Bill Berloni brings out the animal in Broadway

When Bill Berloni barks, Broadway listens.

Or, to be more accurate, when Berloni’s clients bark. Or meow. Or chirp.

Berloni is the foremost theatrical animal trainer working on the stage today. If you’ve seen an animal on stage in the last 32 years, chances are pretty good Berloni had something to do with it. His very first job was finding a Sandy for Annie, and one of his most recent jobs was providing a bulldog and a Chihuahua for Legally Blonde the Musical, which started life last year at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre before heading to New York.

Berloni has been in the news lately because he has written about his work with animal actors in Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars (The Lyons Press, $16.95).

It’s a wonderful book, full of the kinds of backstage stories that theater fans gobble up. And if you like animals AND theater, there simply is no better book for you.

It’s clear from page one that Berloni is a compassionate, gentle man, and that impression only solidifies as he details his work on the Richard Burton revival of Camelot, Alice in Wonderland, Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver, Madison Square Garden’s The Wizard of Oz, a Susan Stroman dance for the New York City Ballet and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to name just a few.

During a recent telephone conversation, Berloni recalled working at the Goodspeed Opera House in the summer of 1976. He was 19 and was on the stage crew. He was promised his Equity card if he would serve as dog trainer for a new show: a musical based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie.”

“The operative word then was `cheap.’ There was no money,” Berloni says. “Instead of borrowing or renting a dog, someone said they have cheap dogs at the pound. I had never been at a shelter, and it was utterly depressing. I saw all these creatures in the cages, and they all needed to be profoundly loved. I found one dog that matched the look, but he was going to be put to sleep the next day, and I didn’t have the money to adopt him. I went back to the theater, borrowed the $7 and adopted the dog.”

That was the original Sandy, who sat alongside Andrea McArdle as she warbled “Tomorrow” to the rafters. Berloni and the dog bonded in a big way. But the show was a flop, so when it was over, Berloni and his dog Sandy moved to Greenwich Village, and Berloni began studying with Stella Adler.

Then director Mike Nichols called and said Annie was heading to Broadway.

“By the time the show opened out of town at the Kennedy Center, I was a world-famous animal trainer,” Berloni recalls of the job that literally fell into his lap.

From that period on, Berloni has maintained his promise to himself that whenever possible he will find his animal actors in shelters and make sure they have homes when the production ends.

Audiences (and critics) tend to love seeing animals on stage and react in big ways.

“I’ve always wondered why that is exactly,” Berloni says. “Then it occurred to me: it’s like Method acting when you try to bring reality to the stage. An animal on stage is the ultimate reality, and that brings people to the edge of their seats. The dog is not acting – it’s real. Compare that to the actors trying to be real. Animals are the ultimate Method.”

Berloni’s approach to working with an animal actor in a show is not about tricks. He has a wider view than that.

“It’s all about being part of a team,” Berloni says. “The more you work with other artistic members of the team, the more you see it’s the result that matters, not one’s shining star. It’s about what the author and the director want combined with what the animals are capable of doing. My job is not to make Bruiser (the bulldog in Legally Blonde) do tricks. My job is to make Elle Woods look good. The animals are acting in a play, telling a story. I’ve been popular in Broadway work as a collaborator, not someone doing a dog act.”

A huge part of Berloni’s career has involved touring Broadway shows (he’s done umpteen Annie tours and revivals) and regional productions. His animals never fly cargo on planes. Rather, he outfits vans for comfortable road travel, and each animal has an attentive handler (often Berloni and his wife, Dorothy).

He’s currently preparing yet another Annie tour as well as the Legally Blonde tour and one more Wizard of Oz tour.

Beyond his stage work, Berloni is, not surprisingly, an advocate for animal rights. At his Connecticut home, he has 23 dogs, 10 of which are retired actor dogs. He also says 20 percent of the royalties from his book (which is co-written by his brother-in-law, Jim Hanrahan) will support the Sandy Fund, which Berloni’s wife set up through the Humane Society of New York.

As for future projects, Berloni would like to get more involved in the creative side.

“Some of the shows I’ve worked on have been criticized because the animal steals the show and gets the best reviews,” Berloni says. “So why not create a whole show starring a dog? That’s my hope, to create a musical in which an animal plays a full character, not a minor character or a prop. It’s my secret hope we’ll be able to pull that off.”

Visit William Berloni’s Theatrical Animals Web site here.

Here’s Berloni in a TV intervie alongside Chloe and Chico from Legally Blonde:

My fair Julie: Ms. Andrews recalls `Home’

I share the above photo not because I have a huge ego and want the world to know I had a few quality moments with Dame Julie Andrews, one of my favorite people on the planet. Wait – that’s exactly what I wanted by sharing the photo, which was taken at a stem cell research benefit in San Francisco that Andrews spoke at.

The first movie I ever saw was Mary Poppins (actually the very first movie I “saw” as a babe in arms was when my parents, in their VW bug took me to a drive-in showing of Barbarella, and apparently I cried all the way through and they left early). Andrews as the practically perfect nanny made quite an impression on my 4-year-old brain, and from then on, my world revolved around Julie Andrews, who had a TV variety show on then (this was the early ’70s), and then my mom and grandma took me to see The Sound of Music. Well, that was it. I’ve been a Banks-VonTrapp child in her charge ever since.

I reveal these personal details as a form of memoir and to introduce my thoughts on Andrews’ memoir Home: A Memoir of My Early Years (Hyperion, $26.95). The book takes us from her childhood in Walton-on-Thames, her career in the dying days of vaudeville as a child performer with a freakishly adult operatic range, and then on to New York and her Broadway stints in The Boyfriend, My Fair Lady and Camelot.

The book ends right as Andrews and her infant daughter are heading for Hollywood, the open arms of Walt Disney and the filming of Mary Poppins.

One thing you notice right away about the book is Andrews’ distinctive voice. You can hear her crisp pronunciation in every sentence. It’s also clear that she’s a writer – no surprise to those of us who have enjoyed her children’s books such as The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles and the more recent The Great American Mousical.

That said, there’s still an element of distance between Andrews and the reader. She’s happy to tell us a few things – even unpleasant things from her childhood (like a stepfather who had designs on his pretty stepdaughter and the revelation that she was a product of a one-night stand) – but she won’t tell us everything. Andrews reveals just enough to protect her privacy, and that’s respectable (though not as juicy as some folks might want).

The closest the book comes to scandal is Andrews’ revelation that during the run of Camelot, Richard Burton made advances toward her, which she basically laughed off, and then he became cold and distant – even onstage, which seems highly unprofessional, even for a Welshman. Eventually he got over himself and reverted back to the warm and wonderful (if slightly sozzled) co-star Andrews adored.

One of the book’s nicest surprises is the deep friendship Andrews and her husband, Tony Walton (an esteemed Broadway designer), developed with T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, the source material for Camelot. Tim, as Andrews called him, comes across as quite a character, especially when he tricks Andrews and Walton into buying a little house on his home island of Alderney.

Andrews admits that her account of My Fair Lady’s birth isn’t as thorough as Alan Jay Lerner’s On the Street Where You Live or Moss Hart’s Act One (one of the best theater books ever), but it’s fascinating to hear about it from her perspective as a young performer who feels she’s in way over her head.

My favorite passage in the book about what the theater means to Andrews. Here’s a taste:

Once in a while I experience an emotion onstage that is so gut-wrenching, so heart-stopping, that I could weep with gratitude and joy. The feeling catches and magnifies so rapidly that it threatens to engulf me.
It starts as a bass note, resonating deep in my system. Literally. It’s like the warmest, lowest sound from a contrabass. There is a sudden thrill of connection and an awareness of size – the theater itself, more the height of the great stage housing behind and above me, where history has been absorbed, where darkness contains mystery and meaning.

Reading her book made me adore Andrews even more – if that’s even possible. Now I’m anxious for the next volumes. I envision the second book concentrating on the ’60s, from Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music up through Darling Lili. This would, of course, take us through her divorce and her marriage to Blake Edwards. Volume 3 would deal with her TV work, her taking a break to concentrate on family, her reemergence in 10 and SOB and Victor/Victoria, her return to Broadway and the loss of her singing voice.

There’s still so much to tell. I hope she’s busy writing.

Here’s a treat: Carol Burnett, a great chum of Julie Andrews’, recalls her 1962 Carnegie Hall concert with Andrews and their spoof of The Sound of Music.

TD Book shelf: `Attack of the Theater People’

I have found the first Theater Dogs beach book of the summer.

I loved Marc Acito’s first novel, How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater because it was an old-fashioned teen theater geek farce in which Edward Zanni, the high school senior protagonist “engaged in embezzlement, blackmail, money laundering, identity theft, fraud, forgery and (just a little) prostitution.” That’s his description of it. The whole point of the crimes was to get enough money for Edward to pay for Juilliard.

Well imagine my delight when I found the sequel to the book on the shelves: Attack of the Theater People, which is every bit as engaging and delightful as its predecessor. Acito is whip smart and has a way with a quip, and they usually involve some aspect of theater. Here’s a taste:

It was the same feeling I had after I saw Annie when I was eleven andspent months bumping and grinding while belting out “Easy Street.” I’m sure my parents took one look at me and though, “My son’ll come out–tomorrow.”

Right from the start of the book, when Marian Seldes kicks Edward out of Juilliard (he’s just too “jazz hands” for such a serious acting school), the tone is light and silly and hilarious — everything you want in a summer book. And get this: it’s set in the ’80s, so it’s a period piece. Practically hysterically historical.

Every time I thought the plot was veering too far into the ridiculous — Starlight Express plays a major role — Acito’s wit and Edward’s gusto (not to mention his gang of theater nerd friends) brought me right back into the fold. Edward even grows up a little by the end, which will come in handy for dealing with a world of HIV-AIDS and the death of musical theater.

Astute readers will notice Acito’s shout-out to a prominent Bay Area actor (hello, Clark Sterling). And I’m big enough not to mind that the bad guy (an insidious inside trader) is named Chad.

As if the book wasn’t enjoyable enough, I bought my copy at Books, Inc. on Market Street, and I snagged an autographed version. Here’s how Acito signs the book: “Jazz Hands!” Perfect.

Acito will be back in the Bay Area for a couple appearances:
JUNE 19, 2008 – Books, Inc. in the Castro (San Francisco, CA)
JUNE 21, 2008 – West Coast Live! (San Francisco, CA)

Fur further reading:
Acito’s very entertaining blog is “The Gospel According to Marc.” Read it here. And his Web site, with snippets of his books, essays and more is

If you have theater-related book suggestions, let me know and I’ll share your recommendation with the Theater Dogs kennel: