Bill Berloni Makes Stars Out Of Strays

Like any celebrities, they stop traffic as they make their way to the stage door.

Chloe and Zizi are bulldogs. Chico, Booboo, and Teddy are the Chihuahuas. Stars, understudies and entourage; their every move is discreetly managed by Bill Berloni, the man who plucked them from obscurity, and made them the toast of Broadway.

In the world of animals on Broadway, Berloni would be their acting coach.

In "Legally Blonde," the musical, Laura Bell Bundy plays Elle Woods, the fashionista who goes to Harvard law school. Chico plays her dog, Bruiser. Chloe is Rufus, who belongs to Elle's hairdresser friend.

"In a live theater production, I'm in the wings 30 feet away, so the dog can't go, 'What do you want me to do?' and then execute it," Berloni told Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner. "So I actually have to train the actors who are handling them how to be trainers."

"We create situations where the stage, the people who are on the stage, the people they are working with, are their family. That's their home," he said. "That's where they have the best time of their day. At one point Elle Woods says, 'White shoes after labor day' and to Chico, that means 'Go run and jump in your carrier.' He doesn't care what the words are. You do it repetitively, and they learn that one thing."

So how did Berloni end up training dogs for Broadway shows? He wanted to be an actor. Young and gullible, he was thrilled when the producer at the summer theater where he was apprenticing told him he could be in a show.

"And the rest of the sentence came out: 'All you have to do is find and train a dog for us for this new show,'" Berloni said. "Well, that show was the original premiere of 'Annie' and so I went to a dog pound and paid $7 for the original Sandy, trained him as I trained my own pet. He did well. The show bombed."

But that wasn't the end of the story.

"Six months later, Mike Nichols' office called, said they were producing 'Annie' for Broadway with the original company and would I be interested?" he said. "'Annie' became a huge hit, and I became a famous animal trainer at the age of 20."


For 30 years, he's trained dogs for literally dozens of stage shows, not to mention commercials, movies and television even a horse for Elmo. Each and every one of those animals was a rescue.

"When I adopted the first Sandy back in 1976 - I'd never been in an animal shelter, and you know - as a 19-year-old going into an animal shelter, I'm so appalled by what I saw, that when I adopted Sandy, I made a promise to myself, that if I ever got another animal, it would be from a shelter," Berloni said.

When he needed many dogs for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," he held a casting call, open only to shelter dogs.

Berloni's farm in central Connecticut is a cross between a hotel and a retirement home for his theatrical menagerie. For his birthday, his wife Dorothy gave him a gift certificate for two lamas.

"So we drove to Vermont to the llama farm and I picked out Larry and Louie," he said. "And I thought, 'God, any woman who would add to this is someone I should probably marry.' So a month later for her birthday, I asked her to marry me."

Their daughter Jenna has decidedly mixed feelings about living with 16 dogs.

"We don't have room for sleepovers," she said.

Berloni swears there is no magic to what he does, but he acknowledges he has a gift. He, like Dr. Doolittle, can talk to the animals.

"I'm there to listen to them and so, it sort of cuts through the BS," Berloni said. "I guess somehow, I present myself. I open myself up and they go, 'Oh, you're interested in me."

His interest in them has made Berloni the perfect advocate for the shelter dogs he saves. He's director of animal behavior for the Humane Society of New York.

"It's sort of a philosophy I live my life for," he said. "It's a respect for nature and a respect for others. I don't come assuming I know anything about a particular dog or whatever. I let them tell me what makes them tick."

Here he's just trying to figure out who these dogs are and what they've suffered, so they can be matched up with the right homes. Theatrical casting is a little more complicated.

"The procedure is pretty much the same, but I'm looking for a super-dog," he said.

Like Chico, an abuse case from Newark, N.J., left outside year round as a guard dog.

Or Chloe, the casualty of a divorce, exiled to the concrete floor of a car repair shop before Berloni, an incurable believer in second chances, came along nobody wanted them. But just look at them now.



In June 2008, a book by Berloni and Jim Hanrahan came out in paperback. It's called "Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars." To read an excerpt, click here.
  • Caitlin Johnson

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