Dogs key to Annie’s appeal
Dog trainer a vital part of Annie the Musical
William Berloni always wanted to be in show business, and it was a dog who helped him get there.
Berloni was just 18 when he became a technical apprentice at the Good Seed Opera House summer stock theatre company back in 1975.
One of the shows in repertoire that summer was a new musical based on the popular comic strip Little Orphan Annie.
An essential character in both the comic strip and the musical was Annie’s dog named Sandy.
“The theatre company couldn’t afford to hire a professional dog trainer.
“The company manager offered me my professional equity card and a small role in one of the other plays if I would find and train a dog,” recalls Berloni.
“I grew up on a farm so I was no stranger to animals.”
Berloni found a stray dog at the local animal shelter, bought it for $7 and trained it. The dog was a hit. This first version of Annie was not. Two years later when a reworked version of Annie was set to open on Broadway, Berloni got a call to see if he’d train a couple more dogs as understudies for the original Sandy.
That was 40 years and some 200 dogs ago, and Berloni couldn’t be happier with the career that has earned him an honorary Tony Award for excellence in theatre.
Berloni says there is a good reason animals are such show stoppers.
“When we see a play, we know that it’s make believe. We know the people up there are just acting, but when an animal comes on stage they’re real and suddenly we watch them from the edge of our seats, wondering what they might or might not do. When they do everything right we’re thrilled for them.”
Berloni is proud to say every dog he’s trained for a Broadway or touring show has been a rescue.
“My dogs were all on the verge of being put to sleep and they became stars.”
He insists that when he is choosing a new pooch, looks are secondary to temperament and “the uglier a dog is, the cuter it is on stage.”
Each night when the dogs playing Sandy in Annie arrive at the theatre, “they say hello to everyone from crew members to the cast members.
“Dogs are naturally gregarious so you want to get that out of their systems so they can concentrate on what they have to do that night.”
He says the animals know who they’ll be performing with because those actors “take them for walks, feed them, play with them and even have sleepovers with them. During the play, the dogs realize that the girl playing Annie is getting a lot of attention so their focus is on her.”
Berloni says Annie marked an important step in the use of dogs on stage.
“The dogs who play Sandy have an actual role.
“They have things they must do in the 11 minutes they are on stage.
“Before Annie, dogs and other animals were simply props.”
Berloni wants to take the dog’s role a big step forward.
He is working on a stage version of Kate DiCamillo’s popular children’s book Because of Winn-Dixie.
“The dog in that show will have 102 cues. The dog will be the centrepiece of the play. The human actors will be his co-stars.”