Widely known in the film and theater industry, Bill Berloni is the guy who can get the dog to get it right on the first take. He originally wanted to be an actor, and accidentally launched his career as an animal trainer when he was 19 and moving scenery on the original production of “Annie,” which made its off-Broadway debut at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam in 1976 .
Since then, Berloni has rescued and trained more than 200 animals and built a renowned business, William Berloni Theatrical Animals, whose motto is “Providing humanely trained animals for all media.” And nearly every animal he’s trained ends up living on the 90-acre Haddam farm he shares with his wife, Dorothy.
A. Not at all. After Annie premiered at the Goodspeed, I moved to New York City and I was enrolled at NYU in their acting program. It was during that year, my junior year, they said they were doing the show on Broadway and would I be interested? I thought, well, I could use some college money, I’ll do it again, never thinking, when the show became a huge hit, I would become a world-famous animal trainer at the age of 20.
The thing about “Annie” was that in the live theatrical production there had never been a dog who played a character on which the action of the play depended. If you think about it, other plays like “Anything Goes,” “Gypsy” or “Oliver,” you can do those musicals without the animals that were written in as props, but you can’t do “Annie” without Sandy. The thought was you can’t depend on an animal to do the same thing eight times a week in front of an audience. Well, nobody told me that and nobody told [director] Martin Charnin that, so what I created at the time was unique. There was a character on stage and other Broadway producers and directors started calling me to replicate that, so what I invented was this way of presenting animals in live theater that nobody else had.
A. One of the reasons I did not want to relocate to Hollywood was that, even though Sandy was treated very well, what I soon discovered was animals in the performing arts weren’t being treated well. There were no laws protecting animals and no unions protecting animals or the animal handlers. That sort of lack of control was pretty dominant in Hollywood, whereas on Broadway as the only one doing it, I could set standards for the performing animals I worked with, way ahead of the industry. I treat my animals as I would want my wife or daughter to be treated in this business. There might have been more dollars out there but it would have been a greater personal cost, I believe.
A. Well, when you have 40 mouths to feed, there is no economizing on that or the veterinary care. I have a consulting job. I have been the director of animal behavior for the Humane Society of New York for the last 30 years so that job was able to pay the mortgage and the groceries and taxes and all that sort of stuff. In September 2020, almost six months into the pandemic, New York City started issuing film permits again with films having very strict COVID procedures, so we began working again. In the last 10 years, most of my work comes from film and television now, much less from theater. We were able to slowly get back on our feet and I would say now we are doing more shows than pre-pandemic.
A. With the COVID protocols, I must say that I feel very safe in that industry. The testing, the vaccinations and the social distancing of different work areas is still in effect so I feel very safe. But it is about 20 percent of the budget now, so many of these projects are looking for less expensive ways to film. Interestingly enough, Connecticut had refrained from passing the film tax credits that both Massachusetts and Rhode Island have and this year it passed them. This past year alone I was able to do two Hallmark movies and a Netflix film right here in Connecticut. It was so great I didn’t have to go to the city to work. I was able to come home every night.
A. The first Hallmark movie I did was “Sand Dollar Cove,” and the second was “Next Stop, Christmas.” These have already aired, and Netflix did this big Christmas movie called “The Noel Diary” that’s going to come out in 2022.
A. That was the hardest thing when COVID hit. We had two full-time people helping us here at the farm and in addition to myself five other trainers who would do projects around the country. They were all laid off, so my wife Dorothy and I found ourselves caring for all the animals again. Slowly but surely we brought two of the trainers back and a part-time person to help us with the animal care. We are not completely back to running with our staff, so it’s a little more labor-intensive, but we are so lucky to have survived at all, unlike many businesses, and none of the animals were compromised. They just thought it was great I was home all the time.
A. It’s two-fold. We get up at 6:30 am to let everybody out and then sometime between 8 and 9 am, we feed everybody. Then it’s cleaning and it’s care and there are many days that I will get up at 3 in the morning and go in for an 8 am call in the city to film with an animal and come back that night. Dorothy runs the business and sort of runs the farm in terms of animal care and then I do what I can, spending the other days filming in New York.
A. It’s all about choosing the right dog for the situation, which in my business is called good casting, but in the rescue business, it’s finding a love match for the animal. There is this misconception that you can train any dog to do anything, which is untrue. Any animal has the capability to learn behaviors but it takes a dog with a special personality to be able to perform in strange places in front of lots of people. They have to be very outgoing, very social and very friendly. So you can’t take a scared and frightened dog and put them in that situation, that would be unfair. All we are looking for are friendly dogs who love to be around people and are food motivated in some way. If they pass that, then we will take them in and train them for the show or the project.
A. It usually takes a year to two years to train a dog to be a performer on stage. I can obey train a dog in my training room and I can teach them the show, but that doesn’t mean the minute I take them outside they are going to do it elsewhere. First we heal them of whatever they need to be healed from, then we start basic obedience, then we start socializing them. Probably the last step is bringing them to an existing production that we have running and letting them hear the orchestra, the commotion and the audience and again if they pass that test, then we will find them some small, obscure production somewhere and give them their debut. Finding all those things and lining them up is between a year and two years.
A. There have been so many, but about 20 years ago my wife Dorothy secured the rights to a book called “Because of Winn-Dixie.” It’s a very popular children’s book about a young girl, a preacher’s daughter, who moves to a new town. She is an outcast and she finds this giant dog and befriends it. Dorothy is the originating producer and we have turned it into a musical with Duncan Sheik, who wrote the music for “Spring Awakening,” and Nell Benjamin, who wrote the lyrics for the “Legally Blonde” musical. We have done four out-of-town tryouts and the last one was in the summer of 2019 at the Goodspeed. The idea was to create a musical, a live theatrical event, where the dog was the star and not just a character.
It was wonderful going back to my roots and being there and then we had worked really hard and it was dress rehearsal. In “Annie,” Sandy had 13 cues and was on stage for seven minutes. “Winn-Dixie” had 121 cues and there were two trainers backstage and two on stage making it all happen, so it was quite involved. I was standing in the stage right wing and it dawned on me that’s the exact place I stood 45 years before with the original Sandy the first time we walked on stage. It was just this wonderful full-circle moment of being fortunate enough to do what I do with great people and great rescue dogs.
A. The show is waiting. We are seeing what’s happening with Broadway. We were looking to go to Broadway in the spring of 2020, so “Winn-Dixie” is still waiting.
A. Having championed the use of rescue dogs and training them into stars. Showing the world that rescue dogs or rescue animals have worth and the people should adopt, not shop.
A. To be sitting here 45 years later and to go through the list of things we are working on right now, having started at the Goodspeed Opera House, is just at times unbelievable. I keep pinching myself. Dorothy and I don’t have any plans at the moment to retire because we really love doing this.
This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale here. Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email [email protected] And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.a