Meet the Man Who Trained the Four-Legged Star of Annie
“I’ve seen more young actresses who play Annie pee on stage than dogs who pee on stage.”
That’s William Berloni‘s answer when I ask him the question everyone wants to know: How does the Tony Award-winning theatrical animal trainer control his loving, furry crew from having an accident while performing on Broadway?
“Honestly, if [Annie] hasn’t taken a break to pee, that poor thing will explode when she’s in that red dress at the end of the show.”
Berloni knows Annie all too well: The show is how he got his start back when he was 19. Back then, the original production was being staged at the Goodspeed Opera House, and Berloni, a young actor who was training at the Stella Adler Conservatory in New York, thought he got his big break. He was offered an acting gig, if he could train the dog who would play Sandy in Annie.
“The producer needed a sucker. He needed someone to train this dog,” Berloni explained. “The only thing I wanted to do was act. At 19, I thought I had been discovered like Marilyn Monroe.”
Berloni, who’s only real practical experience with animals before that point was growing up on a farm as a single child with a dog, a cat, and a bunny, took the task at hand. Since then, he has handled and trained the dogs used in every single Broadway incarnation of the show, including Annie 2 and Annie Warbucks, plus most recently provided the Sandy for the re-boot of the Annie film.
“I have never stopped making a living from this show,” he said. “We have five ‘Sandies’ and they are working all the time.”
Of course, Annie isn’t the only show on Berloni’s resume: The night we chatted, he was putting the finishing touches on the new Broadway production of The Audience starring Helen Mirren, which features two Corgis. He’s also trained the animals for Broadway’s Legally Blonde, Gypsy with Bernadette Peters, The Wizard of Oz, and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. His animals have also been featured on the screen as well: Hope Springs, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Producers, and Sesame Street have all been graced by Berloni’s pups.
Part of the overwhelming reason for Berloni’s success comes from the way he trains his animals: a positive reinforcement technique, a concept that was somewhat groundbreaking in the 1970s when he started.
“I never looked at animals as things we dominate or things we control,” he said. “I’d rather ask, ‘How do I make it so you can do something for me?'”
The other part of Berloni’s good will toward his fellow pups is the fact that he uses shelter and rescue animals for his projects, and has traveled as far as Salt Lake City from his Connecticut home to find the perfect match for a production.
“There’s just so many [shelter dogs], and the misconception that there’s something wrong with shelter animals is just wrong. We can go on the internet and find candidates in a day,” he said. “We look for dogs who can deal with a certain amount of stress. If you take a Golden Retriever and you bring them to a civic arena, they freak out. You take a dog that’s been dumped on the side of the road and brought to an animal shelter, chances are it deals well with stress.”
Berloni and his staff also make sure stress is minimal for his touring animals: Macy, who is the dog coming to Philly in the Annie tour, is driven from city to city during the engagement, so there are no planes. They try to find hotels next to parks, so walks and exercise aren’t a problem. And, again, the fact that Macy, like the rest of Berloni’s dogs, were once rescue animals, helps things a bit.
“Once you’ve been abandoned, it’s easy to be nomadic,” he explained. “Our dogs come to us ready to travel.”
And once they’ve done their travel, or taken bows next to Helen Mirren, the pups arrive home to Berloni’s 90-acre farm in Connecticut, where they can roam his large home and estate.
“We work with them and they become our family,” he explained. “It doesn’t dawn on us to liquidate them when the show is over.”
In the end, it really is similar to the tale of Annie: For Berloni, it is all about heart for man’s best friend.
“When we bring them home and rehabilitate them and they trust us, they become so loyal. How can you turn your back on them?” he asked. “They have the ability to make us laugh, to make us cry, to produce a lot of dog poop. It’s honestly really easy to love them.”
You can catch Macy in Annie at the Academy of Music from March 17-22. For tickets and more information, click here.