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When Heidi Met 'Sandy'

Broadway dog trainer William Berloni is back in the news with a new production of "Annie." We recall Heidi’s close encounter with Bill and a rescue dog star

 A belated Happy Thanksgiving from Heidi.  Thanksgiving is always great day for dogs, when delicious food items magically fall from the sky – it’s raining turkey scraps, hallelujah!  It’s also a good day for dogs to watch TV. As usual, Heidi watched the National Dog Show. She fell asleep right after her own category, Herding Dog, and snored right through the terriers and the Non-sporting Group. Heidi’s no show dog, but if there was an Eating Group, I think she’d have a shot.

But Heidi was so busy worrying about who would get to eat the turkey liver (all yours, sweetheart) that she missed a TV appearance by an old friend of hers during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade:  Broadway animal trainer William Berloni, who rescued and trained Broadway’s first “Sandy” for the original production of Annie in 1977. And he’s at it again:  At the parade, Bill appeared with the cast of the recently opened Annie production at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. That cast includes Sunny, the latest rescue dog to portray Annie’s dog Sandy.

Bill, a 2011 Tony Honor Recipient for his work with stage dogs, has made a practice of casting rescue dogs in all of the Broadway shows he’s worked on, including the Chihuahua for Legally Blonde, The Musical. But for more than 30 years, for more any other show, he’s been the official “Sandy” scout for Annie.  Sunny, a 2-year-old terrier mix from Houston, was 48 hours from being put down when Bill snatched her up. You can watch Bill’s search for the newest Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 27 on Hallmark Movie Channel’s cable television premiere of Annie’s Search for Sandy.

“Annie and the original Sandy not only gave me a career, but they gave me the opportunity to champion the plight of unwanted animals everywhere,” Bill says. “Being asked once again to find a new Sandy reminds me that when I rescue a new dog, they rescue me right back.  I am the luckiest guy in the world.  And our new Sandy is right up there with the great Broadway performing dogs.”

Well, she may not be up there with Broadway’s great performing dogs – but our Heidi did get a chance to meet Bill in Los Angeles in 2009 when 30th anniversary touring production of Annie landed at the Pantages.  I interviewed Bill for the Los Angeles Times, and his soft spot for rescue dogs led him to invite my rescue dog/aspiring actress to make a walk-on appearance in the show.

Heidi also got to meet Mikey, that production’s Sandy, the day before her walk-on.  The idea was for Mikey to get used to Heidi’s scent before he sniffed her out backstage on performance day.  Bill explained to us that the kind of dog who can handle a starring stage role is also a bit of a loner that can be aggressive with other dogs. Heidi and Mikey met right here in Weddington Park, Studio City, home to the stars. Although they seemed to tolerate each other, we kept them apart backstage. 

At the time he won his Tony honor, Bill lamented that tight theatrical budgets have resulted in fewer and fewer calls for skilled dog actors onstage these days, and of course that means less stage work for dog trainers. But Heidi and I are honored to have met the top dog.

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