By Jaclyn Waller
It’s the summer of 1976, and William Berloni has been offered a new opportunity: transform a rescue mutt into Broadway’s newest star, Annie’s Sandy. After all, “You can’t do Annie without Sandy.” The training process was clearly a success, as Sandy became “the longest running dog on Broadway”.
What many don’t know is that the beloved musical, Annie debuted at The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. As an aspiring actor, twenty-year-old Bill was eager to involve himself in the theatre’s productions. In exchange for his equity card, he would spend the summer of 1976 training a rescue mutt to star in August’s debut of Annie. Bill worked with optimism to prepare the dog for live performances, leash free. “I had grown up with dogs and they were never on leashes. So if I could make the dog think the little girl (Annie) was a part of his family and his theatre was his home, why couldn’t he do the same thing?” Through dedicated and patient training, Sandy would be transformed into something new to the industry, a canine actor.
Sandy’s performances were a crowd favorite, and a profound accomplishment for the young trainer. Bill recalls the sudden notoriety, “That’s how innocently it all started, and a year later the show opened on Broadway, and at the age of twenty, I became a world famous animal trainer.” Since establishing himself, Bill faced the task of innovating animal actor training. On stage, animals are often utilized as live props. Bill strived beyond this practice, and prepared the animal to follow cues, free from distractions. “Once I proved to the world that yes, you can train an animal to do the same thing eight times a week in front of a live audience, that became my career.”
Rescue mutts are Bill’s ideal Broadway candidates. “Mutts are more jacks of all trades. They’re just a little more amiable to doing different things.” Like our dogs at home, these groomed pooches respond best to their favorite treats or toys. Bill notes, “Training is not about subservience and doing what I tell you… In a live theatre performance, we work for eight weeks to create patterns that the animals will do and create a relationship with the actors in which they are working with.” The trainer must strive to instill trust and work with a high degree of patience for the process.
Dedicated to animal rescue, Bill has been remarkably involved in Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore’s annual adoption event, Broadway Barks. Meeting at the showcase’s premiere in 1999, Bill and Bernadette formed “a professional friendship around the welfare of animals.” The annual effort surrounds the search for forever homes for the countless cats and dogs residing in New York City shelters. Broadway Barks has become a staple platform for rescue efforts as described by Bill, “The original mission was to give every animal shelter in New York City, regardless of financial status, equal publicity time so they can showcase their animals.” Amidst the hype, each shelter shines to promote the adoption of their pets. Armed with a cast of Broadway’s best, the annual showcase has gone above and beyond to publicize rescue adoptions and animal welfare.
For Bill, one of the most rewarding aspects of his career is interacting with rescue animals full time, “Animal lovers can appreciate the benefit we get from our pets.” Outside New York City, Bill finds recluse alongside his wife, daughter, and his extended family of retired dog actors. The Berlonis’ Connecticut farm is currently home to over thirty pups and can be described as an isolated metropolis of “crazy wonderful creatures”. Amid the chaos, Bill and his wife find time to orchestrate new theatrical projects. Together, they will notably deliver the first musical to star a dog, Because of Winn-Dixie. It is his innovatively humane training process for the canine stars, which has allowed Broadway to further explore animal roles. It is clear with the success of preceding productions, that dog actors leave audiences smitten.