Celebrate National Dog Day With This 1981 Interview With Annie's Bill Berloni

From the Archives   Celebrate National Dog Day With This 1981 Interview With Annie's Bill Berloni
 
Animal trainer extraordinaire Berloni shares stories about the beloved Sandy and the hit Broadway musical in this April 1981 feature.
Trainer Bill Berloni helps Sandy sign some autographs
Trainer Bill Berloni helps Sandy sign some autographs

Before the curtain rises on Annie, it’s playtime on the Alvin stage, Allison Smith and Bill Berloni are tossing a dog biscuit between them, for Sandy to catch. He has ambled drowsily from the wings, as slow-footed as a child to school. Now he is running and leaping, every cog whirling, all system go.

Allison is the present Little Orphan Annie. Berloni is the man behind the dog behind the show. The man who, with a cavalryman’s timing, saved Sandy from certain oblivion. The man who took this amber-colored eight-dollar mutt and turned him into—a Broadway star! With all the perks thereto pertaining.

The man who readied him for—applause. “Sandy’s been trained to like applause,” Berloni says. “When I praise him I clap my hands to say, ‘Good boy!’ So, when he hears 1,200 people applauding, he thinks they’re saying, ‘Good boy!’ If he’d never heard applause, he’d be afraid.”

For months Sandy got a big hand at his entrance. “One day he didn’t get it,” Berloni continues, “and he looked at the audience as if saying ‘Well???’ The audience died. I got a note from Martin Charnin (Annie’s director-lyricist). ‘Tell Sandy not to ham it up,’ he said. Another time I got a note that said, ‘Tell Sandy not to anticipate his cue.’”

READ: He Trained the Original Sandy from Annie—and Made an Entire Career Out of It

With Annie reaching its fourth anniversary April 21, Sandy is the longest-running dog on Broadway. There are three touring companies of the musical. They, and the Broadway company, gross a million dollars a week.

As much as Sandy in the comic strip, Sandy is a recognized essential of the stage Annie’s story. To make it work he must lobe her, and she him. “That’s why I have them play together—that and to wake him up,” says Berloni. “Like most dogs, he sleeps 18 hours a day. We’re close to all the Annies. Andrea McArdle, the numero uno Anne, is a particular favorite. She was so wonderful with Sandy. He remembers the sound of her voice. When he hears her sing on TV, he whimpers. The first time it happened, I was amazed.

Both Allison, the fourth and smallest Annie, and Sarah Jessica Parker, the No. 3 Annie, were fearful of dogs. “their families had never had a dog,” Berloni explains. “They had to be taught to be relaxed with Sandy. Within two weeks they found working with him the most fun they had in the whole show.”

Sandy and Annie are not always attuned. “If she hasn’t played with him enough, or given him enough cookies, he’ll get back at her. He’ll scratch, or yawn, or stretch, while she’s doing a scene. And she’s standing there with egg on her face. The audience loves it when he yawns, or scratches.”

Broadway has put on the dog in other plays: Katharine Cornell’s Flush in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Laurette Taylor’s Michael in Peg O’ My Heart, Helen Hayes’ Mop in Victoria Regina. Julia Marlowe strutted two greyhounds in Much Ado About Nothing, and Billie Burke two Irish setters in The Amazon.

Of these, most were little more than props. Sandy must move and react on cue. “Rarely is a dog let off a lead onstage,” Berloni notes. “Toto in The Wiz was carried on. Sandy is left alone in every scene he’s in. He has to stay while others do dialogue, the story depends on it. Most producers won’t take the chance.

George Jean Nathan pleaded for more dogs in plays. “The dog is by nature an irresistible actor,” wrote the late critic. “There is nothing like one in a play to make it seem more attractive and amusing.” Dogs are centuries old in theatre. Plutarch wrote about a famous stage dog, Zopicus by name.

Sandy finds the actor’s life not arf-bad. He’s been to Sardi’s and Gallaghers’. “Gallaghers’ took down Ethel Kennedy’s picture and put Sandy’s in its place,” Berloni says. A White House picture cracked his calm. “Martha Washington’s 12-foot portrait scared him, he wouldn’t stop barking at it.”

He rashly growled at Muhammed Ali. Said the champ, “That dog’s prejudiced.” Gloria Vanderbilt and Barbra Streisand have called on him in his fifth-floor dressing room, to the left of the elevator. On a wall is a certificate: “Outer Critics Circle Awards 1976-77, to Sandy a Wow! In his Broadway box, Annie.”

He goes on TV, gives pawdographs, gets fan mail. Wrote a boy in Beacon, New York: “I always thought Lassie was the best dog but now I know you are.” And a grown up in Bethesda, Maryland: “Annie was an absolute delight. I particularly enjoyed your performance.”

But he will not be in the movie Annie, which John Huston will direct. Aileen Quinn got the title role after a nationwide search that rivaled the Scarlett O’Hara caper. And she was there all along. “Aileen has understudied six roles in Annie, and she’s so cute,” Berloni said.

Sandy is the luckiest of all in Berloni, a responsible, kindly man of exhaustless patience who loves animals and theatre. President of his high school drama club, he had wanted an acting career. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Phil Berloni, have a horticultural farm at New Britain, Connecticut.

While earning $24 a week at Goodspeed Opera House, he was asked to find and train a dog for Annie. The year, 1976; he was 18. He found Sandy at the Connecticut Humane Society’s pound the day before he was slated for the Big Sleep. (Four years later Connecticut observed Sandy Day, for the native son).
“He cost eight dollars and I had only two dollars.” He says. “I went back early the next morning and adopted him. Two weeks before we were to open at Goodspeed, a truck ran over him and his back legs were dislocated. I cried.

“I have ten dogs, but Sandy is my soul brother. He stands by me the most and gives me the least trouble. Something above brought us together. My dogs are pets, they sleep on the beds and play in the yard at Glen Rock, New Jersey.”

Berloni’s life is as sharply changed as Sandy’s. With Allison Thomas he wrote Sandy: The Autobiography of a Star (Simon & Schuster), which is selling well He recently opened William Berloni Theatrical Animals to supply animals for theatre and TV.

“I wanted to act, but I kept getting requests for dogs,” he says. He bought (for $800) and trained Fritz, the West Highland terrier in Frankenstein—and suffered when the play closed after one performance. He has two Old English Sheepdogs on tour in Camelot, and a Sandy lookalike in Annie’s third national company.

His touring dogs travel with trainers. One is Jude De Prospo, whom he met at Goodspeed. When they marry in November, the four Annies will be bridesmaids. “There’ll be no photographers,” he said firmly. “And there’ll be no dogs. I won’t have my bride upstaged.”

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