Ogunquit Tails: Legally Blonde "Goes to the Dogs!"
Where do you turn when you need a dog for a stage performance? Well today it is common knowledge that you call Bill Berloni, the leading trainer for stage animals. However, in 1976 when Bill Berloni was a 19 year old apprentice at the Goodspeed Opera House, he asked himself that very same question when he was faced with the challenge of finding and training a dog for a show. And what seemed at the time to be a short-term fluke, ended up being the experience of a lifetime, one that changed the path of his life and career forever.
Bill Berloni could not have foreseen the change his life was going to take when the producer from the Goodspeed Opera House offered him a part in his upcoming musical and his Equity card in exchange for finding a dog and training it to play Sandy in the pre-Broadway production of Annie – all without spending any money! At the time Bill’s ambition was to perform as an actor and he was eagerly seeking his Equity card. He thought the producer selected him for this task because he recognized a talent Bill had yet to recognize in himself, but the truth of the matter was that everyone else who had been approached refused, thinking it was impossible. Bill on the other hand, had never trained a dog before and did not know anything about training a performing dog, but, he wanted his Equity card and he wanted to be in the show, so he accepted the challenge.
The budget was another challenge. He was given $35 for the dog and all food it would need for the summer. He set off searching for the perfect dog in animal shelters. He was horrified to see the conditions stray dogs and cats were living under and vowed to only adopt abandoned animals in the future and began a life-long commitment to bringing attention to the needs for adopting shelter animals. After a lengthy search Bill found his Sandy,
The first time I saw him, he was sitting in the shadows, not barking or jumping. … When I stopped and knelt down, he slowly turned his head over his shoulder and looked at me with the biggest, saddest brown eyes I had ever seen. The card on the front of the cage said simply: 1½ YEARS OLD, MALE, STRAY, NO NAME. I stuck out my hand and called, “It’s okay, boy. Come here . . . come here.” He looked at me with those sad eyes for what seemed like the longest time. Then he crept over to me, lay down on the floor, and let me pet him. I smiled and told him everything was going to be okay.*
Bill bought Sandy for $7. Sandy became theatre’s most famous dog.
Since animals had been trained for television and film for decades, Bill thought training Sandy for the stage would be easy. He soon realized that animals trained for movies or tv had many chances to get a scene right. Animals on stage, just like the actors, could not rely on multiple takes to perfect a performance, they had to do it eight shows a week, and in addition, had to be trained to ignore the many distractions on stage and from an audience. This had never been done before. So, Bill spent the summer using positive reinforcement and conditioning while teaching the dog the theatre was his home and the cast his family. Through this first experience Bill Berloni developed his revolutionary humane training techniques. Annie went on to become a huge success on Broadway and Sandy “the longest running dog on Broadway,” never missing a performance in seven years. Bill Berloni has since trained about 200 animals and each one has been a rescue or shelter dog.
For the Ogunquit Playhouse production of Legally Blonde, Chloe the bulldog and Frankie the Chihuahua have been cast as Rufus and Bruiser. Chloe was in the original Broadway production of Legally Blonde. Frankie toured with Becki Gulsvig in the Broadway tour and is reunited with her for the Ogunquit production. Becky claimed that she and Frankie have a special bond and requested him for the role he will reprise!
Today Bill Berloni, in addition to being the go-to guy for performing animals, is recognized as an animal behavior expert who always rescues animals from shelters for Broadway, television, film and commercials. When the animals retire, they live on Bill’s Connecticut farm. Bill is the Director of Animal Behavior for the Humane Society of New York, author of the book “Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars” and received a Special Tony this past June for Excellence in Theatre.
*Excerpt from the book, Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars