Bill Berloni and “Annie”

Evan Henerson

The star of the Broadway production is on the tour, but visitors to the hit musical “Annie” at the Pantages Theatre will see an understudy who has taken over for the leading player. Just cool your scandal-mongering, all you gossip hounds. This is not a leading player switch-out of “42nd Street” proportions. The performers are just fine with the substitution, assures the man who lives with both of them.

Sunny, who played Annie’s faithful four-legged companion Sandy in the 2012 Broadway revival, will certainly live to bark again for adoring audiences. But for now, understudy – but no underdog – Macy is the pooch under the lights.

“Macy has taken over the role of Sandy,” confirms Bill Berloni, the owner and trainer of both dogs. “It’s like a situation with dance partners. Issie Swickle (who plays Annie) has a slightly better rapport with Macy, so we decided to let it happen all the time.”

When Berloni talks about human-animal rapport, he knows whereof he speaks. The Connecticut-based trainer and operator of William Berloni Theatrical Animals, trained the original Sandy for “Annie’s” 1977 production at the Goodspeed Opera House and on Broadway. He has provided dogs for every major revival since, and has worked on countless regional, college and high school productions of the musical as well as the 2014 film with Quvenzhané Wallis.

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Bill Berloni with the very first Sandy (1977)

If successful Sandy-Annie pairings are indeed a “show-mance” between performer and pooch, then Berloni has spent nearly 40 years playing Cupid and helping to advance the course of true love so that it comes through convincingly on stage. That magic is accomplished through a certain amount of training, with actors learning and executing the commands that Sandy must perform during his 15 minutes of stage time. But this kind of puppy love is also fostered through offstage playtime, repeated routines and, well, alone time.

“When you go on the road, it’s a constant bonding experience,” Berloni says. “Many nights each week, Issie will have a sleepover with the dogs. She feeds then and when she goes to bed, they curl right up with her. We have created a real bond, not just a theater bond.”

Dogs being the creatures they are, that bond can be established, nurtured and even transferred. The original Sandy spent seven years on Broadway performing opposite five different Annies. Of course, that dog (whose offstage name was “Sandy”) was historic in more ways than one. In 1977, when “Annie” was being developed at Goodspeed, no live animal had ever had a major role in a live theatrical performance. At the time, Berloni was a 20-year old stagehand and aspiring performer who was offered the chance to get his card with Actors Equity if he could find and train a live dog that would play Orphan Annie’s companion. Berloni ended up at the Connecticut Humane Society where he rescued the abused and bedraggled dog at a cost of $7 mere hours before the animal was scheduled to be put down.

The rest is animal theatrical history. Sandy’s success opened the door for Berloni’s new career as the go-to animal trainer for the entertainment industry. For several years in the late 1970s and early 80s, Berloni, Sandy and Annie became celebrities, promoting the show on TV news programs and around the country. Sandy is featured prominently in Berloni’s 2008 autobiography “Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars.”

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Bill with the original Sandy

Should Berloni ever follow up with a volume of “More Broadway Tails,” Macy’s saga could fill up a chapter. A stray in Oklahoma City, Macy had been picked up by Animal Control. She was scheduled to be euthanized but the staff at the Animal Shelter loved her so much that they kept switching the date on her card to prolong her life. Macy was shuttled into the Prison Dog Training Program at the Davis Correctional Center where she spent six months with prisoners, but was the only dog in her class not to be adopted. When Berloni found her, she had landed with a Dalmatian rescue organization, the only non-Dalmatian of the bunch.

“It’s through the kindness of so many strangers that she has gone on to entertain,” Berloni says of Macy who has appeared in more than two dozen productions of the musical.

Sunny’s saga is equally dramatic. Berloni cast her practically sight-unseen out of a Houston animal shelter 24 hours before her time at the shelter was coming to an end. She became the subject of the Al Roker Entertainment program “Annie’s Search for Sandy” and is featured in the book “New York Dog.”

Of course the alternative to stardom for either dog would potentially have been very grim. “I’m probably one of the few people who casts roles where, if you don’t give the actor the role, the actor could die,” Berloni says.

All of Berloni’s performing animals are rescued, which represents the fulfillment of a promise that Berloni made to himself nearly 40 years ago when he went looking for the first Sandy and learned of the plight of stray dogs. He is an officer of the New York Humane Society and an advocate for humane treatment of animals. He received a special 2011 Tony Award for Excellence in the Theatre and is the subject of the Discovery Family Channel reality show “From Wags to Riches.” He is a regular participant in the annual Broadway Barks animal adoption event, and he received the Richard Craven Award from the American Humane Association.

Bill Berloni.

Bill Berloni stands with Taran, One of 30 rescue animals on Bill’s farm.

“I try to be a role model,” he says. “There are still no laws protecting animals in entertainment, and that has been something that has always bothered me. I set my own standards based on conscience. I have walked out of shows and given up gainful employment when people have asked me to do things that are not humane. There is no governing board that steps in to protect my rights or to protect my animals.”

“I have set standards, and with those standards have come certain costs,” he continues. “If a dog needs a quiet place to rest, I will trade dollars out of my contract to get a dressing room so the dog can rest. These are things that I hope producers start to accept on their own. They are very accepting on ‘Annie.’”

This is hardly surprising given Berloni’s history with the show and with original director Martin Charnin. The two have worked together on multiple Broadway and touring revivals of the show as well as the sequel “Annie Warbucks.” Berloni estimates that he has provided Sandys for as many as 100 productions of the musical.

Some of the experiences have come with creative speed bumps. As detailed in the Annie Gets her Walking Papers chapter of “Broadway Tails,” the 20th anniversary revival had a lot of offstage drama including the dismissal of lead actress Joanna Pacitti four weeks before the production was scheduled to open on Broadway.

From a showmance perspective, that tale has a happy ending. While Brittny Kissinger played the role on Broadway opposite the Sandy of Cindy Lou, Berloni helped ease Pacitti’s disappointment by giving her Zappa, the Sandy with whom she had rehearsed, bonded and fallen in love.

That circumstance is extremely rare, says Berloni. The animals he trains may end up among the dogs who live on his farm (currently at 30) or they may get adopted by a loving family, but Sandys are not routinely paired off with Annies once the show is at an end.

“We do this because we love them and want to give them forever homes,” says Berloni. “The business that came down the pike (in 1997) and disappointed that child… she really loved that dog, and I wanted her to leave with a piece of herself intact. The show obviously was not happy, but I was just more concerned with Joanne Pacitti’s welfare.”

Berloni recently finished the musical “Moonshine: That Hee-Haw Musical” for which he supplied bloodhounds. He’s got animals in “The Wizard of Oz” tour and is one of the producers of “Because of Winn Dixie” in which the dog isn’t just a key player, he’s the star. He’ll train the Toto for NBC’s live version of “The Wiz” following up on his work training Nana for “Peter Pan Live”

Of his regular recurring gigs, “The Wizard of Oz” is a favorite (“I grew up on that movie and recreating it for stage audiences is wonderful the stage”) as is “Legally Blonde” (“Hanging around with all those young women is great energy. It keeps me awake.”).

But Berloni says measures every new show against that first experience with “Annie.”

“I was 20 when ‘Annie’ opened on Broadway. A week later, I was being interviewed by the ‘New York Times’ theater section, and that original production went on to the White House,” Berloni said. “Everything that happened in that particular production changed my life and set the standard for what I would try to do with the rest of my life. Sandy was the dog who taught me everything I knew.”

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Evan Henerson has been writing about theater in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. He was the Theater writer and critic for the Los Angeles Daily News for nine years and has written for Playbill Online, Backstage, American Theatre and Stage Directions.You can read his reviews on TheaterMania, CurtainUp and Examiner.com.

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