Connecticut is no place for a dog in August—unless, of course, there's a prop truck to duck under, away from the sucky heat. The problem is that a prop truck's underside is also no place for a dog in August, particularly when the driver doesn't know the animal's fallen asleep. The odds for death or serious injury increase markedly, as in the case of Sandy the mutt, who 32 summers ago escaped a grisly fate with a dislocated leg and, theoretically, an unsightly tire-tread tattoo.
But Sandy's loyalties lay with the people who loved him best, whose wholesale kindnesses trumped his memories of abuse and his detention at an animal shelter. His reward would come before 400 strangers on Aug. 10, 1976, at East Haddam, Conn.'s Goodspeed Opera House. He'd snag every last mind and heart, gimp and all, as he expertly colored a little girl's tale of hurt and hope.
And the musical-theater history he'd help shape was mere months away.
Annie, the story of an 11-year-old mop-top's unshakable belief that her real parents will pluck her from an oppressive orphanage, would open on Broadway the following April and win seven 1977 Tonys, most for a single show to that point. And maybe Bill Berloni, Sandy's trainer and executive director of William Berloni's Theatrical Animals, shudders to think how that coup might have been altered had Sandy, Orphan Annie's companion, bought the farm the year before. If he does, his sentiments aren't with the Tonys so much as with his friend, which he bought from the Connecticut Humane Society for $8 one day before the latter's scheduled euthanasia.
Sandy, a mixed-breed beige terrier, would miss only 14 of Annie's 2,377 performances before the original show closed in 1983. He died at age 16 in 1990.
Berloni, 51, acquires every last one of his animals from shelters, often holding open-workshop castings from shelters across New York City. He's worked with tons of Sandys in Annie reunion shows and touring productions (including the one that opens Jan. 9 at Downtown's Civic Theatre); he's trained dozens of canine actors and other animals for The Wizard of Oz, Awake and Sing!, Oliver!, Legally Blonde: The Musical, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang and perilously close to 700,000 other pieces.
He's met with uncommon success, he says, amid one simple element—the level playing field he creates for his protégés. No dog-whispering here; no fancy-pants coursework or instruction books or DVDs or unswerving discipleship to the Hollywood animal trainers that came before. His only postsecondary schooling yielded a bachelor's degree in theater from Central Connecticut State University.
“I'm just a guy with a buncha dogs,” Berloni told CityBeat from his Connecticut farm, where he keeps about 20 of them at a time. “I create situations based not on how I can make you do what I want you to do, but, rather, how to create a situation where you'll do the thing I need you to do. I don't want to learn from humans. I let the animals teach me. Choosing an animal that lends itself to enjoying this work and then creating situations where it wants to work every night: That's the secret.”
It all may have had its genesis in a can opener. One sound from its metal-scarfing gears, and Berloni's boyhood dog would come running to dinner—a repetitive behavior Berloni would exploit for the stage through the invention of countless one-on-one games in which both dog and trainer are required to respond. “Once you clarify what it is you want them to do and they know you're talking to them, then it's just a matter of making sure the reward's good enough,” Berloni explained.
Berloni, author of Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars, noted that the theater sometimes harbors the neglect that can color mainstream attitudes toward pet ownership.
“Believe it or not,” he said, “there isn't a whole lot of difference between the disdain I see in people [who abandon their pets] and the producers who are putting finances over the health and well-being of living creatures. But the more you stand up and make noise, the less you work.”
On the other hand, Berloni is the only one around who does what he does—“and after 32 years, I can make a little more noise than I used to.” The result, he said, is sometimes the difference between life and death for an otherwise unheralded creature.
Consider Cindy Lou, saddled with a three-quarter-inch scar around her neck from a years-long ordeal with an embedded collar. Berloni intervened and saved her—and Cindy Lou got her second wind as yet another Sandy in Annie Warbucks, the original play's sequel, which opened in 1993.
Cindy Lou paid the price for her reprieve simply by enjoying it, taking to the stage with the same persistence and anticipation as her gimpy archetype. The show must go on, after all—and when there's a herkin' T-bone with your name on it waiting in the wings, it probably will. Annie runs Jan. 9-11 at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third St., Downtown. $31-$309. 619-570-1100 or www.broadwaysd.com.Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.