Rescue dogs go from cage to Ordway’s stage for ‘A Christmas Story’

Sam Jasenosky, Pioneer Press 11/26/14

From the side of the stage, a human started barking. Shrill holiday bells rang. Cast members were scattered in clusters. Jolly piano tunes blared from the speakers.

But none of that was enough to distract Argyle from his prize: the Milk-Bone in A.J. Sullivan’s hand.

Argyle and his buddy Oliver are the dogs cast as the Bumpus Hounds in the “A Christmas Story, the Musical,” which starts performances at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday. In the story, based on a movie that has been a holiday TV staple since the 1980s, the dogs belong to the Parker family’s “hillbilly neighbors,” the Bumpuses. And they’re responsible for ruining the Parkers’ turkey dinner.

The infamous Bumpus Hounds scene centers around every dog’s dream of snatching fresh-out-of-the-oven food from the kitchen table.

This is not the first time Argyle and Oliver have been in the spotlight. Their owner, William Berloni, is a dog magician of sorts. He won the Tony Award “Honor for Excellence in Theater” in 2011, making history as the first dog trainer to take home the honor, which goes to people who significantly contribute to theater without being eligible for the established Tony Award categories. With more than 30 years of experience training dogs for show business, Berloni, according to “Christmas Story’s” director James Rocco, has become the “go-to man” in theater for dogs.

“No one does it better than Bill,” Rocco said.

When he contacted Berloni about “A Christmas Story: the Musical,” only Argyle and Oliver were available. A collie and a terrier mix, the dogs were rescued by Berloni after coming from troubled homes. Every critter Berloni has worked with is a rescue animal.

“Going from having kennel anxiety and wondering, ‘Will I ever find a forever home?’ to becoming stars makes for a great transformation,” said Sullivan, the dogs’ handler while they’re in St. Paul.

When Oliver isn’t busy playing Sandy in “Annie,” and Argyle takes a break from starring in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” they spend their time running around Berloni’s 90-acre farm in Connecticut that houses other dogs, cats, pigs, horses, llamas and even a macaw.

“It’s a place they love because they can live safely and freely out of a kennel,” Berloni said.

On stage, their schedule is more structured. For “A Christmas Story,” the dogs have two scenes and a bow. That might not sound like a lot of stage time, but Sullivan stressed the amount of training necessary for a production of this size.

“They’re off leashes, running across stage to the proper handler in front of 1,500 strangers with accuracy every time,” Sullivan said. “Not all dogs can do that.”

Special precautions have to be followed during rehearsal, such as not allowing food in the hall and limiting cast member interaction with the dogs. If the dogs become too friendly with cast members, they may get distracted on stage, Sullivan said.

“As hard as it is, even I can’t play with them,” Rocco said. Only a handful of staff working on the production can regularly interact with the dogs, and an even smaller group is able to give them treats. During rehearsal, the canines get regular dog treats. On nights of the performance, however, Argyle and Oliver will be rewarded with real chicken — a much more tantalizing treat for them.

“They’re rewarded for their behavior. We don’t call what the dogs do ‘tricks,’ because to them, they’re just behaving a certain way,” Sullivan said. His method for getting them to behave includes establishing himself as the alpha male, not being overly affectionate and making the theater the happiest place for the dogs. Sullivan takes the dogs to one door for walks, and to a separate door to drive to the Ordway.

“Argyle starts to get very excited when we walk toward the door for rehearsal,” he said. “He knows he’s about to get treats.”

Sullivan said repetition and positive reinforcement are critical for training dogs. “No one wants to see a sad, cowering dog. Make sure to reward good behavior,” he said.

It’s also important to make sure the dog knows what you’re asking of it, Sullivan said, so remaining patient and willing to teach is a must.

When Argyle slips away to the dogs’ dressing room bathroom for a few sips of toilet water, Sullivan shoos him away, monitors Oliver and continues to talk about dog training.

Both dogs listen to him, even without a Milk-Bone in his hand.

MEET ARGYLE

Stage dog Argyle at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul on Tuesday, November 18, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

 

Age: 10

Breed: Collie

Rescued from: New York

Current city: Haddam, Conn.

Career highlight: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” on Broadway

Fun fact: He was named Argyle after eating socks as a puppy.

Rescue story: After needing two surgeries to remove socks from his stomach, Argyle’s former family banished him to the basement. He was locked away for three months before the family gave him to Herding Dog Rescue in Long Island, N.Y., where Berloni adopted him.

MEET OLIVER

Stage dog Oliver, at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul on Tuesday, November 18, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

 

Age: 7

Breed: Terrier mix

Rescued from: New Jersey

Current city: Haddam, Conn.

Career highlight: “Annie” on Broadway

Fun fact: He has met Sarah Jessica Parker.

Rescue story: Oliver was a rambunctious puppy: a chewer, unhousebroken and wild. His former family couldn’t handle his temperament, so they gave him up for adoption. At the time, Berloni was looking for a dog to play Sandy in “Annie,” and Oliver turned out to be the perfect candidate.

See more photos and of Oliver and Argyle on the Pioneer press website here.

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