Q&A: Bill Berloni
Starting with finding and training the original Sandy in Annie, theatrical animal trainer and self-proclaimed "Connecticut boy" (born and raised in Berlin, resides in Haddam) Bill Berloni chronicles his amazing 30-year career in his new book Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Become Showbiz Superstars. Here is the continuation of our Q&A, which appears in the June issue.
Berloni is a true animal advocate: Every animal he's trained has been rescued from a shelter and after a show, he's either found a home for it or it moves in with him and his family. Twenty percent of the book's proceeds go to the Humane Society.
To purchase Broadway Tails, click here.
Q. How was the experience writing the book?
A. Hair-raising! I'm not an author. I had been floating this idea around for years and while I had a lot of interest from the big publishers-they all laughed at the stories-but they said, "Great stories, but Broadway won't sell books." So I had actually shelved the idea, but then last year, CBS' morning show did an interview with me and The Lyons Press saw it, called me and said, "We want to do a book about you." They gave me permission to write the book I wanted to and not a, you know, celebrity tell-all book or whatever. I'm very excited about it.
It's very hard to look back and recount one's career. It's a lot harder than you think! After interviewing many co-authors, my wife finally said, "Well, you know, my brother is a closet novelist." And I went, "What?" So I had the pleasure of writing it with my brother-in-law [Jim Hanrahan], which was a great experience. He's a wonderful writer, and I think caught my voice and the intent of all my stories.
Q. How did you get started?
A. In a nutshell? Graduated Berlin High School, wanted to be an actor and couldn't afford to go to New York. My parents could only afford Central Connecticut. I enrolled in the theater program there but during the summers, I decided I wanted to be around real actors, so I applied for the technical apprenticeship at the Goodspeed Opera House because Goodspeed has been a leader in American musical theater. I thought, "I'll build scenery for free just for the chance to watch and meet these actors."
In the summer of '76, my second summer as an apprentice, they did two revivals and a new show, and that show required a dog. After they booked it, they checked into how much a dog trainer would cost, and they couldn't afford one, so Michael Price, who is still the executive director there, put the word out to the paid stagehands that someone had to train a dog and they all threatened to quit if they had to do that, so he needed a sucker. He called me into his office, and I thought I was going to be fired or something, and he said, "How would you like a part in one of the shows, and your equity card?" which is your union card.
Now, I'm an 18-year-old kid in the midst of professional actors and the producer is giving me a chance, and I'm thinking, "He's recognized my talent from the way I move scenery!" And he said, "All you have to do is find and train a dog for us. For no money." At the time, I thought it was a little strange, but I was new to the theater thing, so I thought, "Well, maybe that's how you get ahead." Someone said to him that you could get cheap dogs at the pound. The first day I went looking, the last dog I saw was a dog I thought might work, and that was the original Sandy, and it was the original production of Annie.
I trained Sandy the best I could. The show did not do well there but I saved enough money to go to New York University and study with the legendary actress Stella Adler from the Group Theater, so at the end of the summer of '76, Sandy and I moved to New York City as a starving actor and his dog, and two months later Mike Nichols office called. They were producing Annie for Broadway with the original cast and were wondering if I would be interested.
So now, I'm 19 and I have a chance to work with Mike Nichols on Broadway, so I said, "Sure, I'll be a dog trainer." We went to Washington for out-of-town tryouts, and in April of 1977, Annie opened on Broadway and at the age of 20, I became a famous animal trainer.
That's how it started, and it took me three or four years to realize that was what I was good at, as opposed to acting. And I'm glad I did. I've been rescuing animals and working in theater ever since.
Q. I know the story is more detailed in the book, including your interaction with Norma Terris.
A. She was alive in the '70s, and she was retired. She had been in the original production of Showboat, among others. And she was an animal advocate and she ran a conservatory for animals. You know, I was a poor kid from New Britain, so her advice and encouragement was just so wise. Literally, when I moved to New York, I had no money, so she would send me money for dog food for Sandy.
Q. Was there a moment when you realized that you weren't going to be an actor but an animal trainer instead?
A. What happened was that I knew I was untrained, and when I came into New York, I really started seeing what the talent was like in my age group. But for the first few years of Annie, I was still taking dance lessons with Peter Genaro, I was taking singing lessons, you know. And at night being a dog trainer. Then I did a national tour of Annie, and then they asked me to do the Richard Burton revival of Camelot.
And when I did Camelot and looked around, both at Richard Burton and the other actors, I went, "I'm not THAT good." It was probably three years into it that I went "All right, you know." And it wasn't a disappointment as much as by then I was into my third Broadway show, so I was working on Broadway, and that's really what I wanted to. So about three years into it all that I realized that I was not meant to be an actor.
Q. How many people work with you?
A. My job is setting up the shows, finding the animals, working with the creators, doing the rehearsal, designing the behaviors and making sure they work. Then again, it does take some finessing with a show before an animal settles in. My choice was to follow my conscience, not my career. I chose not to go to Hollywood, not to work in that arena. We're just average Connecticut folk.
So for every show we have, we have handlers. Right now, we have four handlers working for us and we're looking for four more for the fall. It varies with the number of shows we have.Q&A: Bill Berloni