Make us your home page

Broadway's top animal trainer turns dogs into stars

HADDAM, Conn. — "This is the house that Sandy bought,'' said Bill Berloni, as he showed me around his Connecticut farmhouse last fall. Berloni is Broadway's leading animal trainer, and he was referring to the first dog he trained for a show, the Sandy who appeared in a summer stock production that premiered Annie, which went on to become one of the biggest hits in theater history. • That was 33 years ago. Since then, Berloni has trained dogs, cats, rats, pigs and many other animals for the theater. His latest Broadway credit is the revival that opens this month of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, for which he trained a couple of pigeons.

Berloni worked on Legally Blonde, whose tour comes to Clearwater on Tuesday. The cast includes a chihuahua with attitude named Bruiser, who is heroine Elle Woods' constant companion, and a bulldog named Rufus, in a smaller role as the pet of Elle's beautician, Paulette.

"Legally Blonde challenged me on several levels,'' Berloni said. "They developed this brilliant opening number where Bruiser has to say — that is, bark — five lines in repetition in conversation with an actress who is not Elle Woods.

"So not only does this little chihuahua — smallest dog I've ever trained — have to go out onstage and do things, but he has to do it with two different girls: Margot, who he does this speaking part with; and then he's with Elle for the rest of the show. So there I was splitting his attention and love between three people: myself, the girl who plays Margot and the girl who plays Elle — and their understudies!

"How do you keep a dog energized to be able to listen to five different people? A lot of loving, a lot of kisses, a lot of treats.''

Director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell was determined to have Bruiser deliver his lines. "It was one of the things I wouldn't compromise on,'' Mitchell said. "The first Broadway show I ever saw was The Wiz, with Stephanie Mills. When she sang Home and that dog came running to her from stage right and jumped into her arms, I broke down and started crying. The bond between a person and their dog is a huge thing. Bruiser barks on cue in the opening number, and the audience goes crazy.''

Becky Gulsvig, who plays Elle in the tour and understudied the role on Broadway, sometimes has Bruiser spend the night in her hotel room. "We have sleepovers,'' Gulsvig said. "He'll come and spend the night just to get extra cozy.''

Legally Blonde travels with four dogs: Frankie, who plays Bruiser, and Nellie, who plays Rufus, plus a pair of understudy dogs. When many of the dogs Berloni has trained are done with their shows, they go to live with him and his wife, Dorothy, on the farm. Chico, the original Bruiser, now is there, along with 10 other dogs, as well as cats, several horses, a donkey and a pair of llamas.

The two biggest shows with animals in them are both musicals with dogs, Annie with Sandy, and The Wizard of Oz with Toto. Annie in particular is always being done somewhere. "I can't think of any other show, even standards like Gypsy or Fiddler on the Roof, that has been in such constant production over the years,'' Berloni said. "And if anybody's going to do Annie, and they don't want to put a kid in a dog suit, they hire us.''

Charles Strouse's musical about Little Orphan Annie and her dog was a breakthrough in making an animal a pivotal character. "Before Annie, there really wasn't a role created for an animal that the play depended upon, that moved the story,'' Berloni said. "It showed other producers that you could write a character for an animal.''

Berloni, 53, who recently wrote a book about his work with animals, Broadway Tails (Globe Pequot Press), has trained as many as 30 dogs to play Sandy. He has the ashes of the original and several others at his farm.

Animal shelters are where Berloni finds many of the dogs he trains for shows. "If I'm in an animal shelter, I'm looking for a dog that can deal with stress well,'' he said. "When I go down a row of cages and see a chihuahua who acts like he's ready to bite the tires of a tractor-trailer truck, I'd say he deals with stress pretty well. So I think he might enjoy being onstage and not be frightened by an orchestra or 1,500 people in the audience.''

Cats are another story.

"When I get a call for a trained cat, the first things I say is there's no such thing as a trained cat,'' Berloni said. "You can't train them, but you can trick them. If you want them to go right, you pretend like you want them to go left, and they'll go right. You find ways to make them think what you want them to do is what they want to do.

"I look for cats that think they're dogs. That's the cat at the shelter that's hanging out on the counter at the front desk with the staff while dogs are going by, people coming in, just lying there and licking itself. That's the cat I'll take for a show because it's social and friendly and acts like a dog.''

John Fleming can be reached at or (727) 893-8716.

Broadway's top animal trainer turns dogs into stars 04/01/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 4:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours