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Local Boy Makes Good: Bill Berloni

By Bob Herrmann-Keeling.

(Dec. 6, 2014) — If you watched Peter Pan last week, you may have stayed for the credits. After all, there was a well-trained dog (“Nana”) in the show, and who do we Haddamites have as a premier animal trainer for movies, TV, and Broadway but our own Tony-award winner, Mr. William (“Bill”) Berloni. And sure enough, there was his name.

Bill Berloni

Most of us are aware that Mr. Berloni is famous for having gotten and trained the original “Sandy” for the musical Annie when it debuted at the Goodspeed. He tells us how it happened in his book, Broadway Tails:

“I was nineteen and had just completed my first year at Central Connecticut State College as an acting major. I was an apprentice at the Goodspeed Opera House for my second year when Michael Price, executive producer, called me to his office. I assumed I was in big trouble. Instead he asked me if I’d like my Actor’s Equity card. He was offering to sponsor me!

“All I had to do was find and train a dog for a new show the Goodspeed was introducing. Without spending any money. I had never trained a dog before, but in true show-business fashion I agreed. One of the crew suggested I look for a dog at the local dog pounds. So I went dog shopping.”

After lack of success at several “pounds,” he went to the Connecticut Humane Society. Many more dogs, but no luck. That is, until he turned a corner and saw a dog cowering in the shadows. “I stopped and knelt down. He turned his head over his shoulder and looked at me with the biggest, saddest brown eyes I had ever seen.”

They said Bill could have this dog for seven dollars if he took him right now; the next day he was due to be put down. Bill had only three dollars and they were closing in fifteen minutes. “I couldn’t get the money and be back in time. I begged, I pleaded, but they would not bend the rules. I felt like I was condemning the dog to death.”

But with the help of some friends, Bill was at the shelter when it opened at 6:30 the next morning. He got the dog and brought him back to the theater and tied “Sandy” to the stage. “I turned around to check on him and there was Martin Charnin (who had conceived the show, written the lyrics, and was directing) gently petting him. I started to blurt out, “Mr. Charnin, this is…” and he looked at me and said, “He’s perfect. This is our Sandy.”

As they say, “the rest is history.” Annie opened on August 10, 1976 (38 years ago), then went on for a six-year run on Broadway at what is now the Neil Simon Theater. It has been staged many times since, in theaters around the world, and is still going strong.

Meanwhile, Bill Berloni wanted to be an actor, not an animal trainer. But he kept getting nudged off the acting path because of his skills at training animals for plays, movies, and musicals. For more about him and his special journey, read his book Broadway Tails. He’ll even sign it for you, as he did for us when he spoke after Haddam Killingworth High School performed “Annie.”

In it, you’ll learn about the many animals Bill has rescued from animal shelters (his only source for all his stage-bound animals) and trained for the theater. All the animals he trains are from shelters, and they own all the animals he trains.

Bill is not just an animal trainer for Broadway, TV, and motion pictures. He has also been honored for his special achievements. In 2011 he received a special Tony Award for Excellence in the Theatre (the photo is from the night he received that award). And in 2014 he received a Special Achievements Award from the Outer Critics Circle, in recognition of the outstanding performances by his dogs in Annie, The Open House, The Three Penny Opera, Bullets Over Broadway and Lady Day, all in one season!

But however much he has rescued and trained animals for the theater, or worked with some of the brightest stars in acting, or been honored with awards, or even has his name listed in the credits of Peter Pan…he is still “our Bill Berloni” from Haddam, the local boy who made good.

Photo courtesy of Dorothy Berloni.

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