: barf," Berloni says. Equally unconcerned, Chloe kept right on going and had a long, successful career.
Today Chloe lives with Berloni and his family -- wife Dorothy and 12-year-old daughter Jenna -- in Connecticut. Part acting school, part retirement colony, his house is home to 23 dogs, including four Sandys, four Totos (from both The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz), and, from Legally Blonde: The Musical, three Bruisers (main character Elle Woods' chihuahua) and four Rufuses. And that's not even counting the horses, llamas, donkey, pony, and cats.
But no matter how grateful these dogs are for their new lives and their permanent home, Berloni is just as thankful for the opportunity to work with them. "Every day I pinch myself because I can't believe that people are paying me to do what I love," he says. "For me the animals are my companions and artistic collaborators. Every new dog teaches me something."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December/January 2010.