The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 21: Pondering a stage career
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This is Heidi. She was ‘discovered’ this year in the park by a pet talent agency; since then, she has embarked on a one-dog quest to break into the business. This is her Hollywood story as chronicled by Times staff writer Diane Haithman. And this is her “head shot”: That longing look was the result of seeing a biscuit just out of reach.
Because of her flair for the dramatic — including her achingly touching death scenes — I began to wonder if Hollywood might not be the place for Heidi; maybe my large-breed starlet would be better suited to project to the back row on a theater stage.
True, there seem to be many parts for dogs in TV and movies these days, but ... well, these roles were not offered to Heidi, although personally I don’t see why “Heidi & Me,” the movie, could not co-exist with “Marley & Me” — Heidi’s true story would have wider appeal to the female demographic (Dear 20th Century Fox: Maybe next Christmas?)
So the dog and I put in a call to a man who knows more about onstage canines than just about anyone: William Berloni of William Berloni’s Theatrical Animals, author of “Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars” (Lyons Press, 2008). Berloni’s company also serves TV and movies, but he is perhaps best known as the trainer who rescued a shy mutt from a shelter and trained him to become the first “Sandy” in the Broadway musical “Annie.” Berloni also counts among his stage credits training Bruiser, the Chihuahua who portrayed “Chico” in “Legally Blonde The Musical.” Since “Annie” premiered on Broadway in 1977, many dogs have portrayed Sandy in countless “Annie” productions.
When I talked to Berloni (who poses with Bear in the photo at left) he had already read about Little Orphan Heidi’s humble roots in a Texas storm drain. “This rescue dog hoping for a career shows that they can be rehabilitated and do great things,” he says. But Berloni points out that the stage requires something much different from a dog than the camera does.
“When I train for a film, I can control the set — I can yell ‘quiet on the set,’ ” Berloni says. “Onstage, you have to get it right on the first try, and you have to do it eight times a week in front of uncontrollable distractions. I can’t say to the audience: ‘Shhh, be quiet,’ I can’t tell the director we’re going to lay the music in later so the timpani doesn’t distract the dog.”
Berloni adds that the professional trainer can’t be nearby the way they can when the camera angle can keep the trainer out of the shot. Onstage, it is the actor, not the trainer, who gives the commands, so when designing stage behaviors for the dog, Berloni says, he has to keep it simple.
So what are Heidi’s onstage chances? Hard to say — but unfortunately, Berloni says, the same sort of typecasting plagues dogs on Broadway as it does a dog in Hollywood. “In my 32-year career, I’ve only had two calls for German shepherds,” Berloni says. “One was for a dog to play the role of Rin Tin Tin in a musical called ‘Going Hollywood,’ and the other was to play a Nazi guard dog in a World War II musical called ‘Masada.’ ”
Heidi is not alone, Berloni says; sadly, collies also face discrimination “because they look like Lassie, and nobody puts Lassie in a show. I grew up with a collie, my favorite dog in the world is a collie, and I never get to work with them.”