Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Broadway animal trainer Bill Berloni and his sidekick Chico charm Horizons Town Talk

by Janet I. Martineau
A snippy, nippy Broadway actor with an attitude  took the stage Tuesday for the final program of the 2011-2012 Horizons Town Talk series at the Horizons Conference Center.
And the audience fell in love with him -- lining up after in the lobby to softly and carefully stroke his sandy-colored hair. But only two strokes per person please.
Remember the warning to actors to never to share the stage with children or animals, because they are scene stealers.
Bill Berloni and Chico at Horizons
Such was the case when dog trainer Bill Berloni brought Chico the chubby chihuahua mix along for his program titled “Making Stars Out of Strays.”
“I had to teach him to shut up because he talks (barks) all the time,” said Berloni of Chico, who had a starring role in “Legally Blonde: the Musical.” 

Now 7, the canine spent two years on Broadway with the show, two years touring with the show “and now he is my demo dog for my speaking engagements.”
Not bad for a two-year-old abused pup Berloni adopted from the Associated Humane Society of Newark, N.J.; whose aggressive behavior terrified the staff there; who bit Berloni on his second visit. The first day, when Berloni took Chico out for a trial walk, the pooch chomped down on a truck tire when its engine startled him.
“It took years of rehabilitation to get him this far, to trust, and two years to get him ready for the show (and he did have speaking lines in it). 

"Strangers still cannot come up to him and reach out to pet him. He is likely to bite them. But give him a treat when you reach out and you can pet him twice. Then comes the bark, and back off because he might bite next.”
But a bonafide ham Chico is. Resting in a carry on case as Berloni spoke, when the audience applauded two or three times at something Berloni said, Chico jumped out of the case and onto the floor, as if taking a curtain call bow.
Berloni has worked as an animal trainer for 35 years now; domesticated animals only for 23 Broadway shows in all; always strays or shelter animals. Last year he won a Tony for his efforts.
Not bad for a shy, nerdy, socially inept only child who grew up on a farm in Connecticut. Before he even went to school, he realized he could interact with animals better than people. He had a Collie, a cat and a rabbit back then.
In high school he found the drama club a safe place “because we said other people’s lines, funny and intelligent lines, and no one talked back at us.”
So he decided to pursue an acting career, he said. In the summer he helped build sets at this place called the Goodspeed Opera House. In 1976, when he was 18, the producer of a musical debuting there said one day, “How would you like a part in this show. All you have to do is find and train a dog for it.”
Thrilled this might be his acting break, but given no money to buy a dog, Berloni  got the idea to visit dog pounds; to “audition” dogs there  and take pictures with a Polaroid to show the producer. 
On his last stop one day, one little dog out of 100 was not barking and came running over when Berloni knelt down. He was told the abused dog was due to be killed the next day. He had $3; they wanted $7. His roommate gave him $4 at midnight and at the crack of dawn Berloni was back at the Connecticut Humane Society to buy the dog whether or not the producer liked it.
“I was given $35 for the summer to feed and train it.”
The musical? “Annie.” The dog’s name in the show? Sandy.
“Up until ‘Annie,’ a live dog had never played a character onstage. In movies yes, where the trainer could be calling the commands right next to the animal but out of camera range. A dog had never been live in a theater, with the need to get it right every night in front of thousands of people with the trainer nowhere in sight.”
So with absolutely no training in animal behavior or other theatrical dog trainers to study, Berloni “gave the dog a bath, and then it hung out in the scenic shop where I worked and gradually with the cast.”
Knowing the young actress playing the lead role would have to eventually give the dog its onstage commands, “I Iet them be kids early on and play together. A dog’s  link to and trust of an actor is key. I  also used, always, positive reinforcement; food and love. And if they think the ‘trick’ is their idea, they will do it.
“Then they told me Sandy needed an understudy. When the show became a hit, there was at one time five road companies so I had to train 10 more dogs....and by age 20 I became a famous animal trainer. By my fourth Broadway show I realized I was more talented as a trainer than an actor. And I loved rescuing animals.”
That original Sandy in “Annie,” by the way, worked the show for eight years,
Berloni, his wife and their 14-year-old daughter now live on a 90-acre Connecticut property housing 25 dogs (in training, working and in retirement), four horses, two lamas, a donkey, a pony, four chickens, two cats and a macaw. And yes, all the dogs live inside the home’s “dog wings.”
Among the show credits -- ‘Wizard of Oz,” “Camelot” as well as “Annie” and Blonde.” 
“Many of my dogs have played TheDow in Saginaw.” He employs “handlers”  to tour with them, and to be at every show with them In New York. “It’s a 24 hour job. We have to keep their training up and follow through with everything. In fact one of the people working for me is (former Saginawian) Dustin Harder.”
His critters also do commercials, print jobs, some movies “and I am not done learning. Every animal teaches me something new.” His book “Broadway Tails” tells his story as well as the stories of the abandoned and abused animals he has trained for the 23 Broadway show thus far.
Cats are tricky to train for a show. “I look for a cat that thinks it’s a dog.” So are terriers. “They test me all the time. They take advantage of your weaknesses."

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