Bernadette Peters’ career is going to the dogs.
No, the two-time Tony Award-winning Broadway diva has not hit the skids. She’s just more interested in dogs at the moment than the stage.
Peters, 57, who performs with the San Francisco Symphony Friday, July 25, as part of the “Summer in the City” series, has been a self-described “dog person” since age 9 when she begged her mother for a canine companion. Then she got Suzie, a small golden lab, who became a beloved family pet.
“My father, who delivered bread, was a man who didn’t talk about his emotions, but when that dog got old and wandered away to die, he took it so personally. `I never thought she’d do this to us,’ he said,” Peters recalls on the phone from her New York home. “We did get another dog, a little poodle, and he carried that animal around under his arm. He was sort of a dog whisperer, which helped when he made deliveries.”
Throughout her life, Peters has had dogs.
“I didn’t know at first you had to actually be in charge, be the alpha,” she says. “I’m good with dogs now. I understand that.”
Years ago she had a poodle named Rocco, a dog she claims was the smartest dog ever.
“I took him on `The Tonight Show’ because there was a guy there rating animal intelligence,” Peters recalls. “Contrary to what people think, poodles are not that smart, he said. Ha ha ha. My dog won. When I was in the movie The Jerk, we had trained dogs, and the trainer, to get them to speak, would use a signal. Sometimes they’d speak, sometimes they wouldn’t. I’d watch them and think, `Rocco could do that.’ I remember telling my father that Rocco was so smart – he was like a little boy in a dog suit. My father came to visit and said, `You’re right!’ I was in such mourning when Rocco died. It was just him and me for so long.”
About 11 years ago, after her golden retriever had died, she found Kramer at the ASPCA. “He’s a Heinz 57 mutt,” Peters says. “He’s a tramp, like in `Lady and the Tramp.’ I should sing that song.”
She’ll probably get around to it, but for now she’s singing “Kramer’s Song,” a song she composed herself to accompany her first-ever children’s book, Broadway Barks (Blue Apple Books) named for the annual Broadway animal-adoption event she and Mary Tyler Moore founded a decade ago.
Peters will be singing “Kramer’s Song,” a tender lullaby that accompanies the book on a CD tucked into the back cover, in concert, and on Saturday, July 26, she’ll do a book signing at Books Inc. on Market Street.
“I had never composed anything before, and at first I didn’t want to sing the song because I wondered if it was good enough,” Peters says. “But then I got comfortable with it because I know it comes from someplace real.”
Her friend Stephen Sondheim, whose songs she sings just about better than anyone, hasn’t heard the song yet. “But he wasn’t surprised when he heard I’d written something,” Peters says. “He says the way to write a song is for it to come out of a situation.”
In addition to discussing her next stage project, Peters is at work on a second children’s book – this one about her pit bull, Stella. As for the real life Kramer, he’s enjoying his moment in the spotlight.
“He loves his song,” Peters says. “It makes him bark. He’s loving being on TV, loves the applause. I think he was an actor in his last life.”
The success of Broadway Barks, the annual New York event that involves the cream of the Broadway theater community, didn’t surprise Peters.
“When you’re an actor, your heart has to be open and available to feelings and emotions,” she says. “Actors are usually very sensitive people, and they fit perfectly with animals. Communication with animals is very good for us – they help us find the quiet in ourselves.”
Peters’ primary causes these days involve animals. She’s working to turn New York into a no-kill island when it comes to abandoned animals, and she’s working to increase funding for groups that spay and neuter animals in cities.
Of course, she’s still very much involved in show business. In addition to her concert work, she’s planning her next album – something she describes as “a small album of standards.” And she’s in meetings about her next stage project. “There’s nothing to talk about yet,” she says.
She recently finished work on a Lifetime movie called Living Proof that costars Harry Connick Jr. and will air in October. She’s also working on another children’s book, this one about her pit bull, Stella.
“People have the wrong idea about pit bulls – they’re so loving. That’s what I want to write about – about how appearances aren’t everything,” Peters says. “I may try to write a song for her, but I’m not ready to get `Kramer’s Song’ out of my consciousness yet.”
Bernadette Peters performs with the San Francisco Symphony at 8 p.m. Friday at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$35. Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.
Peters will sign copies of her book, Broadway Barks, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Books Inc., 2275 Market St., San Francisco. Call 415-864-6777 for information.
Here’s Peters performing “Kramer’s Song” on “The View.”