NPR

Animal Stage Trainer Makes Stars Out Of Pound Pups

Bill Berloni was responsible for making sure that chihuahua Bruiser could both bend and snap in the Broadway production of Legally Blonde. (Paul Kolnik)

This interview was originally broadcast on Fresh Air on July 18, 2008.

A new revival of the hit musical Annie is now in previews on Broadway, scheduled to open Thursday. In the new production, the canine co-star Sandy is played by "Sunny," who has an understudy named "Casey." Bill Berloni trained them both — and, like the original Sandy in the original Broadway show, those dogs, too, were rescue dogs, found in animal shelters.

Among the other dogs Berloni has trained are the chihuahua and bulldog in the Broadway adaptation of Legally Blonde, and the lamb in the revival of Gypsy that starred Bernadette Peters. He also trained the first dog to dance with the New York City Ballet. He's been in doggie showbiz for 30 years, and has written a memoir called Broadway Tails. He also is a behavior consultant to the Humane Society of New York.

Berloni spoke with guest host David Bianculli about his job rescuing animals and turning them into stars.


Interview Highlights

On how he got his first animal training gig

"When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be an actor, and I lived near a very famous summer stock theater called the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. And they're known for reviving American musicals and introducing new musicals. And I volunteered there as a young kid to build scenery for free to be around real actors, professional actors.

"And my second season there as a set-building apprentice, they were doing a new show. And I remember being called into the producer's office, and he offered me a chance to be in Actor's Equity, which is the actors union, and a part on stage, and I was bowled over. I thought he recognized my acting abilities by the way I'd moved scenery for two years.

"And the second part of the equation in my euphoria was — 'All you have to do is find and train a dog for us for the new show.' And I left his office accepting the offer, and it took me like a day or two to realize what I had agreed to. The new show was Annie, and they couldn't afford a professional dog trainer, and everybody on the paid staff had threatened to quit if they had to do it. So he was looking for a sucker. So I was that wide-eyed kid who'd said, 'Sure, I could try anything.' "

On casting the first Sandy

"Someone said, 'Oh, well, they have cheap dogs at the dog pound.' Well, being 19 years old, I'd never been to a dog pound. So I took the truck and a Polaroid camera and went casting. And I remember being profoundly moved. I had had dogs growing up. I was a dog lover — and [was] profoundly moved by the situation of these animals in cages who, many of which were slated to be euthanized. And, well, I did find the original Sandy the day before he was going to be put to sleep, and I paid $7 for him. And I trained him as I trained my other pets."

On his first attempts at training

"I knew they loved the people they worked with and lived with. So I thought if I can make the theater his home and the actors his family, he might do what we asked him to. And that positive-reinforcement method of training was somewhat revolutionary. It was the first time that a dog had played a character on stage."

On how he went from the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., to Broadway

"Annie opened at the Goodspeed and bombed. It ... got terrible reviews. The producers said to me: 'What are you going to do with the dog?' I said, 'Well, I'm moving to New York City. If I'm going to be a starving actor, I might as well have a starving dog.' And I enrolled at NYU, and in the fall of 1976, Mike Nichols' office called, the famous director.

"He said, 'We're producing Annie for Broadway with the original company. Would you be interested?' And I said, 'A chance to work with Mike Nichols? Of course I'll be a dog trainer,' and went into rehearsal. We opened at the Kennedy Center, and in April of 1977, at the age of 20, Annie became a hit, and I became a famous animal trainer."

On the original Sandy's retirement from the stage

"After the dogs are done with their shows, whether they last one night or seven years, they're mine forever. And he went into semi-retirement and, you know, did appearances around the country. And then as he became older and frailer, you know, I took care of him until he passed away in his sleep.

"And it was just so moving to me, you know. He died when he was 16 years old, and what I thought was somewhat of a trivial addition to the entertainment field, they did an obituary for him in The New York Times with his picture, and it wasn't a joke. It was very serious, you know, because one of the things we'd do, and we continue to do, is raise awareness for the plight of homeless animals. And Sandy became that poster child.

"You know, he was really the first dog to ... become famous and say that he was from an animal shelter and not bred from a line of Lassies or, you know, Benjis or something like that. So I was quite moved that the entertainment industry got it."

On growing up with pets

"I had an unusual situation. My dad was a horticulturist for a municipality in Connecticut. So we lived on a farm that had greenhouses. I was an only child, and although we came from a big Italian family, my mom stayed home and took care of me, and I had a collie, a cat and a rabbit.

"And we were in an isolated area in Connecticut, a rural area, so there were no kids around. So until I went to kindergarten, I was — those were my companions. And when I did get to kindergarten, I was horribly shy. I didn't know how to interact with other kids because I'd grown up with these animals.

"And so somewhere in that developmental phase, I must have learned how to communicate nonverbally with other creatures, which ultimately would come to serve me in my career. And so, you know, it took me awhile to — I was always shy, and I was drawn to the stage because I could be a part of the drama club, you know, and be the only boy with, like, 10 or 12 girls, and it was a good deal. I wasn't big enough to be a football player. But I could be on stage, and people could listen to me, and I didn't have to talk to people. So my development, both in being raised with these animals on a farm, I think, led to my career."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. A new revival of the hit musical "Annie" is in previews on Broadway and scheduled to open next week. The canine co-star of the revival, playing the role of Sandy, is trained by today's guest, Bill Berloni, who also trained the original Sandy.

In the new production, Sandy is played be Berloni's dog Sunny(ph). If Sunny needs a day off, then his understudy Casey(ph) is ready to take over. Like the original Sandy in the first Broadway production, Sunny and Casey are both rescue dogs, found in animal shelters.

Among the other animals Bill Berloni has trained are the Chihuahua and bulldog in the Broadway adaptation of "Legally Blonde" and the lamb in the revival of "Gypsy" that starred Bernadette Peters. He also trained the first dog to dance with the New York City Ballet. He's been in doggie showbiz for 30 years and has written a memoir called "Broadway Tails," spelled T-A-I-L-S. A new edition was published in September.

He also is a behavior consultant to the Humane Society of New York, and in 2011 the Tonys presented him with a special honor for his work as an animal trainer. I spoke with Bill Berloni in 2008.

Bill Berloni, welcome to FRESH AIR. According to your book, the original Sandy got run over two weeks before opening night and went on. I mean, it's one of the best trooper stories I've ever heard, and I was wondering if you embellished that at all.

BILL BERLONI: Actually, I did - you know, I was actually kinder to the situation. I mean, because it was purely accidental. Just so our listeners know, you know, in that summer, we used to build scenery in a big barn, literally a big barn. And Sandy would come to the set with us every - or to the shop with us every day and he would hang out, and then he would come to the theater with us every night while we were doing other shows.

And as the opening night got closer, they started laying down the scenery they had built on the floor to paint it. And I was off doing something else in another part of the shop, and he stepped on a piece of scenery that was wet, and so, you know, the painter said: Well, we've got to move him to out back.

So they took him, and they tied him to a tree out back where there was some shade. But he decided to go under one of the delivery trucks to lay in the sand. And the delivery person came to take the truck, not thinking to look for the dog, and heard this squeal and accidentally ran him over.

The accident dislocated his leg, and the vet we took him to thought it would take a month for him to heal, and he had to be rested. You know, and, of course, the producer was noticeably upset. You know, he was like: Now what are we going to do? We've got to find another dog. You know, if this dog doesn't make it to opening night, I'm firing everybody who was involved. And so all of a sudden my colleagues' jobs were at risk, and, you know, we would never force an animal to perform.

And as Sandy was so enamored by what his life had become that he would get agitated when he didn't come to the shop, or when he didn't come to the theater as we were looking for other dogs. And then, you know, the director, Martin Charnin, saw the bandages on his leg and said: Let's use it. It's great. He'll - you know...

(LAUGHTER)

BERLONI: And so that's what we did.

BIANCULLI: I don't know if that's cold or warm.

BERLONI: Oh, well, you know, he was able to walk on stage. And there's a behavior in "Annie" where at a certain point, he jumps up and puts his paws on his shoulders and we had - I told Andrea McArdle, who was the original Annie, not to do that cue and give him the hand signal. But at that moment he did it anyways, which was just the look - unconditional love.

BIANCULLI: It must have been very powerful dramatically if people believed the injury.

BERLONI: But nobody in the audience knew about the injury. And - but certainly for all of us in that theater last - you know, that night, it was, like, the power and the loyalty of animals was just, you know, right there in front of us.

And I feel blessed to be in their company every day, you know, because they're creatures with the absence of malice, you know. All they want to do is please. And so it's a wonderful life to have and to see that sort of loyalty and compassion.

BIANCULLI: Was "Annie" the show for which you developed - I don't know whether it's called the Berloni drop or the bologna drop?

BERLONI: Yes. Initially, in "Annie," Annie and Sandy meet, and then they're separated. And halfway through the first act, they wrote in a scene, after the show had become successful, before we went to Broadway, where they wanted him wandering the streets of New York looking for her. And they needed him to sit center stage, look right, look left and then exit.

And dogs have very poor eyesight. They don't see clearly at, you know, 20 feet. And so while Sandy would come to me, he - I couldn't get him to stop center stage, because he would come about 10 feet, five feet to the wings, where he could see me clearly. And then he'd see his hand signal and sit.

So I needed to devise a way to get him to stop center stage. And so, you know, as I clumsily was rehearsing, I noticed that every time I dropped a treat, he would stop what he was doing and pick it up. And so that - aha, the aha moment.

So I thought if I could drop a piece of food, and so we tried treats, and then the tap dancers would step on them and they'd crunch all over the place. And being somewhat young and poor, about the only thing I had in my refrigerator in 1977 was bologna. So we thought, there you go. It'll stick right to the deck and tasty, and so that's somehow how that came up.

BIANCULLI: You've said that the original Sandy acted in "Annie" for seven years. What happened to that original Sandy after, you know, retirement from the stage?

BERLONI: After the dogs are done with their shows, whether they last one night or seven years, they're mine forever. And he went into semi-retirement and, you know, did appearances around the country. And then as he became older and frailer, you know, I took care of him until he passed away in his sleep.

And it was just so moving to me, you know. He died when he was 16 years old, and what I thought was somewhat of a trivial addition to the entertainment field, they did an obituary for him in The New York Times with his picture, and it wasn't a joke. It was very serious, you know, because one of the things we'd do, and we continue to do, is raise awareness for the plight of homeless animals. And Sandy became that poster child.

You know, he was really the first dog to, you know, become famous and say that he was from an animal shelter and not bred from a line of Lassies or, you know, Benjis or something like that. So I was quite moved that the entertainment industry got it.

BIANCULLI: You've trained 30 or 40 different Sandys over the decades, which means I guess you've also trained 30 or 40 Annies, including Andrea McArdle, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alyssa Milano. Which of them took to the dogs and your training the best?

BERLONI: You know, they all were wonderful, and I was blessed in that my first charge at training a dog was working with a dog and a child. And animals love being loved, and so most performers are on stage to be stars or to fulfill their careers. Working with children, you're really working with the essence of innocence.

So to take a child into a studio and say, you know, we're going to play with Sandy so that he gets to love you, and they go OK, and it's real, and it's genuine, and I think it's one of the things that makes "Annie" so popular. When you see the kid onstage with one my dogs, you're really seeing a love affair, you know, not just onstage but offstage.

So the kids have always been great. I love working with kids because even if they're afraid of dogs, in two or three sessions I can let their innocence come through, and they could have a great time. Andrea McArdle will always be special, you know, because she was the one who taught me that. But Sarah Jessica Parker, Sarah and I are still friends, and initially she had never had a dog. Her family had cats.

You know, but she was enough of a professional to go OK, I'll try this, and Sarah was just as good with Sandy as Andrea and the other girls were. So working with children I never have a problem with. In fact, I enjoy it the most. Getting adults to forget who they are and what they're doing and enjoy working with the dogs is a little harder.

BIANCULLI: How many dogs do you have at home?

BERLONI: What day is today?

(LAUGHTER)

BERLONI: As of today, we have 20, and 15 to 20 seems to be my magic Broadway number. Today we have 20.

BIANCULLI: Twenty? And you have a young daughter, don't you?

BERLONI: Yes.

BIANCULLI: So how does she relate to all of these animals?

BERLONI: I dedicate my - the opening of the book to my wife and my daughter. And, you know, I believe having an animal in a child's life is very important because it teaches them altruism. It teaches them that they're not the center of the universe, that there are other creatures that need care and respect.

And so if I give nothing else to my daughter, she seems to be very well-centered in that. You know, she lives with creatures she has to help, she has to interact with, she has to share her home with, she has to share this world with. And so there are times where, if she becomes forgetful and doesn't pick up her toys or stuff, they get destroyed.

So there are many valuable lessons to be learned by having animals, and certainly, you know, in her 10 years, she's probably seen 10 or 12 creatures that she's lived and loved with passed away, so I mean, many issues we talk about, and so I think she's okay.

BIANCULLI: Bill Berloni, author of the book "Broadway Tails" in our conversation from 2008. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to my 2008 interview with Bill Berloni, author of "Broadway Tails." He's trained the star and understudy dogs for the role of Sandy in the revival of "Annie," which opens on Broadway next week. Berloni also trained the original Sandy for the first stage production.

Do theater audiences react differently to animals onstage? I mean, is there something about the live aspect of theater that makes it special to them to witness?

BERLONI: Absolutely. I mean, you go to live theater to experience the moment, to experience the energy and the joy of watching live performers. And over the years, you know, I've come to realize that we are most - you know, you walk into a theater, pay your money, and you suspend disbelief. You know that the actors onstage are acting and that it's a made-up story.

But with animals, everyone knows animals don't act. And so people will say to me - they'll go to the edge of their seats because they're waiting for the dog to make a mistake or waiting for it to go out of control. And so what's exciting is, I believe, an audience member comes and sees an animal and go oh my God, it's really happening.

You know, that - the reality to the animal is so real. It's the ultimate acting challenge. You know, it's like watching two lovers onstage do a love scene who in real life we know are husband and wife. You know that it's a real relationship. And so, you know, watching an animal onstage brings the audience to the edge of their seats because they know that you really can't control an animal.

So it brings a heightened reality to the experience, and I think again, watching a little girl sing "Tomorrow" to a dog she loves, you know, is much more exciting, I think in a certain way, you know, than watching two actors trying to do a love scene who, you know, are unattached.

BIANCULLI: In addition to "Annie" and "Legally Blonde: The Musical," in between are a couple of dozen other credits, stage and elsewhere. One that really surprised me, I would have never expected to find your name popping up associated with this, it's that famous Richard Avedon photo of Nastassja Kinski where she's naked except for a giant python wrapped around her body. So where were you, and why were you there?

BERLONI: When "Annie" opened on Broadway, Richard Avedon shot the characters from "Annie" for Vogue magazine. And I was 20 years old and went to the studio, and for whatever reason, he was particularly impressed with this kid who had this dog.

He got my number from the press agent, and he called me and he said: I have this idea for a photo shoot with a snake. Do you train snakes? So I'm thinking: Oh, my goodness. I've got a chance to work with this world-famous photographer. So sure, I train snakes. So what do we have to do?

(LAUGHTER)

BERLONI: Well, we just have to drape it on a model. I said okay. And he said how much? And I'm thinking: Do I have to pay him? Until I realized he was asking me how much I would charge him. So back in 1977, I went - I thought of the highest amount of money I could think of, which was $250. He went, okay.

So I called a friend of mine at the ASPCA here in New York, who was the exotic animal consultant, and she knew a snake guy in Brooklyn. So I called the snake guy and he said: Sure, I got a, you know, a boa. And so I said look, I'll split the fee with you. I'll give you $125. We'll work for an hour, you know, easy money. Agreed. So the day of the shoot - I'd never met him.

We arrive at Mr. Avedon's studio, and this guy comes in with a chest, an ice cooler. And he's got sort of long hair and straggly beard and he looks kind of rough around the edges. And, you know, Mr. Avedon comes in with Nastassja, who's a teenager, wrapped in a blanket, and he said, you know, we're going to drape the snake on her.

And so it was a very sort of - certainly out-of-worldly experience for me. And she whispers something in his ear, and he comes over to me and he goes: You know, she doesn't feel comfortable with that gentleman. Do you mind handling the snake? And it was one of those defining moments where I went: Oh my God, I am terrified of snakes.

So do I admit to this world-famous photographer that I'm afraid of snakes, or do I suck it up and do it? And I went, okay. So I go over, and the reason you put reptiles on ice is to lower their body temperature so they become less mobile.

So I pick up the snake, and it is cold, and in my mind slimy, but I pick it up, and I turn and look at the table and there is a naked woman lying on it. Now, I'm 19 and a half years old. I had not seen many naked women in my life.

So there I am with the snake in my hands and a naked woman in front of me, and I didn't know which frightened me more, especially when I had to start draping it over her body near her private parts. I was a mess. But somehow, I got them there, and we stepped back, and he started shooting.

And after about 10 minutes, the snake warmed up and we had to put it back on ice. Well, after 30 minutes, I was a seasoned snake handler. I was, like, all over this thing. And, you know, the next thing I know, this becomes an iconic photograph that has been seen around the world.

BIANCULLI: In "Gypsy," not the current Broadway revival, but the previous one with Bernadette Peters, you used a lamb. How do you train a lamb, and how often do you have to replace lambs?

BERLONI: In "Gypsy," the family, the Hovick family, of which June Hovick and Gypsy were part of - and Mama Rose - loved animals. They were vaudevillians who had all sorts of animals, and so that was written into the script, their love of animals. And how and why a baby lamb was chosen, I'll never know.

(LAUGHTER)

BERLONI: But, you know, when Bernadette was leading this revival, she wanted me to work on it because she knew that I would make sure that the animals weren't ever hurt. And whether it's a baby pig or a baby lamb, you know, you get these creatures when they're five to seven days old because they grow so quickly.

And when you're handling any infant creature of that age, you have to be very careful about their stress level, feeding, all that sort of stuff. And how do you train, you know, those animals? Basically, the lamb had to be carried on and be quiet for a lullaby.

BIANCULLI: And (unintelligible) and be sung to.

BERLONI: And be sung to. And from having recently had a baby a few years before, I remembered, you know, when I gave my daughter her bottle, there would be this milk buzz, there would be this euphoric: Ah, my belly's filled with warm milk. I'll just lay here. And I thought, well, maybe that works for lambs, too.

(LAUGHTER)

BERLONI: And it's exact - it does. You know, it's amazing what a little warm milk will do for you. So each night before the lamb went on stage, we would give her, you know, her formula, and she'd go onstage sucking her little lips, eyes half open, digesting her milk, and then 10 minutes later she'd be up and awake and ready to play. So her feeding schedules were tied around the performances at the Shubert Theatre every day.

And they would last 21 days. By the time the lambs were 21 days old, we would be into the next lamb. I would go up to a farm in upstate New York, get a baby lamb, bring it back, wash it, diaper it, and we'd switch it out. And we ended up going through, I think, 23 or 24 lambs over the run of "Gypsy."

BIANCULLI: Are lambs always available?

BERLONI: No. That was the other thing. I talked to one of the original stagehands who worked on the Ethel Merman production, and they used to go to the meat market - this was in the 1950s - get baby lambs, use them and then barbecue them after the show was over, when they got too large, which in the '50s was an accepted practice for meat animals.

Certainly, we weren't going to do that on the current production. So - and they only - lambs only have babies once a year, and it's in the spring. So I was not only charged with finding lambs all year round, but what do we do with them afterwards? And I found a - there is a farm, world-famous farm that produces sheep milk cheese.

It's one of the gourmet places. It's in upstate New York, and it's all organic. And they artificially inseminate sheep all year round so that they're continually lactating, and they keep the female sheep and they send the boys to the meat markets.

So we went - I found this place, and they generously loaned me baby lambs because I would bring them back, you know, clean and healthy. So I could say to Bernadette and the theatrical community, if you want to see any of our lambs, go up to the farm, and they're grazing up on some beautiful fields.

BIANCULLI: Throughout your entire career, is there one onstage animal moment that you remember as either the most surprising or the most embarrassing, just that really stands out, or even the most touching?

BERLONI: You know, surprising, embarrassing, two totally different things. I'm so glad as an interviewer you didn't ask me if they went to the bathroom onstage. That's a big one. Embarrassing? A lot of times, you know, the animals will get confused, and when they get confused, they look for dad.

So in the middle of a song, if somebody drops a line or doesn't give them a cue, they will look offstage at me as if to say what do I do now. That usually gets a big laugh.

(LAUGHTER)

BERLONI: Probably the most embarrassing - again knock on wood, and I don't want to knock on wood here in the studio - I've never had an animal eliminate onstage. But I tell a story where when "Legally Blonde" premiered in San Francisco, the bulldog character was in one scene, and it got a huge response. So they came back to New York and said Bill, we want to write her into a second scene. Her name is Chloe(ph).

I said OK, so in the second act she returns, you know, with the UPS guy, who's falling in love with one of the characters, and they devise this simple thing where she would run onstage and get her toy, the UPS guy carries a toy on. And bulldogs have sort of sensitive digestive systems.

And our opening night preview in New York, she was so happy to run onstage for her toy, she ran onstage to the characters and vomited.

(LAUGHTER)

BERLONI: Which in bulldog language is the ultimate, you know, I am so happy I'm going to chuck my lunch up. You know, and so on the one hand I was like well, at least she's happy. And on the other hand, you know, the performers are like oh great. So, you know, they had to use this toy to clean up the vomit before the production number.

And she never did it again. So that was probably, again, the only time I've ever had an animal throw up on stage but out of sheer joy.

BIANCULLI: Well, Bill Berloni, thanks very much for being here on FRESH AIR.

BERLONI: My pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Bill Berloni, author of the book "Broadway Tails," in our conversation from 2008. The latest example of his animal training can be seen now on Broadway, where the revival of the musical "Annie" is now in previews. It opens next week. Berloni also is the author of "Broadway Tails," about the rescue dogs he trains for showbiz. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular