We Chat With Bill Berloni About Training Dogs on Broadway
His name isn’t new to the loyal readers of Dogster, as Bill Berloni has been profiled here before. He’s the trainer to Broadway’s furry stars, and has been for 40 years. With the upcoming release of Annie on the big screen, we thought it would be a good time to again visit with our friend Bill and find out what it takes to turn a dog in to a star.
Dogster: When did your lifelong love affair with animals begin?
Bill Berloni: I think as the story goes, when I was two my mom asked if I wanted a brother or sister, and I said a dog [laughs]. Hence I was an only child!
I grew up on a farm in central Connecticut with a bunny and a dog. It was very rural and I didn’t have a lot of kids to play with, but I had my animals. When I went to kindergarten, I was very shy, a social misfit, and didn’t know how to interact with other children. My dogs and animals were my family, and I came to think of them as my friends.
Fast forward to high school. I was still a social misfit, and anyone who is a social misfit should become an actor. Which is exactly what I did. I got real involved with the theater and got a summer internship. I just had to be around actors.
How did your involvement with dogs and the theater begin?
During my second summer internship, they were doing Annie, and couldn’t afford a dog trainer. They offered me no money but a role in a second show they were doing if I could train a dog for Annie.
I went to the local pound and found my Sandy. I trained him with positive reinforcement. A year later Annie opened and I became a famous dog trainer -- and I have been making it up ever since!
Dogs or cats -- which are tougher to train for the stage?
Cats, as they are individual hunters, and are only one generation removed from being undomesticated. Getting a cat to do what man wants him to do is pretty much against nature. Most of my gray hairs come from cat training. When we do get a cat job, we look for cats who think they are dogs. If you have ever met a cat with this personality, you realize they are food motivated and they don’t fit in with other cats.
Neil Patrick Harris, Tony-winning star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, smooches with Sunny from Annie at last year's Tony Awards.
What’s the casting process like? Does the show dictate the breed of a dog for a role, or do you?
It’s usually prescribed in the script. For Annie it’s Sandy, for Legally Blond and Bullets Over Broadway it’s a Chihuahua. When we did Bullets the director wasn’t that fond of Chihuahuas, so we decided to go with a Pomeranian. Sometimes I have to help guide the director with their vision of what they want; the theater world is much more collaborative than the movie business.
Take us from taking an unknown dog to superstardom.
It’s just like anything else, as it comes down to good casting. In the same way that not every dog can be a therapy dog, not every dog can be an actor. The dog needs to be friendly, have no aggression, and have very little baggage. Finding a dog with the right personality is the toughest part. The dog has to like being around people.
You start off with basic obedience training, and then move on to training them with the actors. If I have a gift, it is knowing what dog will work in this profession. They really need to be "superdogs" when casting them for the stage. That is the big difference between casting a dog for the stage and the screen.
Is there a big difference between training a dog for film and stage?
When I’m on a film set, I’m right there off-camera giving the dog commands. In the theater, you can’t have a trainer walk on stage and give the dog a command, it’s up to the actors. In theater, the actors are giving the dogs commands while on stage, so you need a dog who is loyal to more than one person.
I can invite a dog to do a hundred tricks for me, but when you hand him off to another person, it really is watered down to 15 to 20 commands. If you get an actor who really doesn’t like dogs, the dog doesn’t want to show up and take direction. There was one actress in Legally Blond who was allergic. You can’t just show up the day of rehearsals and say I won’t work with a dog.
Have you had any interesting experiences when it comes to actors and animals?
You get a lot of actors who will say in casting that they love dogs, then you get to rehearsals only to find out they have never had a dog but love them from afar. It’s not the same.
Mike Nichols was doing Shakespeare in the Park with Kevin Klein, Meryl Streep, and Natalie Portman. Mike decided he wanted Natalie to ride in on a very spirited horse. Natalie loves horses, but I asked Mike if she knew how to ride. We get to rehearsals and I ask Natalie if she rides much, only to find out that she has never ridden a horse. I went to Mike and told him that if she doesn’t know how to ride, then that the horse is going to throw her in the lake. My horse trainer said not to worry, and we trained the horse to come to us with sugar cubes. We did that show for six weeks and Natalie never ended up in the lake.
Once an animal reaches superstardom, do they ever give you the diva treatment?
No, that’s why I work with animals. They don’t know they are performing for the adulation of an audience. Dogs become acclimated and just think the performance is part of life; they want to please their handler.
How does someone become a handler for Bill Berloni?
They must love dogs and have no animal training experience. My whole method is about not forcing the animals to do something they don’t want to do. We have a fantastic bunch of people who are all very dedicated to making sure the animals we work with are all very happy.
With so much reality TV these days, any chance we might see a show about your process and taking an unknown dog to superstardom?
Please, from your mouth to God’s ears. I’ve been trying for eight years, but no one wants to see a show about good people doing good things. I’m not controversial or dysfunctional enough for reality TV. It seems like we have pitched all the cable channels about a show, but Broadway must be too much of a niche community for TV.
Does a doggy Broadway star get treated like his human counterparts?
No, there are no laws protecting animals in the entertainment business, no unions for animal trainers. All of the dogs we use I have rescued, so I have seen what man has done to animals. It’s constantly a fight for them. Getting air conditioning, more money, it’s always a fight. It’s not right; you have to go into this business expecting to be advocating for your animal all the time. I’ve won a Tony for my work, and I’m still fighting for air conditioning or a dressing room that’s not on the seventh floor. You're constantly trying to keep your animals happy and protect them.
Are there specific breeds who make better performers?
The best breeds to work with are mutts. I believe all breeds were developed to do one thing well. For A Christmas Story we have to use Bloodhounds, and they are the sweetest dogs, but not very intelligent.
For Annie and Sandy, who was a mutt, the dog didn’t have one driving instinct. Terriers are very intelligent, but don’t necessarily work very well with man. Although, if you can get them working they are unstoppable.
Any advice to someone who thinks he has a dog with a special talent?
There are animal agents on both coasts who represent people and their pets. First and foremost, you want to make sure that your animal will be treated humanely. Unlike representation for people, animal representation doesn’t have to be licensed. Unfortunately, in the animal world, you have some disreputable people. Make sure to write down anything anyone tells you. If you have a talented pet, you really need to be in either New York City or Los Angeles. Never let anyone else handle your pet. You really want to be on the set with your animal -- if you can’t, then your animal really shouldn’t be there.
With more than 40 years of working with animals on stage and screen, I imagine you have witnessed some funny things.
There have been times when certain body functions have erupted. In Legally Blonde, there was a Bulldog named Chloe and she loved the actors. After touring, when the show came back to NYC, they decided to add a second scene for Chloe. During the first performance, Chloe looked at the actor and vomited. Sometimes when Bulldogs are happy they vomit. Of course, the audience loved it.
One time, we were doing a performance of Annie, and right in the front row someone was eating a bucket of fried chicken! What are you going to do?
We were doing Threepenny Opera, and the show opens with a prostitute passed out on the stage and a Bulldog licking her butt. I had to put peanut butter on her butt -- that was my favorite stage direction of all time!
What does the future hold for Bill Berloni?
People love Sandy -- she steals the reviews -- but people don’t realize she’s only on stage for a few scenes. I’ve been waiting for a show that stars the dog. Twenty-five years into it, I said to my wife, Dorothy, that I didn't think it was ever going to happen. I went on a quest to write the first musical starring a dog.
We then turned our attention to a great children’s book called Because of Winn-Dixie. It’s the story of a bunch of people who find a dog in Winn-Dixie, and the dog changes everyone’s life. I got Duncan Sheik to write the music, and we held the world premiere at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. The opening broke their box office record, we are now taking the show to Wilmington, Delaware. Being able to take all my years of training working with the best directors to show off the human/animal bond is a dream come true.
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About the author: Brian Fischler is a standup comedian and writer. He has been seen on The Today Show, published in Maxim Magazine as the Comedian of the Month, and on Top Gear USA on The History Channel. Along with writing for Dogster, Brian also writes for Cesar Milan’s website and magazine. Brian also runs Laugh For Sight, a bicoastal comedy benefit featuring the biggest names in comedy that come together to raise money and awareness for retinal degenerative eye disease research. You can connect with Brian on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @Blindgator.