Bill Berloni was going to be an actor. In 1976, he was offered a big break: find a sandy dog to play opposite Annie in a Broadway musical, train it and you'll get a part, too.
He went to an animal shelter, found the requested dog "of indistinguishable breed" and self-taught himself to train it. Thirty-five years later and after ditching the acting career, Berloni is the go-to guy for getting a dog to perform on cue in movies and -- even more impressively -- live in theaters across the country. He's even written a book about it: Broadway Tails.
His latest version of Sandy (real name: Macy) will be in Houston as part of Theatre Under the Stars' upcoming production of Annie at the Hobby Center. Playing the title character and lead human will be Sadie Sink of Brenham, who is also a student at TUTS' Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, as are most of her fellow orphans in the show.
All these years later, Berloni still believes mutts are the best. "A purebred dog was bred to do one thing well. The mixed breeds are more balanced." And he still goes to animal shelters to find his canine actors.
"I temperament-test them to make sure they're not aggressive in any way," he said. "The first week or two we let them be free and have fun, then slowly start teaching them; they have to start listening to humans. Most dogs are not raised to be trained and they're kind of independent. You've got to start listening to humans because if you do, it's a lot of fun because you get love and attention."
Berloni said any negative technique just wouldn't work with what he's asking these animals to do.
"You can't use intimidation or fear and then send the dog on the stage. Because the minute it gets out there, it's going to run away," he said.
As much as he screens the animals he works with, sometimes things don't work out and some of those times it's not anyone's fault, Berloni said. "Sometimes we discover that after a couple years of performing, they're not having fun anymore and then we retire them.
"I could have a dog revved up to go on stage, and in tech rehearsals a piece of scenery will fall and scare it and it will never go back to the stage. A year's worth of work will go down the drain."
And sometimes there's absolutely nothing wrong with the dog, but a production signs on an actor who may not like dogs or is allergic to them, he said. "You would think that any project that's doing Annie would hire a child who's not afraid of dogs or allergic. I would say 20 per cent of the time I will get to a rehearsal situation where everybody's contract is signed and the actor has some problem with the animal.
"Then the director turns to me and goes: 'What are you going to do about it?' " he said. "When my whole method of training is about the dog wanting to go to the person and the person wanting him to come to him, it sort of falls apart, especially when someone's allergic and they can't take steroids or cortizone because it will dry out their chords."
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"Even my dear friend Bernadette Peters; I've worked with her for years. She got cast in Gypsy. I rescued a little Yorkie. She whispers in my ears -- now she's got two dogs of her own -- 'I'm really allergic to dogs.' I walked her over to the producers, 'Do you know she's allergic to dogs? 'Because I didn't want to be blamed for Bernadette Peter's voice being scratchy. And the producers had to pay me another finder's fee to find a poodle that looked like a Yorkie."
Asked how he makes sure that his animal performers don't go to the bathroom onstage, Berloni replied: "What mother or parent would not make sure their children were comfortable? Part of our job -- again, we want the stage to be a pleasant experience -- we make sure they're empty before they go out to perform.
"In 35 years we've never had an accident onstage, and you can quote me on the fact that I've had two Annies urinate onstage in my career, one on Broadway."
Annie runs March 20 to April 1 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For ticket information, call 713-558-8887 or go to TUTS.com.