It's a barking great show! Annie came up from the comic pages to a Broadway hit with it's first big time production in 1977. Many girls have played the spunky role of Annie, including Sarah Jessica Parker. She was just 14 when she adorned the stage in her fiery red locks and big voice in 1979. However, her playful, lovable mutt Sandy should also share in the limelight.
Animal lover and trainer, William (Bill) Berloni, also got his start at just 19 years-old on the first Annie theatrical production. Berloni, knows the ins and outs of this tricky trade.and lets us in on some of the details;
“Up until Annie, there had never been an animal that played a character in a play,” said Berloni. “No one thought that you could train an animal to do the same thing eight times a week. You could do a film with an animal, but not a theatrical event. But we were young and naive and we didn’t know that, so what I devised was a way that they [the dogs] would look forward to coming to the theatre.”
Currently, director James Lapine has once again resurrected Annie to the big stage with a newly turned 12-year-old, Lilla Crawford, as the feisty Annie and a newcomer to the stage, Sunny, playing the role of her shaggy tagalong pet pal, Sandy.
When the perfect pup was required for this onstage musical, Berloni once again turned to the pound to find his next big shaggy star. It was a good thing for Sunny who was only two days away from euthanization when Berloni snatched her up and began her training for Sandy.
However, taking a dog from shelter to star isn't always an easy task. Berloni shares his insights and secret of being one of the best in his field;
“I think what differentiates me from most of my contemporaries, other animal trainers, is that I don’t demand or force the animals to do anything. I don’t think any of us have the right to dominate anything else. When you think about the lead, dominance, all of that is about man controlling nature. And I never wanted to do that with animals. I use positive reinforcement to create a situation where the animal wants to do something,” said Berloni. “That can come in the shape of a treat, or a ball, or it can be a hug and a kiss -whatever motivates an animal the most is what we’ll use.”
However, before Sunny's big debut, Sandy was played by Mikey. A source close to Berloni tells us; "Mikey was on tour for 4 years. He was neglected for 2 years when we found him in a pen in a backyard."
Annie is a huge hit, so it's only fitting that Pedigree would want to be involved. Annie partnered with Pedigree Food for Dogs to raise $1 million through the “See the Show, Help a Dog” initiative. Through Dec. 31, 2013, for each ticket purchased for a showing of Annie, Pedigree with donate $2 to the Pedigree Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides grants to shelters and rescue groups in an effort to find furrever homes for some of the four million dogs who find themselves in the shelter system each year. A great show goes to a great cause!
Sunny isn't the only rescued dog that has found its way into the Hollywood elite. Berloni's assistant gives us more information; "Toto from the Wizard of Oz, the chihuahua's from Legally Blonde and the bulldog from Legally Blonde" have all been rescued pooches gaining notability for their furry talents.
So what happens to these lovable pouches when they retire?
They go to a big farm in Connecticut. Truly! Berloni and his wife, Dorothy, care for dogs, cats, horses, llamas, a donkey and a pony. "He's not just a trainer, he takes them all in as his family."
Fortunately, many many animals have found their way into the Berloni family over the years, in fact, "the number is too big to count."
Even after the curtain closes on Annie, Bill Berloni and his handlers will continue to rescue tossed-away animals of all species and sizes in shelters, humane societies and rescues for Broadway and off-Broadway, regional tours, theatres, special events the New York City Ballet, motion pictures, television and commercials.
For more information, check out Bill's website at; http://www.theatricalanimals.com/