We Interview William Berloni, Trainer of Sandy in “Annie”

The animal trainer built his career discovering the dog stars of the stage.

Last Updated on May 13, 2015 by Dogster Team

The legendary William Claude Dukenfield, aka W.C. Fields, infamously warned, “Never work with children or animals.” But a very different legend named William — Bill Berloni — has made a brilliant career of flouting Fields’ advice.

He’s the founder of William Berloni Theatrical Animals, the go-to resource for performing pets, especially dogs. Berloni has groomed dozens of dogs for their turn in the Broadway spotlight, patiently coaching them from behind the curtain.

His talent stable’s high level of professionalism is also greatly appreciated by filmmakers, who love canine performers who can do what’s required of them in just one efficient take; that’s why legendary director Mike Nichols turned to Berloni when he needed canine (and feline) actors for the Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts movie Charlie Wilson’s War.

He has worked with some of the biggest names in show business. But Berloni’s greatest legacy is raising the profile of nonhuman actors to the point where they’re acclaimed as the stars they are. During the run of the hit Broadway musical Legally Blonde, for instance, audiences quickly got on a first-name basis with the show’s canine star, a rescued Chihuahua named Bruiser.

Currently, not one but two Berloni-trained barkers are busy enchanting audiences at the Lunt-Fontanne theater: the canine stars of the musical A Christmas Story, 3-year-olds Pete and Lily, a brother-sister Bloodhound act. The dogs were abandoned by their previous owners, who left the dogs in the garage when their North Carolina home was foreclosed.

But Berloni’s most famous trainee is a Terrier mix who plays Sandy in the legendary Broadway musical Annie and co-star of many talented child performers. Working with Berloni’s profoundly professional pups, the kids can’t help but learn some invaluable tricks, too.

Berloni has been working happily with dogs and kids for nearly 40 years, but he’s known and loved for his modesty. He always keeps the spotlight firmly on the animals’ comfort and well-being, and never seeks out attention or publicity for himself.

Broadway’s powers-that-be, however, set things right recently by placing him squarely in the spotlight, acknowledging Berloni with a Tony for Excellence in Theater, the first time that award was bestowed on an animal trainer. It was high time the world got to know the soft-spoken, self-effacing man behind Broadway’s biggest barkers.

Berloni’s original goal was to be an actor, until Martin Charnin, the conceiver-director-lyricist of Annie, charged the then-19-year-old aspiring thespian with finding a dog to play Orphan Annie’s best friend for the show’s Broadway debut in 1976. In exchange, he would get his coveted actor’s card. Find Sandy he did — by going to the local animal shelter in his home state of Connecticut and springing a dog from death row. Acting took a back seat as working with dogs became his priority. And ever since that fateful day, Berloni has made a point of discovering raw canine talent at dog pounds and via rescue groups all over the country.

What’s more, this lifesaving starmaker is a big believer in giving less-adoptable dogs their fair shot at fame. He’s bullish on Pit Bulls and Pit mixes for their can-do spirit; he calls them “brilliant dogs.” He’s also soft on seniors. “Older dogs really do learn new tricks,” Berloni says. “They can be so shocked at finding themselves homeless that they’re open to picking up new routines — and that’s a huge asset in a canine performer.”

The many shelter-to-showtime success stories Berloni has made possible are lovingly chronicled in his book, Broadway Tails, which was recently reissued with a new chapter all about the glossy new production of Annie, now hard-knocking ’em dead at Broadway’s Palace theater. Not surprisingly, some of the biggest ovations go to the show’s Berloni-trained star, a sweet, sandy-haired, female mutt named Sunny — who is, her trainer notes, “the 23rd Sandy dog of my career.”

The Sandy of Annie fame is by tradition a sand-colored mixed-breed; mutts are naturals at stage work because, being randomly mix-bred, their main drive is to please humans by being versatile. However, A Christmas Story specifically called for purebreds. “Training Bloodhounds to do behavior work was a challenge,” Berloni explains, “because they’re scent hounds bred to do a very specific job: hunting.” Pete and Lily rose to the occasion in style — and amazingly quickly. Adopted from Ontario Bloodhound Rescue in August, they were curtain-call-ready in a few short weeks!

In addition to shuttling back and forth to supervise the canine action at both shows, A Christmas Story and Annie — “It takes exactly three minutes to get from one stage door to the other,” he reports — Berloni also proudly upholds his duties at the Humane Society of New York, the animal clinic and adoption center founded in 1904, where he’s the director of animal behavior. Always mindful that he owes his career to a shelter dog named Sandy, the star trainer is never too busy to help out animals in need.

In a terrible coincidence, a hurricane named Sandy devastated the East Coast, shutting down Annie, A Christmas Story, and all other Broadway productions for two days, and delaying the debut of a half-hour television special about how Annie’s dog star was discovered. Out of respect for the storm’s victims, the Pedigree-sponsored mini-documentary Annie’s Search for Sandy, which Berloni executive-produced, was postponed. It aired on the Hallmark Channel last week and is also streaming on the Annie web site.

“For me and for a lot of New Yorkers still reeling from effects of the hurricane and feeling powerless while it was happening, it was nice to come back to the Humane Society, where I had 22 dogs waiting for me to temperament-test them,” he says. “They were all victims of that event, so it felt good to help them.”

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