Best in Shows, a star-studded cabaret evening benefiting the Humane Society of New York, will be presented October 23 at Feinstein’s/54 Below. The evening will honor Tom Viola, executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, who will receive the second annual Humane Society of New York’s Sandy Fund Award in recognition of his “deep concern and support of the needs of rescued animals.” The award will be presented by three-time Tony winner and animal rights champion Bernadette Peters, co-founder of the Broadway Barks charity. Viola, who was awarded the Tony Honor in 2010 “in recognition of the leadership, advocacy and creativity with which he has mobilized the theatre community’s response to AIDS and other critical health issues,” is the proud dad of two rescue dogs: Gracie, a three-year-old Pomeranian/terrier mix, and Sophie, a five-year-old hound mutt. In the interview below, he discusses his two canine companions.
What are your pets’ names, and are their stories behind them?
Tom Viola: I currently have two great pups. Gracie and Sophie. Here is a brief history. I met Gracie in September ’13 when she was a three-month-old puppy at the city’s Animal Care & Control, 326 E. 110th, a great facility. She had been dropped off rather unceremoniously in a box with her four puppy brothers (who, I hope, are now doing as well). Gracie is now almost three-and-a-half and a wonderful, crazy, and bossy girl. When I first adopted Gracie, my sweet boy Squirrel, a then-14-year-old terrier rescue, was with me. Squirrel took Gracie’s puppydom in stride, perhaps slightly peeved but never angry or aggressive. Do dogs roll their eyes? Squirrel did, a lot, as Gracie would zoom or hop over him getting to breakfast.
Squirrel passed away at 16 in October ‘15. It was very sad, but he had a great, long run. I still miss him. The following May, I went with Bernadette Peters to BARC Shelter in Williamsburg—another great rescue organization. Bernadette knew that a transport had just arrived from Dawgs, an organization in Texas that rescues pups from kill shelters. Sophie had made the trip with a group of ten. She joined Gracie and me in Hell’s Kitchen that day. The folks at BARC think she’s about five. In these last five months or so, “the girls” and I have developed a great daily routine. Gracie is a whirlwind. Sophie can hardly believe she is safe enough just to hang out with me on the couch or bed or desk or chair at work. She is very attentive, always watching.
What is the one thing your pets have eaten that they shouldn‘t have?
TV: As a puppy, I had to keep a very close eye on Gracie as she would chew just about anything and did. Upon arrival, I caught her making short work of a blue Bic pen she had somehow grabbed off my desk. The top could have been dangerous. From that point on everything—shoes, remotes, desk items—went up a level. Many a book binding on a low shelf has teeth marks. She still is fascinated with anything in the laundry basket and has chewed the buttons off of shirts and dress pants. The dry cleaner who does repairs knows her by name, grateful for the extra work. Thankfully, she seems uninterested in swallowing them. Just biting them in half like a Necco Wafer.
Although Sophie had been a stray in Texas, at some point she must have had a home and owner. On one of our first walks, she grabbed a chicken bone. When I said, “No!,” she dropped it like a hot rock. Someone had clearly taught her “drop it!,” which she’s very good about to this day.
What person, living or dead, do your pets remind you of and why?
TV: Gracie is a sprite, a nosy pixie bouncing from one thing to the next, always offering an opinion. As you can see, she has gi-normous ears, the result perhaps of a bad date between a Pomeranian and a beagle mutt. She clearly receives messages from space and responds to most of them. She is also obsessed with pigeons. Sophie is much more laid back. She seems like the dog who’d live in the back of a barn. She’s a watcher, although I have never seen a dog who wakes up happier, rolling around on the bed as soon as it’s light.
Where do your pets sleep?
TV: Both Gracie and Sophie sleep with me on the bed. Sophie starts right next to me, and as we all settle in, moves to the end of the bed. Gracie sleeps literally between my legs as I lay on my stomach, just between my thighs. When Gracie first arrived, I was crate training her, keeping her in the crate at night to teach her about going out first thing in the morning to “do her business.” She was very good about the crate, no complaints or barking to be let out. But one night a couple of weeks in, I heard her yelping in the crate in the middle of the night. I got up to see what was wrong. She bolted from the crate in a panic as soon as I opened the door, running to the living room, where I had spread newspaper, to let loose quite an upset stomach. Wanting to make sure she was okay, I brought her up on the bed to spend the rest of the night, putting her between my legs in order to make sure I wouldn’t roll over on her. She has slept in that exact spot ever since, curled in a ball. The crate is now her opened door “day cave.”
Are these your first pets? If not, elaborate.
TV: No. I had a rescue dog named SweetPea from 1985-96—one of dozens from a hoarder’s home. It was a rather infamous story at the time; SweetPea was one of what the papers called “the Bronx dogs.” He was a terrier poodle mix, a sweetheart. A couple months after SweetPea passed away, I adopted Maggie, a hound mix, as a puppy from North Shore Animal League. She became my heart. Squirrel joined us in 2001. I met Squirrel when he was living under the cash register at MetroPets on Ninth Ave. Someone had abandoned him in one of the Hell’s Kitchen side parks tied to a bench. Some good Samaritan took him to MetroPets. I began to walk him with Maggie in the evenings. One Friday night after about a week of that, he followed me off leash out of the store, standing next to Maggie and looking up at me on the corner of West 43rd and Ninth. I scooped him up, concerned he would next bolt into traffic. Bringing him back into the store, the clerk said, “I think he’s telling you he’s yours.” Having never had two dogs before, I said we’d try it for the weekend. He and Maggie were an inseparable duo for the next 11 years until Maggie’s passing at 16 in 2012.
Best trip with your pets?
TV: Gracie and Sophie love trips to the BC/EFA office on weekends and loved joining us all in the Pines for the Fire Island Dance Festival.
TV: Very crisp bacon from the Galaxy. Or the ends of my unfinished weekend omelette.
If you could talk to your pets for five minutes, what would you ask?
TV: Gracie: “What do you do all day when I’m not here? What’s the word from space?” Sophie: “What the hell happened in Texas?”
Do your pets have a best friend?
TV: Me, of course.
Is there a pet product you swear by that you can’t live without?
TV: Not quite a pet product, but I swear by my Dyson vacuum cleaner.
If your pets were a character in a Broadway show, who would that character be?
TV: Gracie: Elder Price from The Book of Mormon. She has that “I Believe” energy. Sophie: Celie in The Color Purple. She’s a loving, resilient girl, who clearly has survived some hard times to now thrive.
If there was one thing you would want people to know about your pets, what would it be?
TV: All they need to know is that I love them. And it seems the feeling is mutual.