‘Annie’s’ best friend

Without Mikey or his understudy, Oliver, there wouldn’t be an “Annie.” Mikey and Oliver are good, old-fashioned American mutts.
“You look at them and say, ‘What the heck are they?’” said Bill Berloni, Broadway’s premier dog trainer.
More than 30 years ago, Berloni visited a dog pound and found the original Sandy to play Little Orphan Annie’s canine companion. Since then, dogs performing the role need to have certain characteristics.
“It’s got to be beige-colored, like the first Broadway Sandy,” Berloni said. “Beige-colored with a scruffy beard, funny ears.”
The cast and crew of “Annie” will roll into Tupelo for a Jan. 12 performance at the BancorpSouth Arena. Mikey and Oliver will arrive in style.
“We have a customized van, a big, red van that says ‘Annie’ on it,” Berloni said during a phone interview from New York. “They sleep on the back seat while the trainers drive.”
They get their downtown, but these are working dogs. They have cues to hit and lines to deliver.
“In ‘Annie,’ the dog barks at a police man,” Berloni said. “The police man comes in and chases people off stage and he says, ‘All right, move along. All you bums outta here.’
“To Mikey, that means, ‘Bark, bark bark.’”

Honey over vinegar
Over the past 30 years, Berloni has trained animals for television, movies and plays. It all started at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.
“They decided to do a show with a dog in it, but they couldn’t afford a professional dog trainer,” he said. “The producer needed a sucker. He called me into his office and offered me a chance to be in one of his musicals if I would find and train a dog for no money.”
Berloni was 19 at the time. He’d grown up with dogs, but had no experience as a trainer.
“When they first wrote ‘Annie,’ the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t get an animal to do the same thing eight times a week in front of an audience,” he said. “Nobody told this 19-year-old kid or my director.
“My thought was, I’m not going to force this animal to work, but how can I create a situation where it would want to?” Berloni continued. “How can I create a situation on stage where a little dog would want to run on stage to see a little girl? Make it fun. Then they do it every night.”
Clearly, his honey over vinegar approach proved successful.
“A year later, we were opening ‘Annie’ on Broadway, and I became a world famous animal trainer at the age of 20,” said Berloni, who details his training philosophy in his autobiography, “Broadway Tails.”
“It’s all about common sense and kindness, not domination and control,” he said. “When you train with a negative reinforcement, an animal will look to escape to avoid that negative reinforcement. If you feel safe, you’re going to go ahead and perform.”

Talent
Training is important, but Berloni said one trait is essential: Talent. You wouldn’t look at a baby in a crib and offer her the role of Annie. Berloni said that same logic applies to puppies.
“I choose adult dogs, rescue dogs, because their personalities are intact. They’re not going to change,” he said. “I look for adult dogs that have the temperament to do this job.”
Canine performers need the ability to handle stress and have a low threshold for aggression, and they need to be willing to please.
From there, it’s a matter of finding out what the dog wants.
“The dog chooses. The dog tells me, whether it’s a toy, whether it’s a treat,” Berloni said. “Some of them just work for affection.”
When Mikey hits his mark or recites his lines, he’s immediately rewarded by a trainer or one of the actors.
“If a dog were on stage and had to look off stage at the trainers to get the commands and rewards, it would be ludicrous,” Berloni said. “Having an acting background, I knew the dog had to listen to the character on stage. We train the actors to give all the commands and give all the rewards.”
As long as the actors are properly trained to give Mikey or Oliver what they want, audiences can enjoy one of America’s favorite musicals as it was intended to be seen: with a beige-colored mutt with a scruffy beard and funny ears at center stage.

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@djournal.com.

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M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal