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Tony Treat for Dog Trainer

Bill Berloni wins special award for animals on Broadway

Bill Berloni at the Tony Awards with Oliver

It began with Sandy, the dog who would become a star in the original production of Annie in 1976. Last night, at the Tony Awards, Bill Berloni received a special honor for his work training animals for their roles in the theater.

Berloni was a struggling young actor with the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut when he was promised a part in one of the productions if he could find a dog who could fill the role of Sandy in Annie.

At a local shelter, he found a scruffy mutt who was scheduled to be killed the following day. The adoption fee was $7. Berloni only had $3 on him, but he came back with $4 more the next day, just in time to claim the dog.

“I remember being horrified at what I saw. It started to dawn on me that animals weren’t being treated properly.”

It was the beginning of a career – for both man and dog. And as far as Berloni is concerned, all credit for his success in that career goes to the animals.

“It’s not hard to be excellent when I work with those who have an absolute absence of malice, are forgiving and enjoy working in the moment,” he said.

Sandy became a star, and was signed up, again and again, for revivals of Annie. And Berloni has partnered with more than 200 other animals for their roles in show business.

Every one of the animals comes from a shelter or rescue organization. “The sad thing is that we never have a hard time finding dogs,” he said, referring to the number of homeless pets in shelters.

Berloni works closely with the Humane Society of New York, for which he has raised thousands of dollars through his Sandy Fund. His primary concern is always the animals, and he hopes that the Tony Award will encourage better treatment of animals in entertainment.

“There is a frustration in educating people that animals are sentient beings,” he said. “There are no laws to protect animals in the entertainment industry. All my life it has been about advocating for animals. It has been a constant uphill battle.”

It’s a refreshing comment, given the ongoing stories of abuse of animals in Hollywood productions, circuses and other forms of entertainment.

“The greatest thing I’ve learned is not about dominance and control, but about the process of cooperation,” he said. “I try to apply all those lessons from working with animals in my daily life.”

Every animal Berloni works with is a lifelong commitment. They all have a permanent home on his farm in Higganum, Connecticut. Right now, that includes 19 dogs (11 of whom are retired), along with cats, horses, a donkey, a llama, a macaw and some chicks.

Some of the hundreds of productions Berloni and his animals have worked in include Legally Blonde, Anything Goes (the 1981 production), The Wiz, Oliver and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He’s also done dozens of TV commercials and shows, and about a dozen movies, including The Producers and Charlie Wilson’s War.

He’s also written a book: Broadway Tails, about his experiences.

Among his training tips:

TV is easier than stage. That’s because you can control the background noise on a TV set, but you have to be sure the animals won’t be distracted by shouts and squeals in a theater. Berloni gets them used to it by playing them recordings of noisy audiences.

If they are happy, they will perform. “I just ask for conditions that will make them happy.”

Always have an understudy available – just in case.

Like any actor, the animals get a bit lazy from time to time. So always have extra treats ready.

What do you say? Have you seen any of the productions that feature Bill Berloni’s animals? Let us know in a comment below or on Facebook.

What you can do: Bill Berloni works closely with the Humane Society of New York, which you can support here.