Connecticut native William Berloni is a professional animal trainer who has trained animals for many Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theater shows, as well as television and movies, including productions of Annie, Camelot, The Wizard of Oz, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and many more. He trained the dogs for both the Broadway and national tour productions of Legally Blonde The Musical, which is coming to The Bushnell December 9-14 as part of The Hartford Financial Services Group Broadway Series.
Q: You originally studied to be an actor â how did you get into professional animal training?
A: When I graduated from Berlin High School, I enrolled at Central Connecticut State Universityâs Theater Department. In the meantime, I wanted to observe professional actors. So I applied to be a technical apprentice at the Goodspeed Opera House building sets. I was accepted in the summer of 1975. In the summer of 1976 I was asked back. That year they were doing the original production of Annie. They needed a trained dog. Professional dog trainers were too expensive and everyone on the paid staff threatened to quit if they were forced to do the job. So was I offered my Actorâs Equity card and a part in one of the shows IF I would find and train a dog for no money. Looking to be economical, I went to a shelter to adopt one because I had been told there were âcheapâ dogs there. I found the original Sandy for seven dollars and trained him like I had my dogs growing up. The Goodspeed production was not well received and I moved, with Sandy, to New York City to become a starving theater student with a dog. In December of 1976, Mike Nichols office called saying they were producing the play for Broadway and asked if I would be interested. Again, the chance to observe Mike Nichols was too good for any actor to pass up, so I agreed to be a dog trainer again. Annie opened on Broadway in 1977 and I became a professional animal trainer overnight. I took me a couple years to realize I was much more talented as an animal trainer than an actor, but I was very lucky to find my true calling.
Q: Did you have pets growing up â and had you ever wanted an animal-focused career?
A: My father worked for the City of New Britainâs Park Department. He was a horticulturist and we lived on a farm in Berlin where the greenhouses were. I was an only child and but I had a Collie named Rexie, a cat named Whitey and a rabbit named Peter Cottontail. Outside of my cousins we saw once a week, they were my companions until I went to Kindergarten. Somewhere in those formative years, I must have learned a great respect for animals. I never wanted to be an animal trainer. The prevailing thought is you get animals to do your will. My understanding was be kind to them and they will be kind to you. To this day, I look for situations where we can rescue an animal and through kindness get them to perform. It doesnât get much better than that.
Q: You work only with rescue animals â are there specific challenges with training rescues? Why only work with rescues?
A: Besides training for the entertainment field, I am the Director of Animal Behavior for the Humane Society of New York, in NYC. While not every dog or cat that comes into shelter has been abused, just the fact they have been ripped from their familiar surroundings creates challenges. It would be cruel to take a person who is afraid of heights and force them to work on a trapeze. The same thing goes with animals. It would be cruel to take an animal that does not deal well with stress and use them in entertainment. So we look for animals that can deal with stress and then help them overcome whatever issues they may have. As for why only work with rescues, my answer is why not? We have a population of creatures who are suffering at our hands in our own back yard. And while we encourage people to help the rainforests, there is a need closer to home. I hope to educate the general population about the plight of unwanted pets and how to easily stop the suffering. Spay and neuter your pets and do not buy animals in pet shops that come from puppy mills. Until there is no more euthanasia from pet over population, I will always use shelter animals.
Q: Youâve trained animals for tons of Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theater shows, as well as television and movies â any favorite experiences stand out?
A: Every experience stands out. The gift to meet wonderful pets and genius people is unparalleled. Whether it is talking with Julia Roberts in our trailer on the set of Charlie Wilsonâs War about her six rescue dogs, or going to family functions with Sarah Jessica Parkerâs family for the last 30 years since she was Annie on Broadway or helping Bernadette Peters wrangle pit bulls at her annual charity event BROADWAY BARKS, I have had the privilege of meeting some of the most wonderful people. And each day the animals teach me about courage, loyalty and forgiveness.
Q: Your job sounds like a lot of fun, but Iâm sure itâs much more work than people realize. Whatâs the toughest aspect, and the most rewarding aspect?
A: Like being a farmer, animal trainers have this reputation of having this fun life of playing with animals. We have 33 animals which breaks down to 23 dogs, three cats, three horses, two llamas, a pony and a donkey that we own. We often take in strays of all kinds and friendâs animals. But the truth is they all eat, poop, shed, get sick, need attention and all too soon pass away. My wife, and sometimes my daughter, is charged with all that responsibility. It costs more to get someone in to take care of them than it does to go on vacation and stay at a four-star hotel. So the day-to-day care is enormous. But the toughest aspect is when it comes time to say goodbye. As I tell people who have lost a pet, in never gets easier. But I can focus on the wonderful lives they have had entertaining people. The most rewarding aspect is the day a show opens and the animal no one wanted performs flawlessly. I walk out the stage door at the end of the show and no one knows who I am. But I when I hear someone say âThat animal was so well trained, how did they get them to do that?â I smile to myself because I am the âthey.â
Q: Tell us about your new book, Broadway Tails. Why did you decide to write it?
A: Over the years, I have done lots of publicity for the shows I was working on. But I was never able to tell the whole story. After the little girl who played Annie in the 20th Anniversary of Annie was fired, I went to bed very sad this child was going to miss the dog she had worked so hard with. I had a dream that night of a book called BROADWAY TAILS, with my original Sandyâs face on it. The book was to tell the real stories of what happens backstage with animals. Like all good ideas, it stayed in my head for 10 years. Then after CBS aired a piece about me and Legally Blonde The Musical on âCBS Sunday Morning,â an editor at Globe Pequot Press right here in Guilford, Connecticut called and asked if I would be interested in writing a book about my experiences. But instead of the dirt, I decided to write about the rescue aspect and the craziness the animals overcome to succeed. And 20% of my royalties go to the Sandy Fund at the Humane Society of New York.
Q: Tell us about the dogs we will see when Legally Blonde The Musical comes to The Bushnell, Frankie (the Chihuahua who plays Bruiser) and China (the Bulldog who plays Rufus).
There are not just two dogs, but four dogs. Everybody has an understudy. Frankie the Chihuahua was found as a stray in Meriden in the spring. He was taken in by a rescue group that brought him to the same vet I use for my animals. Dr. Robert Olson, of Pieper Olson Veterinary Hospital in Middletown has been treating and helping me rescue animals for the last 20 years. So when the rescuer came in with a cute little blonde Chihuahua that needed a home he called me. I met Frankie, and while he was young, he was darned cute and friendly. His understudy, Roxie, was a stray in rural Louisiana. We saw her photo on Petfinder.com and the group drove her all the way up to meet us. The same group had a bulldog named China they had rescued from a puppy mill situation. We met her and she was perfect. Her understudy, Nellie, is from the Humane Society of New York where I work. She was given up because the family she lived with had children and a new puppy was too much. Being born and raised in Connecticut, The Bushnell has always been the flagship for Broadway touring shows. When the very first tour of Annie came to Hartford in 1979, I had an idea that Sandy should return to Connecticut a star in the theater that was close to the shelter where he was rescued. Not only did he open the tour, but Governor Ella Grasso proclaimed it âSandy Dayâ in the State of Connecticut in honor of homeless animals. So Frankie and China have some big collars to fill when they hit the stage in Legally Blonde The Musical.