Driving through the back roads of Haddam on a summer’s afternoon, you pass stretch after stretch of quiet meadows and dense woods, of hills both gentle and rugged. For a while, you can almost forget you’re just minutes from major highways, train routes, and airports.
You’re in great expanses of nature, which may be a pleasant idle for you, but if you’re a dog living with Bill and Dorothy Berloni, it’s not only home, it’s heaven, complete with a field of dreams.
Pull into the long gravel driveway off a secluded road, and in the distance, you’ll see a large house with several indoor and outdoor wings located on a raised ridge overlooking vast stretches of meadows, woods, and 90 acres. Your first hint that this is not just any rural Connecticut home is from the sudden chorus of barks, alerting the homeowners that someone is approaching their turf.
This is the home of William Berloni Theatrical Animals, where the residents on this day include 25 dogs, three cats, a macaw, horse, donkey, pig and — from the 2018 Broadway play The Ferryman — two geese and a bunny.
As we walk to the main house’s entrance, we spot a life-like bronze statue of the dog that started it all — the canine rescued by a then-19-year-old Berloni from a local pound. This dog played Sandy in the world premiere of the musical Annie at the Goodspeed 45 years ago — and later when the show transferred to Broadway.
Sandy began Berloni’s unexpected career as animal trainer and behaviorist for the stage, film, and television. In 2011, he received a special Tony Award for his work, which includes more than 20 Broadway shows, including Bullets Over Broadway, The Crucible, A Christmas Story, The Audience, and countless shows off-Broadway and in regional productions
He’s also been the animal go-to guy for TV’s The Leftovers, Billions, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Little Voice, Ramy, Mr. Robot, Sesame Street, and a host of others shows and commercials (iRobot, Busch Dog Brew, Rachel Ray Nutrish). His first movie was for 1981’s Neighbors with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and was followed by many more, including The Greatest Showman, Charlie Wilson’s War and Julia Robert’s latest film, Ben Is Back.
Hanging with Bowdie
The sounds of the barking dogs inside their enclosed space gradually die down, and soon, the only sounds we hear are the gentle clinks from wind chimes hanging on the porch and the bounding thumps of a trio of dogs Berloni brought out to socialize.
“The dogs only bark if they’re unhappy or if there’s someone who’s entered the property,” says Berloni. “But if they’re content, they just hang out.”
One of the dogs who gallumps out of the house to enthusiastically greet the new visitors is a major star, Bowdie, (a cross between “a poodle and something large,” describes Berloni). Bowdie was featured as Nana in NBC’s Peter Pan Live (the first dog to play a role on live television and in front of 10 million people) and starred in a memorable episode of HBO’s High Maintenance, which was entirely told from the pooch’s point of view. (The performance was so extraordinary that producers wanted to nominate the dog for an Emmy.) Local audiences know him as the star of the Goodspeed Musical, Because of Winn Dixie.
Berloni also brings out Cha Cha, a chihuahua, who he cradles in his arm. She’s in the latest generation of Legally Blonde dogs. Also, dashing into the brush looking for rabbits was Sonny, who was in the 2012 Broadway revival of Annie. “She’s close to 13 now,” says Berloni. “This is also a retirement home, as well as a rescue home, as well as a training and working dog home.”
All the animals get along, says Berloni, but that’s because he understands the dynamics of each breed. “They are grouped by size and temperament. So there’s the hounds, the terriers, the little dogs, the ‘Sandy’ dogs, and the ‘Toto’ dogs.
There’s a big, open, cage-free space indoors with air conditioning, resin floors (easy to clean), and Dutch doors, so pack groupings are always within an eyeshot. And yes, in the main house, the Berlonis sleep on their king-sized bed with a few dogs— about five, actually, including 85-pound Bowdie.
“If we have a dog needing high-active training, they get brought into the inner sanctum, but basically, we allow the ones that are the quietest to come in.”
There’s even a sort of assisted living residence section “for the older ones, once they get to the point when they’re medically infirm.”
The days begin for the Berlonis at 6:30 a.m., when the animals are let outside. After their own breakfast, they begin the two-hour process of feeding everyone else, which ends around 10 a.m. Then there’s another outside recess at noon, 2, and 4 p.m. In the intervals, there’s training of the animals for upcoming jobs or training in general.
Berloni’s special gift with animals is rooted in the positive connections he makes with them. He doesn’t shout, threaten, or give menacing whispers. Understanding the particulars of the breeds, he creates an environment where the animals look forward to the training because of the focused attention he gives them — and the treats, too.
Ah, the treats. What’s the secret snack? He simply gives them what he normally feeds them, he says. “If you start with something very tasty for a ‘sit,’ where do you go from there when you need them to do something special? But just like us, every dog has a palate, and you find out what their most favorite thing is, you save that for the one moment you really need them to focus.”
In the end, he says, “It’s not really about the treats anyway, but rather they’re doing [what we ask them to do] because they want to please us.”
The regular meals, however, vary depending on the breed, allergies, and health concerns. “Out of 25 dogs, I probably make 11 different diets.”
The pandemic took a toll on Berloni’s animal enterprise, having to lay off staff and taking on most of the caretaking themselves. Berloni says he’s lost multiple filming and theater jobs because of the national shut-down, but being home for such an extended period, Berloni says, “I was just very happy being amongst them.”
The dogs also felt the pangs of being unemployed. “Bowdie was going nuts,” he says. “Here was a dog who was out working with all sorts of companies, and then suddenly, it was just Dorothy and I.
[When they’re not working] they miss all that [outside socialization], so we had to work twice as hard to keep them occupied and engaged.”
Professional gigs have started to increase slowly, but hopes to bring Because of Winn Dixie to New York are still on hold because of the financial risk during the ever-changing pandemic restrictions. Like many actors who have grown too old to play youthful roles, Bowdie has “aged out” of that starring gig, with another star-in-training when the production restarts. But Bowdie is still very much employable and has just completed a Hallmark television movie, Sand Dollar Cove.
Upcoming projects for Berloni include work for the Sex and the City follow-up HBO series, And Just Like That, and a film based on Sigrid Nunez’s best-seller, award-winning novel The Friend: A Novel, about an author mourning the suicide of her mentor-friend and inheriting his Great Dane.
Theatrical jobs are still sparse because of the changing COVID levels and restrictions,” but our first big stage show is for the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis [in November].”
The show? Annie.
Photographed by FRANK RIZZO