When it comes to casting dogs, cats and even rats to appear onstage, William Berloni is the professional animal trainer that most Broadway producers call first. Berloni's esteemed reputation stretches back to the 1970s when he trained the first Sandy dog in "Annie."
"'Annie' is obviously the piece closest to my heart," said Berloni in advance of the two-week Chicago stop of the new non-Equity national tour of "Annie" playing the Cadillac Palace Theatre starting Tuesday, Nov. 18. "I'm glad that Chicago's getting to see it once again under the direction of (original lyricist and director) Martin Charnin."
"Annie"Location: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: Nov. 18-30; 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (extra evening show Nov. 23, no show Nov. 27); 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. Sunday (also Nov. 26 and 28)
Berloni initially wanted to be an actor, but he stumbled into his lifelong vocation as a 19-year-old intern in 1976 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. Even though he had no experience, Berloni was offered a chance to join the union Actors' Equity Association if he could find and train a dog to appear as Sandy. It was for a new musical based upon Harold Gray's newspaper comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" written by Charnin, composer Charles Strouse and playwright Thomas Meehan.
Berloni found a dog at the Connecticut Humane Society just hours before he was going to be put down. Berloni named him Sandy and drew from his own childhood memories growing up with a pet collie for the training.
"I thought, well, my dog loved me and followed me around and did things for me as long as he was happy," Berloni said. "So obviously, let's make the dog like the theater and the kids. It's a method of positive reinforcement and there's no intimidation. We never force an animal to work if it pulls back."
Berloni's career rose alongside the global success of "Annie." He's been the Sandy trainer with each Broadway "Annie" -- in 1977, 1997 and 2012 (not to mention many national tours and regional productions like the 2012 Paramount Theatre production in Aurora). He's also worked on the many attempts at a sequel, including the 1992 world premiere of "Annie Warbucks," first at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire then at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.
Yet Berloni was passed over to train Sandy for the 1982 movie and the 1999 Disney TV adaptations of "Annie." But he finally got to preserve a Sandy dog on film in the upcoming modernized "Annie" adaptation starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis, out in movie theaters in December.
"She is a golden retriever chow mix, which is much more reminiscent of the bright orange dog with pointy ears in the old comic strip," said Berloni about "Marti," which he named in honor of Martin Charnin. "I'm fighting against the old stage image of Sandy that I helped to create."
Berloni's long career is detailed in his 2008 book "Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars," which includes stories about chihuahuas for "Legally Blonde The Musical," a cat for the Jackie Robinson musical "The First" and a rat for "The Woman in White." For most shows, Berloni found animals from shelters -- a practice that helps raise awareness of pet adoption.
"It's not just the shelter experience. Some animals might not have had a good life before that," said Berloni, adding that he works with six different trainers and that he currently owns 28 dogs on his Connecticut farm. "We make them safe, we make them healthy, fill their lives with love and purpose and who doesn't blossom with that? If I borrowed someone's pet for a show, all it would be doing is pining for their families. So in this way, we're not just saving lives, but we're getting dogs that are very motivated and appreciative to work with us."
Sunny is the current dog touring as Sandy, and she was found at a Houston shelter in advance of the 2012 Broadway revival of "Annie." Sunny's adoption and training were documented for a nationwide audience in the NBC-TV special "Annie's Search for Sandy."
Berloni retrained Sunny for the tour, since it's different from the Broadway revival. But "Annie" is relatively simple work compared to two of Berloni's most nerve-wracking jobs that are coming up.
Berloni is training a dog named Bowdie to appear as Nana in NBC-TV's "Peter Pan Live," which will reach a potential audience of 20 million when it airs on Thursday, Dec. 4. Typically "Peter Pan" stage productions use an actor in a dog costume, but the TV producers wanted a real dog even though there's only one chance to get things right.
Bowdie will also star in a stage musical based on Kate DiCamillo's children's book "Because of Winn-Dixie" that is being developed by Berloni and his wife, Dorothy, with composer Duncan Sheik ("Spring Awakening") and playwright Nell Benjamin ("Legally Blonde"). Its second regional production is set for April at the Delaware Theatre Company, with Broadway as the ultimate goal.
"It's the first musical to star a dog," Berloni said. "It's my ultimate dream come true."