Rescue dogs

CT man recounts ‘tail’ of rescue dog training for Hollywood and Broadway

Widely known in the film and theater industry, Bill Berloni is the guy who can get the dog right on the first take. He originally wanted to be an actor and accidentally launched his career as an animal trainer at the age of 19 and moved sets for the original production of ‘Annie,’ which had its off-Broadway debut at the Goodspeed. East Haddam’s Opera House in 1976. .

Since then, Berloni has rescued and trained over 200 animals and established a renowned company, William Berloni Theatrical Animals, whose motto is “Providing Humanely Trained Animals for All Media”. And nearly every animal he trained ends up living on the 90-acre Haddam farm he shares with his wife, Dorothy.

Q. You had no intention of becoming an animal trainer.

A. Not at all. After Annie premiered at Goodspeed, I moved to New York and was enrolled in NYU in their theater program. It was during that year, my freshman year, they said they were doing the show on Broadway and I would be interested? I thought, well, I could use some money from college, I’ll do it again, never thinking that when the show becomes a huge hit, I’ll become a world-famous animal trainer at the 20 years old.

When you rescued and trained a dog as Sandy for “Annie,” was that groundbreaking?

The thing about “Annie” is that in the live theatrical production, there had never been a dog playing a character that the action of the play depended on. If you think about it, other plays like ‘Anything Goes’, ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Oliver’, you can do those musicals without the animals that were written as props, but you can’t do ‘Annie’ without Sandy . The idea was that you can’t rely on an animal to do the same thing eight times a week in front of an audience. Well nobody told me and nobody told me [director] Martin Charnin that, so what I created at the time was unique. There was a character on stage and other Broadway producers and directors started calling me to replicate that so what I came up with was this way of presenting animals in a live theater that nobody else had.

Q. You have decided not to move to Hollywood but to center your operations in Connecticut.

A. One of the reasons I didn’t want to move to Hollywood was that although Sandy was treated very well, I soon discovered that animals in the performing arts weren’t treated well. There were no laws protecting animals and no unions protecting animals or animal handlers. This kind of lack of control was pretty dominant in Hollywood, whereas on Broadway, being the only one doing it, I could set standards for the performing animals I worked with, way ahead of the industry. I treat my animals as I would want my wife or daughter to be treated in this business. There might have been more money, but it would have been a higher personal cost, I believe.

Q. How has the pandemic shutdown affected your business?

A. Well, when you have 40 mouths to feed, there is no saving on that or veterinary care. I have a consulting job. I was director of animal behavior for the Humane Society of New York for the past 30 years, so that job was able to pay for the mortgage, groceries, taxes, and all that kind of stuff. In September 2020, nearly six months into the pandemic, New York City resumed issuing filming permits with films that had very strict COVID procedures, so we got back to work. Over the past 10 years most of my work has come from film and television now, much less from theatre. We were able to slowly get back on our feet and I would say now we are doing more shows than before the pandemic.

Q. What’s it like working on set now in this pandemic era?

A. With the COVID protocols, I have to say that I feel very safe in this industry. Tests, vaccinations and social distancing from different work areas are still in effect so I feel very safe. But it’s about 20% of the budget now, so a lot of these projects are looking for cheaper ways to film. Interestingly, Connecticut had refrained from passing the movie tax credits that Massachusetts and Rhode Island have and this year it passed them. Just last year I got to do two Hallmark movies and one Netflix movie right here in Connecticut. It was so great that I didn’t have to go into town to work. I was able to come home every night.

Q. What were Connecticut’s plans?

A. The first Hallmark movie I did was “Sand Dollar Cove”, and the second was “Next Stop, Christmas”. These have already aired and Netflix has made this great Christmas movie called “The Noel Diary” which will be released in 2022.

Q. How many trainers work with you?

A. It was the hardest thing when COVID hit. We had two full-time people helping us here on the farm and in addition to me five other trainers doing projects across the country. They were all laid off, so my wife Dorothy and I found ourselves taking care of all the animals again. Slowly but surely we brought back two of the trainers and a part-time person to help care for the animals. We haven’t fully returned to racing with our staff so it takes a bit more work but we are so lucky to have survived unlike many businesses and none of the animals were compromised. They just thought it was great that I was home all the time.

Q. What is a typical working day for you?

A. It is double. We get up at 6.30 a.m. to let everyone out, then between 8 and 9 a.m. we feed everyone. Then it’s cleaning and grooming and there are many days where I get up at 3 a.m. and make an 8 a.m. call into town to film with an animal and come back tonight -the. Dorothy runs the business and sort of manages the farm in terms of animal care, and then I do what I can, spending the other days filming in New York.

Q. How do you choose a dog to be an artist?

A. It’s about choosing the right dog for the situation, which in my business is called good casting, but in rescue it’s about finding a loving partner for the animal. There’s this misconception that you can train any dog ​​to do anything, which isn’t true. Any animal has the ability to learn behaviors, but it takes a dog with a special personality to be able to perform in strange places in front of a lot of people. They must be very sociable, very social and very friendly. So you can’t take a scared, frightened dog and put him in that situation, it would be unfair. All we are looking for are friendly dogs that enjoy being around people and are food motivated in some way. If they are successful, we will welcome them and train them for the show or the project.

Q. How long does it take to train a dog for a show?

A. It usually takes a year to two years to train a dog to be a performer on stage. I can train a dog to obedience in my training room and I can show him the show, but that doesn’t mean the minute I take him out, he’ll do it somewhere else. First we cure them of whatever they need to be cured, then we start basic obedience, then we start socializing them. The final step is probably to bring them to an existing production that we have running and let them hear the orchestra and the commotion and the audience and again if they pass that test we will find them a little obscure production somewhere and give them their debut. Finding all these things and aligning them takes between a year and two years.

Bill Berloni and Peggy the goose from the play “The Ferryman”.

Diane Sobolewski

Q. Can you share a memorable story from your long career?

A. There have been so many, but about 20 years ago my wife Dorothy got the rights to a book called “Because of Winn-Dixie.” It’s a very popular children’s book about a young girl, a preacher’s daughter, who moves to a new town. She is an outcast and she finds this giant dog and befriends him. Dorothy is the original producer and we made it into a musical with Duncan Sheik, who wrote the music for “Spring Awakening”, and Nell Benjamin, who wrote the lyrics for the musical “Legally Blonde”. We did four out-of-town tests and the last one was in the summer of 2019 at Goodspeed. The idea was to create a musical, a live theatrical event, where the dog was the star and not just a character.

It was wonderful to go back to my roots and be there, and then we had worked really hard and it was dress rehearsal. In “Annie”, Sandy had 13 lines and was on stage for seven minutes. “Winn-Dixie” had 121 lines and there were two coaches backstage and two on stage to make it all happen, so it was pretty complicated. I was standing in the right wing of the stage and realized that was exactly where I was standing 45 years ago with the original Sandy the first time we took the stage. It was just this wonderful moment where I had the chance to do what I do with great people and great rescue dogs.

Q. When could we see this show open?

A. The show awaits. We see what’s happening with Broadway. We were looking to go to Broadway in the spring of 2020, so “Winn-Dixie” is still waiting.

Q. When you look back on your career, what do you consider to be your greatest success?

A. Advocating the use of rescue dogs and training them to be stars. Show the world that rescue dogs or rescue animals are valuable and people should adopt, not buy.

Q. You recently turned 65. Have you thought about slowing down?

A. Sitting here 45 years later and going through the list of things we’re working on right now, having started at the Goodspeed Opera House, is sometimes amazing. I keep pinching myself. Dorothy and I don’t plan on retiring yet because we really love doing it.

This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale here. Sign up for our newsletter to receive our latest and greatest content straight to your inbox. Do you have a question or a comment? Email [email protected] And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.a