Tonight’s Tony Awards telecast will be eye and ear candy for fans of the New York theater. But even if Broadway show business isn’t your thing, there’s one feature of tonight’s program that’s sure to appeal to Dogsters. In a historic first, the prestigious Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater will be awarded to … a dog trainer.
William Berloni – Bill to his friends – is the founder of William Berloni Theatrical Animals and director of animal behavior at the Humane Society of New York. His specialty is discovering K9 stage stars at animal shelters, then prepping them for a run on the Great White Way.
He’s so modest, and he makes it look easy, but it’s a lot harder than it sounds, as Bill’s memoir “Broadway Tails,” explains. Dog trainers who work in movies have the luxury of re-takes. Dogs who perform in live stage productions only get one shot at stardom: You mess up on stage, your career is over. Berloni’s dogs never mess up. They are the creme de la creme of K9 talent – true professionals who work hard to earn every ovation they get. And to get his dogs to achieve their best, Bill uses only positive, gentle training methods.
The story of how Bill secured his unique niche in dog training reads like a Broadway-bound play itself. Back in 1976, director Martin Charnin was getting ready for the opening of a musical based on a popular comic strip about an orphan girl and her best friend, a sandy-haired mutt. Charnin charged Bill, then a19-year-old aspiringactor, with securing a dog for the production, and trainingtheK9to do tricks on cue.
Bill, who had loved and worked with dogs since childhood, was happy to volunteer as the trainer in exchange for his actor’s card. After visiting various animal shelters in his home state of Connecticut, he discovered the perfect dog to play Sandy. A dog star was born. Sandy the muttcharmed and delighted fans of the musical “Annie,” on and off the stage.
As everyone knows, the musical “Annie” became a blockbuster. Berloni’s professional destiny was sealed. He wouldn’t act after all; instead, he’d be the force behind Broadway’sfabulous, four-footed stage performers, motivating and guiding his proteges all the way to superstar status.
Today, Bill has a stable of some 30 Sandy mutts, all veterans of various “Annie” revivals, and all adopted from animal shelters (that’s one of them in the photo above, taken at last year’s Tonys). He works with many other breeds and mixes as well, from pit bulls to poodles (like the toy poodle he trained for “Gypsy,” starring Bernadette Peters). Remember Chico, the famous Chihuahua who starred as Bruiser in the Broadway blockbuster “Legally Blonde”? He’s a Berloni discovery, as is Toto in Broadway’s “The Wizard of Oz” and Pi the Boston Terrier, the sweet scene-stealer in Susan Stroman’s “Double Feature” for the New York City Ballet.
He’s soft-spoken and modest, but Bill is a legend – and other legends have tipped their hats to him. Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles of “Grey Gardens” and “Gimme Shelter” fame has a doc in the works about Berloni; famed photographer Elliott Erwitt shot an iconic image of Berloni and Sandy sitting on a park bench; director Mike Nichols tapped Berloni to train the animals (two dogs plus a cat) for the Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
But the thing we love most about Bill Berloni is this: He’s steadfast in his loyalty to shelter animals, and remains dedicated to raising awareness of the heartbreaking numbers of dogs in animal shelters across the country whose talents too often go unnoticed. He always gently urges everyone he meets to try following his proven m.o. for success: Find and adopt pets from animal shelters. Whether they perform on Broadway or just do tricks for you and your family, those dogs are the ones with star quality to spare.
Bravo, Bill -Dogsters will be cheering as you pick up your richly deserved award tonight. Knock ’em dead!