Blanca the dog has her day tramping the boards with 'Oliver!'
In 1976, William Berloni, a budding actor, took an apprenticeship at the Goodspeed Opera House, in Connecticut, during the season they staged the first production of Annie. The producer couldn't afford a dog trainer, and everyone else threatened to quit, so he offered Berloni, a self-professed sucker, a role in return for training the dog. Harold Gray, the cartoonist who created Annie, had drawn a red dog with pointy ears, which turned out to be impossible find. Instead, Berloni adopted a sandy mutt from the humane society for $7, and the script was rewritten to include "a sandy-colored dog of indistinguishable origin."
The show bombed in Connecticut, but Mike Nichols called Berloni when he took it to Broadway. It opened in 1977 and, at age 20, he was a famous animal trainer.
Sixteen Broadway shows and numerous other theater, film and television credits later, Berloni lives on a farm in Connecticut with 15 dogs, four cats, three horses, two llamas and a miniature donkey - all rescue animals, all would-be stars. He spoke briefly with the Current about his work and Blanca the Bull Terrier, who plays Bullseye in Cameron McIntosh's production of Oliver!, coming to the Majestic Theatre.
How many of your animals live in the house?
The dogs live with us. On stage, the dogs have to be so well socialized; if you kennel them they lose that. The entire downstairs is divided - the people half and the dog half. We rotate them in and, of course, three or four sleep in the bed every night.
Do you have family performance nights?
No, when they are at home and not working, they are just dogs. To sit around eight hours a day and keep a dog up to snuff in the hopes of a show would be a waste of time and would make them crazy - they work because they are happy and well adjusted.
You have a BFA in theatre - why no stage for you?
The right place right time. I found a career that I love doing, and it's working with animals in shows. With the gift that I have, I get more opportunities as a trainer, than I ever would have as an actor.
So, do you ever feel jealous of the animals you train?
Not at all. If the dog makes a mistake on stage, I can say "It's just an animal!" If I do, I've got to take my notes.
Where was Blanca discovered?
I worked with the Bull Terrier Rescue Club of America and they helped find Blanca in a shelter in Indianapolis. She was 6 years old and had spent the last two years tied up in a garage. She was emaciated, but she took well to the kindness we showed her. Now she lives in a hotel room, has a personal trainer, and travels in a customized SUV.
At the shelter, the dogs are either clambering to escape, depressed and laying low, or just hanging out. That's your dog; if it can handle that stress and is friendly with people, putting it on a stage will be no problem.
Do they ever turn you down?
All dogs are trainable, but some don't enjoy the life as much as I would hope they do. Some would rather be homebodies, and those we retire and find them a nice home.
Blanca is a purebred, is it hard for mixed breed dogs to get work?
I think there is more artistic demand for purebreds, especially on films, where a producer will ask for three back ups, which are much easier to find with a purebred. In a play, it's different: Producers like mix breeds because they are unique.
For Wizard of OZ, I've got to have a Carin Terrier, because that's what happened to be in the studio when they made the film - as opposed to the Scotty in Baum's book.
Is Blanca on a special lo carb diet?
No. We feed them high quality dog food and limit their treats. I believe in holistic food for dogs - for health rather than training. We look for no artificial preservative or colors, and no bi-products.
Does Blanca have a show biz mom?
Blanca's handler is actually Guy Wegener, an ensemble actor in the show. We put him through a two month training course, working every day. They become the dog trainer first, actor second.
What is Blanca's greatest gift as an actress?
Tolerance for the follies of human behavior. The villain of the show wields a stick, kills his girlfriend, beats the children and the dog. Some dogs would not have gotten over that violent act night after night, but Blanca has the ability to understand that it is just play.
Flatulence: This breed can really let it go. Her first entrance is into a crowded tavern - you know when she lets one, because you can see the whole ensemble turn upstage and laugh.
Does she have pre-show rituals?
Every theatre they go into she has to be given full reign to sniff it out. If you don't honor that, she is always on edge. From night to night, she has to walk through and say hello to everyone, and then she is ready to go to work.
Does she get along with the rest of the cast?
We choose dogs that are people friendly. It is made clear that `the actors` all have to say hello to her. If there is someone who is afraid or acting afraid, she'll zero in on them, and get distracted. If she goes to the theater knowing there are 40 people there who love her, she'll drag us to the stage door.
How many lines does she have?
After the villain kills his girlfriend, the townspeople are looking for him and she leads the police through London. It's not scripted, but sometimes she barks.
What's next for Blanca?
We were able to find her breeders, and she'll go back to them when the show is over. Each one of these dogs amazes me; the way they forgive is such an honorable trait. It is just so wonderful to witness. I hope I'm giving her a taste of the good life before she goes home to retire.
How big is a miniature donkey?
About the size of a Shetland pony.
Is he a show animal?
Please, get him a job. •
By Susan Pagani