A Rüff Start: 8 Questions with Bill Berloni
Jessica Petrie, Ordway 11/14/17
When the Ordway mounts its production of Annie this holiday season, there’s one star that will need a little bit of extra training — Sandy the dog. And there’s only one person that can handle the job. Bill Berloni is the best of the best when it comes to training theatrical animals. In December, Bill will be bringing one of his very special dogs to Saint Paul for Annie. We sat down with Bill to talk about his life in the business, his training philosophy, and which dog we can expect to see on the Ordway stage.
You really are the go-to person for theatrical animals. How did you get started in this business?
When I was 19 years old I wanted to be an actor. I had applied to be a technical apprentice at Goodspeed Opera House, and during my second summer there they were doing the premiere of Annie. They couldn’t afford to hire a dog trainer, so I was told that I could be in a future show and get my equity card if I could find and train a dog for the production. So off I went to the Connecticut Humane Society to find a Sandy… and the rest is history. That was 41 years ago.
Your connection to Annie runs deep. How many productions do you think you’ve found a Sandy for?
After the premiere at Goodspeed Opera House, I did the original Broadway production. I’ve also done two national tours, as well as the 20th, 30th, and 35th anniversary revivals, and the 2014 film remake. The last time I counted, there were 146 additional regional productions. All in all, I’ve worked on somewhere between 30,000-40,000 performances of Annie over the years.
Can you tell us anything about the dog that will be playing Sandy in the Ordway’s upcoming production of Annie?
The Ordway’s Sandy is a Golden Retriever/Chow mix named Marti, affectionately named after Martin Charnin, the creator and director of the original production of Annie. Some people might recognize Marti because she played Sandy in the 2014 film remake starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis. Since the film, she has done two other off-Broadway plays. But this will be her debut doing the stage version of Annie.
What are the biggest challenges you face when training the dogs and getting them to do what you want on stage?
How do you get anyone to do what you want them to do? I always try to create a positive situation and make it something that they want to do. It’s difficult to figure out how to motivate a dog to want to do a specific behavior live, on stage, in front of hundreds of people. Each dog is different and only the dog can tell me what works for them. It’s all about positive reinforcement.
Also, the dog must have the right temperament to be on stage. I have to be sure that things like bright lights, audience reactions, and a live orchestra won’t upset or distract the dog, especially when they are doing eight shows a week.
Beyond Annie, you’ve found dogs for all sorts of stage productions, films, and television shows. Any favorites that stand out for you?
You never forget your first, so that first production of Annie will always mean a lot to me. Legally Blonde the Musical is a fun show to do. It’s fast, furious, and has a great message. The two NBC live shows I did (Peter Pan and The Wiz) stand out, too. Instead of getting a dog to do a behavior eight times a week for an audience of a couple thousand, the challenge was getting it right just once for an audience of 10 million.
The other job that stands out was the first show I ever did on Broadway — The Wizard of Oz. During that show, I worked with a young choreographer named James Rocco. That’s where our working relationship began.
How do you juggle doing so many productions across the country every year?
I’m almost always working on multiple projects at any given time (I have five different shows that I’m working on right now). Obviously, I can’t be at more than one place at a time, so I have a team of really good people that understand my training method and follow through. I’m still always “on call,” answering any questions that come up and helping my trainers get through any issues. But once I’ve taught them my method, they are pretty good at going out and doing it.
You strictly use rescue animals. Why is that?
Back in 1976 when I was looking for the original Sandy, it was my first time ever going to an animal shelter. I was mortified at the way the animals were treated. I made a promise to myself then that I would help as many of them as I could, and it turned into a career. I believe that when you do good to others, good comes back to you. Animal rescues and promoting rescue values is very important to me.
What happens to the dogs when they are no longer able to perform?
When we adopt a dog, they have a forever home. So whether they are too old to work or just unemployed at the moment, they live on our 90 acre farm in Connecticut. My wife and I have 32 dogs at the moment. Pets are more than just things — they are family members.
Anything you’d like to add?
Just that I’m thrilled to be back at the Ordway. I’ve done many shows with James Rocco and the Ordway over the past 20 years, including Annie, The Wizard of Oz, and A Christmas Story. The Ordway is one of the finest regional theaters in the country, and one of the few that can invest in bringing out professional animal trainers for their productions. I only have three dogs that can play Sandy, so I personally chose which three theaters to work with over the holidays. The Ordway is one of only three that get to say they have Berloni Sandy dogs in their production of Annie this holiday season.
Annie will perform December 7-31 in the Ordway Music Theater. Tickets are available on the Annie performance page or by phone at 651.224.4222.