EAST HADDAM — Bill Berloni has kind eyes, a steady presence and a calm voice. It isn’t difficult to imagine a shy or traumatized dog, large or small, trusting him at first sight.
Berloni is a nationally-known humane trainer of animals used on stage, television and in film. His business, William Berloni Theatrical Animals, has been successful for 30 years, and he is the only trainer to earn a special Tony award. Berloni’s latest project is “Because of Winn Dixie,” directed by John Rando and running at Goodspeed Musicals through Sept. 5.
The production stars Bowdie as the titular gentle giant (“a poodle crossed with something large”) who adopts a lonely girl, Opal, and brings a community together.
While working at the Goodspeed Opera House in the 1970s, the then 19-year-old Berloni famously found his calling when he found, at the Connecticut Humane Society, a scraggy and terrified mutt scheduled to be euthanized the next day. This dog went on to star, under Berloni’s intuitive training, in the Goodspeed production of “Annie” and in the Broadway hit, never missing a performance in seven years.
Berloni had no previous training experience, but he did have a great love for animals. He grew up on a farm as an only child.
“From the time I was 2, I had a collie, a cat, and a bunny. And even though the only other children I would see were my cousins, whom we visited on weekends, I don’t remember having a lonely childhood. I remember having a vivid childhood, with my animals. My experience of having four-legged creatures not as my property but as my companions, my family, was ingrained before I could even talk.”
A passionate animal advocate, Berloni vowed, after saving Sandy, that he would rescue — not purchase — every animal he used for projects.
“I believe you adopt an animal for life and accept that responsibility.” He and his wife, Dorothy, and their daughter, live on a 90-acre Connecticut farm with donkeys, horses, pigs, birds and 31 dogs — to date.
As an advocate, Berloni greatly values his role as Animal Advocate and Behaviorist for the Humane Society of New York. “It’s is a small, no-kill shelter that’s been there for about 100 years. About 30 years ago, the executive director asked me to come in as a consultant. So every week, I meet the dogs and I’m able to say, ‘This one’s shy: he should go to a home without children.’ And if an animal has behavioral problems, I can help them remedy that in the shelter so the animal can be adopted.”
Berloni goes on to say, “When I go there, nobody knows who I am — they just think of me as a trainer — so I’m able to hone my skills and get grounded. Certainly being an entertainer and an artist is important, but I also feel like I’m sneaking off every week to do something good for the world.”
Berloni does a great deal of good as a theatrical trainer as well. Adamant about each animal’s comfort, onstage and backstage, he’s happy that Goodspeed Musicals has, as he says, “gone the extra mile.”
“In ‘Because of Winn Dixie,’ everything has been designed around the dog. The stage is carpeted so that Bowdie’s furry paws won’t slip. The wings are designed so that we, the trainers, can be hidden from the audience.” Berloni grins. “The Goodspeed isn’t known for its great cooling mechanisms. And for Bowdie, working in the summer is like asking a human actor to wear a heavy coat for two hours. So we have cooling blankets and ice backstage for him.”
Bowdie is also protected from what might seem like too much loud music, noise, and bright light for an animal to comfortably tolerate, especially in a climactic scene. Berloni says, “I love to be able to talk about those kinds of moments because one of the benchmarks of being a good trainer is being transparent. So I’m proud to say that if an audience member ever feels that any of our animals are uncomfortable, come knock on my stage door.” Berloni goes on to explain that dogs can tolerate up to 90 decibels of sound before they become stressed.
“So you tell the sound designer that nothing over 90 decibels can filter onto the stage; it’s just a matter of science.”
What Berloni does with Bowdie is also a matter of art: a theatrical production that literally stars a dog is unusual.
“Since Winn Dixie is onstage for two hours out of a two-hour and 30-minute show, one of our main concepts was to make sure that he didn’t do anything a real dog wouldn’t do. That way, audience members would see the dog, think of their own dogs, and be moved on that level.”
Suddenly, the door from the dressing rooms into the Members’ Lounge bursts open, and Josie Todd, who plays young Opal, streaks out with a huge grin on her face. Cast members crowd in behind her, and in their midst is Bowdie. He dives for Berloni, leaning up against him, nose to nose. Then Bowdie makes his rounds and everyone is as delighted by him as if they had just met, rather than just having been onstage together for the past two and a half hours. Berloni laughs.
“Bowdie has to be one of the most promiscuous actors ever to play at the Goodspeed,” he says. “During any given week, he’s sleeping at someone else’s house, instead of home. This week, two nights he’s with Josie, two nights he’s with Brian Hoffman (who plays Jiggs Thomas), two nights he’s with my other trainer. But tonight is my night.”
Suddenly, Berloni’s mood changes and his voice thickens slightly. “He just loves everybody so much, and they love him ... and let me tell you, animals are treated so badly, and for him to receive all that love ... and for the people in the show to feel such love from him ... I just feel very lucky to be part of that.”
As Bowdie circles back to his human dad, it looks like he feels even luckier.