New York, New York – Little Orphan Annie’s new dog “Sandy” was saved at the eleventh hour by her very own Daddy Warbucks.
Sunny, a two-year old terrier mix, was in a shelter in Houston, Texas, where dogs are only given 48 hours in the shelter before they are euthanized. She had already been there for a day when her picture was seen by just the right person: William Berloni.
Berloni is an animal trainer famous in film and theater circles. He has trained such canine stars as Toto in the Broadway production of “The Wizard of Oz,” and Bruiser, Reese Witherspoon’s Chihuahua in the “Legally Blonde” films. It all began with Sandy, the beloved dog in Broadway’s “Annie.”
In 1976, Berloni was a 19-year-old actor looking for a break. A producer offered him a chance if he could fulfill one small requirement: find and train a dog for the first Broadway production of “Annie.” He fulfilled the requirement and then some, giving the world the scruffy but lovable Sandy.
There have been many “Sandys” since that first production, and Berloni has found and trained them all. Each and every one of them, including the first, was a shelter dog.
“Somebody told me they had cheap dogs at the pound,” says Berloni of looking for his canine actors. “When I saw the conditions they were living in, I was profoundly moved. So I made a promise to myself that I would only get rescue dogs from then on.”
Berloni adopted Sunny without ever having met her. He saw her picture online – when she was mislabeled as a male dog named Bruno – and was captured by her sweet face and the description of her that accompanied the picture. At first, he didn’t think of her as a candidate for the role of Sandy, but just wanted to save her because she looked like she deserved a chance. He forwarded the picture to one of the show’s producers, who replied, “Save her. I don’t care what it costs.” He recruited a colleague who lived nearby to adopt Sunny by proxy, and she was shipped to New York. When Berloni met her, he was immediately smitten by her personality. She auditioned for the role and got it. Berloni does admit that a lot of it is her looks, which are strikingly similar to the first Sandy: “It’s something about the sad eyes,” Berloni said. “They just get you. It was definitely typecasting.”
Sunny will spend the next months rehearsing and preparing for her new life. Besides learning the role, she needs to learn to ignore a live audience, which can be hard for an animal as social as a dog. In addition, Sunny has other obstacles to overcome, according to Berloni. “First, we have to get her acclimated to life in New York City,” he said. “She was a stray, and might have been hit by a car, so she gets a little nervous when cars drive by, which can be a problem in New York.”
The show is set to begin previews at the Palace Theatre on October 3, 2012, with an official opening date of November 8, 2012. This production will be special in a whole new way, too. Pedigree, the dog food company, is sponsoring the new Broadway production and will donate $2 for every ticket sold through December 31, 2013 (up to $1 million) to a nonprofit dedicated to helping dogs find homes.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Pedigree Senior Brand Manager Lisa Campbell “hopes the initiative will put a spotlight on the plight of homeless dogs. ‘Shelter dogs aren’t broken — they just haven’t been given the chance,’ she said. ‘What a great vehicle to show people that you can find a star in a shelter. A dog that is now a Broadway star very easily could have been euthanized.’”
That goes for Sunny’s understudy, too. If for any reason Sunny can’t perform, “Sandy” will be played by Casey, who was rescued from a shelter in Nashville, Tennessee.
And what happens to Sunny and Casey and the other animal stars when they aren’t working or it’s time to retire? They go to live a life of leisure at Beloni’s Connecticut farm. All in all, it’s a very happy ending for a dog that truly had a “hard-knock life.”
One last thought from Berloni, as told to Broadway Fan Club in an interview:
“What I make a personal commitment to is human education: educating children as to the fact that animals are sentient beings, and just because they’re in a shelter they’re not disposable. All the animals that I’ve trained were either close to being euthanized or in a shelter. If you’re looking for a pet, a shelter is a good place to go because that’s where Bill Berloni goes to get his Broadway stars. I love talking to kids, because you can’t build enough shelters to house the animals — but if you can sway one kid to adopt one animal, that’s one less animal that’s going to end up in a shelter.”