Bill Berloni is the man behind some of Broadway’s biggest stars — the non-human ones. From Sandy in “Annie” to “Bruiser Woods” in “Legally Blonde,” he has trained the animals in some of the biggest theatrical productions. I spoke to him in Washington D.C. where his two “Toto” dogs are on tour with “The Wizard of Oz.”
How many Totos are there?
There is one dog named Princess, eight years old, and another as her understudy. The one we use is the more energetic of the two. “Wizard” is one of those shows that happens all the time so we always have a pair of Toto dogs ready. This is a major national tour, three years long. Princess will probably do two.
How long has Princess been performing?
If you asked me how long I was married I’d be off but I can remember the answer to that one — seven years three months, performing as Toto for five. We started training her as an understudy until around age five and then she was mature enough.
Is there a particular scene that was especially challenging for Princess?
To me the most important iconic moment of the play is when Dorothy says, “There is such a place, Toto?” and then goes into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” If Toto’s scratching or does something to distract the audience, it’s a problem. We train them to focus on Dorothy and not move. You have to make sure the dog has the right temperament for performing. You can take a calm dog and teach them to walk across a stage but you can’t take an excitable dog and get her to stay still. They have to be able to deal with stress and be calm which for a terrier breed is tough. Staying perfectly still for “Over the Rainbow” is the hardest, then going through smoke and haze to get to the curtain. Her favorite trick is to find Dr. Marvel — she gets to eat the hot dog at the end of his stick!
In a show like this one with so many special effects, how do you protect the dog and prevent her from getting distracted?
I can manipulate the special effects so the speakers are away from the stage. The audience hears thunder but she is behind them, where it is not loud. We cover her eyes during the pyrotechnic effects and explosions. We go to great lengths to protect the dog rather than getting her used to it. For her a flying monkey is no different from a flying pigeon. The fog is co2, dry ice. It’s just a cooling mist. So those things do not bother the dogs. That’s my job — to say, “You can do that to humans but not my dog.” Toto is not always in the shot in a movie but in the play he is supposed to be with Dorothy all the time. But you think he’s on stage a lot more than he is.
How did you get started?
It’s a “right place at the right time” story. I wanted to be an actor and was building sets at the Goodspeed Opera House. They needed a dog for a new show and everyone else threatened to quit if they had to train the dog. But they offered me a part and an equity card if I would find and train a dog. My gullibility and the chance to get on stage are the reason I accepted. I found a dog at a shelter and the show was “Annie,” with Sandy the first real theatrical performance part for a dog in a major show, where the action depended on the dog and he was more than a prop. Mike Nichols’ office called and said they were doing it for Broadway. He is the best — loyal, intelligent, courageous, admits when he makes a mistake and expects everyone to be the same. The show opened at the Kennedy Center and I became a famous animal trainer.
Did you have pets growing up and did you train them?
Our pets did things because they loved us, not because we trained them. I learned I could achieve repetitive behavior without negative reinforcement.
Do you have to train the actors as well as the animals?
I’m in the wings so I have to make sure the actors know how to do whatever the animal needs. Going back to “Annie,” I said to Andrea McArdle, “You have to pretend like he’s your dog.” We have to train the actors to be as adept trainers as I am. It is much more challenging with adults. Some don’t like dogs or are allergic and that becomes my problem, showing them how to work with the animals so they fulfill those commands with respect and love. Cassie Okenka (Dorothy) is the real deal, not jaded, hard-working loves dogs, and she can sing.
We have a handler at every performance. We take the concept from the director and then can put a handler in. We’re always educating the directors and the smart ones listen. But some will give the actors six weeks to get it right and give the dog seven days. They won’t think about what the special effect will be and how the dog will respond to it.
What kinds of animal performances in movies do you like?
I am not fond of movies that make dogs talk with CGI and anthropomorphize them too much. I enjoy films where they get to act like dogs. “As Good as It Gets” was a good one.
And now the big question — what kind of dog should the Obamas get?
I am a huge shelter animal advocate and a humane society volunteer. Their decision to get a shelter dog would be the biggest thing in animal shelter I could remember. Every animal shelter is holding their breath. But they need a perfect dog, a theater dog. They need to be there and bond with the dog. But this dog will need to be a performer. I can find Broadway stars in a shelter. Through no fault of its own it has ended up homeless, nothing wrong with it. I don’t take abused animals. But I take abandoned animals.
This is my secret. You go into a shelter and walk down the row of cages. One is screaming at you, “Let me out! Let me out!” One shivering in the back. Don’t take either one of those. Take the one in the middle, the one who is hanging and dealing. It is such a stressful place for an animal, any dog who can deal with it can deal with a lot of stress. Throw a leash on it and take it home. Leave the others to people with training experience.