Famed trainer Bill Berloni talks dogs and Goodspeed’s ‘Anything Goes’
The setting: Goodspeed’s rehearsal hall. The action: Actors going through their paces for “Anything Goes.” The scene-stealer: Trixie, the Pomeranian who’s playing the role of Cheeky, the pampered pooch of Mrs. Harcourt, a passenger aboard a 1930s luxury liner.
Patrick Richwood, playing the ship’s purser, comes in holding Trixie straight out in front of him and asks with disdain if “this” belongs to anybody.
“Cheeky! Where have you been?” exclaims actress Denise Lute, who plays the high-society Mrs. Harcourt.
The Pomeranian turns her head and gazes lovingly at Lute, as if on adorable cue.
Who is this Trixie? Well, she is owned and trained by legendary animal trainer Bill Berloni, who started his career at Goodspeed years ago (more on that later). His dogs have been in everything from Broadway’s “The Audience” starring Helen Mirren to such movies as “Hope Springs” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Berloni earned a special Tony Award in 2011 for his work.
Lute clearly loves Trixie and jokes that Dorothy Berloni — Bill’s wife and business partner, who is overseeing Trixie for “Anything Goes” — should get Lute’s home address because, if she ever can’t find Trixie, that’s where the dog will be. Lute praises Trixie as being incredibly Zen, and she jokes that the great thing about working with Trixie is “nobody will care what I say or do.”
In “Anything Goes,” Trixie plays, well, arm candy. She gets carried on the stage three times and never touches the floor — not a lot of heavy performance work for her here.
Trixie, though, is a seasoned stage veteran. Her debut was on Broadway in Susan Stroman’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” for which Berloni acclimated her to everything from the orchestra to the tap dancers. She went on to appear in “Living on Love” with opera star Renee Fleming.
When Bill Berloni saw that Goodspeed was staging “Anything Goes” this year, he recalls, “I said, ‘You know, I’ve got a little dog who’s unemployed right now, and she lives next door (the Berlonis live in Higganum with their menagerie that includes about 30 dogs). She loves cookies ...’”
The Goodspeed team was onboard, and Trixie is happily performing in “Anything Goes,” which runs through June 16.
Trixie, who is probably 4 or 5 years old now, was one of 110 dogs confiscated from a woman in South Carolina who was a hoarder. She and some of the other canines ended up in a shelter in Westchester, N.Y., about two-and-a-half years ago. Berloni says that, while the shelter was very hectic, Trixie was like she is now — very calm. Indeed, during an interview, she sits contentedly on Berloni’s lap.
When looking for a canine to train for onstage or onscreen performing, Berloni says, the key is finding a creature who is friendly and who can deal with stress well.
“The first is pretty obvious when you meet a shelter dog,” he says. (The Berloni dogs are all rescued from shelters.) “Unfortunately, shelters are very stressful areas, and if a dog is doing well in a shelter, then there’s nothing we’re going to throw at it that is going to upset it.”
Breeds, meanwhile, can sometimes be problematic. “The Wizard of Oz,” for instance, requires a Cairn terrier. Those terriers are tenacious ratters, Berloni says, “which is great for the active scenes, like chasing Wicked Witches, but bad for sitting still during ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ So we have to look far and wide to find a calm Cairn terrier.”
“A Christmas Story: The Musical” on Broadway, on the other hand, needed bloodhounds to play the Bumpus hounds. Berloni turned down the project three times before finally consenting. The challenge: bloodhounds are all about tracking by scent, and he says, “They’re distracted by everything. They can’t concentrate for a second. So we had to design this show with all cues that went from point A to point B, where they knew there was a really smelly cookie on the other side of the stage. The director was like, ‘Well, can it sit?’ No. ‘Can it jump?’ No. It’s the breed thing.”
Mixed breeds are his favorite because there isn’t one dominant trait but rather a mix of a lot of different traits.
Berloni famously started his dog-trainer career at Goodspeed. He was a 19-year-old dreaming of becoming an actor and was working behind the scenes at the theater in 1976. Goodspeed was developing a little musical called “Annie.” Berloni was tasked with finding a dog to play Sandy (and he was offered the chance to be onstage himself as part of the deal). Berloni found and paid $7 for a shelter dog that was going to be euthanized the following day. He rehabilitated and trained the dog with treats and positive reinforcement. After he ended up getting hired by producer Mike Nichols for the Broadway production of “Annie” as well, Berloni quit acting to become an animal trainer.
“Prior to ‘Annie,’ dogs were just props. They were either carried on or walked on a leash because nobody thought anybody could even train a dog to do the same thing eight times a week in front of a live audience,” says Berloni, who, of course, did just that. As he recalls, “Here comes along (Goodspeed’s then-executive producer) Michael Price doing a new production of ‘Annie,’ and he gets an apprentice to get a dog, and the apprentice trains the dog to do things nobody has ever done. Now, I have this whole career of creating animal characters for live stage events.”
Usually, the director or the writer will sit down with Berloni and ask what’s possible with a dog. They’ll talk about what they’re trying to convey, and they will work with Berloni to make that happen.
Among their many projects, the Berlonis have provided the canines for “The Little Rascals” and “Annie 2” at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, as well as for numerous Goodspeed events over the years.
And, earlier in his life, Bill Berloni held another job at the East Haddam theater. When he moved back from New Jersey to Connecticut in 1989, when there weren’t a lot of jobs in New York, he called up Michael Price to see if he had any work. Price said he needed a house manager at Goodspeed.
“So I house managed two seasons, and I bring that up because, in the entire history of the Goodspeed Opera House running in its current form, those were the two seasons when someone died and someone fell out of the balcony — on my watch!” Berloni says.
He eventually left that Goodspeed position to work on a production of “Anything Goes” at Lincoln Center, where two of his Yorkies played Cheeky and served as understudy. (Trixie also has an understudy, Rocco.)
Berloni says Goodspeed is “very much like family,” and the Berlonis have stayed in touch with Goodspeed folks over the years. They even rescued the dogs that became Price’s most recent three pets and got Price’s successor, Michael Gennaro, his new puppy.
Being back at Goodspeed, Berloni says, “is very nostalgic for me. I parked across the street in the upper parking lot, which is where the scene shop was when I was here, where my original Sandy and I hung out. So many fond, fond memories. To have watched the institution grow and then stabilize is just fantastic. One of the country’s theatrical gems, that’s for sure. And (‘Anything Goes’) is a toe-tapping, feel-good, wonderful, wonderful show. I know audiences will love it.”
Berloni’s years since Goodspeed have been rather busy. One of the latest projects: The Berlonis’ own reality TV show “From Wags to Riches with Bill Berloni” debuted on the Discovery Family Channel last summer.
That TV show also featured the Berlonis’ daughter, Jenna, who is now a freshman at Connecticut College. She’s studying human development, with a minor in theater and Spanish. She wants to work with kids and has a work-study job as a teacher’s aide in one of the New London schools.
The Berlonis have eight trainers who work for them. Discussing the division of labor between Dorothy and him, Bill Berloni says, “My gift seems to be getting the script, finding the dog, training the dog and then working with the artistic people. Dorothy runs the business. She’s the negotiator, the contract person, all that stuff. And once I get the show up, though, and it’s set, I usually bring in one of our handlers and then I move on to designing the next one.”
When a dog starts working on a new show, the idea is to let the dog think that the actor he or she is working most with is the best person in the room. After that relationship is established, everyone can interact with the animal. Treats are a tool of communication, sure, but just by allowing someone to be friendly with the dog and lavish attention on her, he says, turns that person into a favorite.
“We want these guys to be social, we want them to have fun,” Bill Berloni says, adding about Trixie, “If she comes to the theater and 22 people pet her and give her kisses, she’ll want to come back the next night. Who wouldn’t?”
Developing their own musical
The Berlonis are deep into another project, too — developing their own musical starring one of their dogs, Bowdie. “Because of Winn-Dixie” is based on Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book of the same name, which explores the human-animal bond in a story about a girl finding a dog at a Winn-Dixie store.
“Some 20 years ago, I was complaining, ‘I’m such a good trainer, and nobody is doing a show that stars a dog. There are all these little parts. Why doesn’t anybody do “Lassie: The Musical,” you know? I can sink my teeth into it.’ (Dorothy) said, ‘Why don’t we do it ourselves?’ I’m like, ‘You’re crazy. We aren’t producers, we don’t know anything about it,’” Berloni says.
At the time, Dorothy was director of programming for The Bushnell in Hartford. She had worked seven or eight years programming there, so she knew about touring. She found “Winn-Dixie” and negotiated the rights to it.
And she got Duncan Sheik, the singer-songwriter whose stage credits include “Spring Awakening,” to write the music for the show.
“The music often helps tell the emotions of what’s going on in a musical, and our main character can’t speak, so the music playing is very important to helping the audience know what (the dog named) Winn-Dixie is feeling at that moment,” Bill Berloni says.
Handling the book and lyrics for “Winn-Dixie” is Nell Benjamin, who co-wrote the music and lyrics for “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” which also featured a Berloni canine.
Bowdie had 102 cues in the most recent production of “Winn-Dixie,” and he did them perfectly, Berloni says proudly.
The Berlonis had gotten Bowdie and started training him a year ahead of when they were planning on first staging “Winn-Dixie.” Then NBC called to ask if there was a St. Bernard that could play the Darlings’ dog Nana in “Peter Pan Live.” Berloni said he didn’t have one but offered Bowdie, who looks like a sheepdog. So Bowdie made his debut on that project.
As for the possibility of bringing “Winn-Dixie” to Goodspeed, Berloni says, “Every time we got close to having the production, the production team, together, Goodspeed was always booked. Unfortunately, they plan their seasons so far out in advance. When you’re raiding your retirement fund to put on shows, it’s like, ‘Okay, we can do it in six months.’”
Berloni is enthusiastic and optimistic about “Winn-Dixie.”
“Hopefully I will have one more ‘Annie’ before my career is over,” he says.
IF YOU GO
What: “Anything Goes”
Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam
When: Through June 16; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also, there are 2 p.m. shows on select Thursdays and at 6:30 p.m. on select Sundays
Tickets: Start at $29
Contact: (860) 873-8668
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