Performing Arts

Meet the man who turned these adorable stray dogs into stars

Trainer Bill Berloni says the touring production of The Wizard of Oz offers challenges for the dogs, including being still during the musical numbers.
Trainer Bill Berloni says the touring production of The Wizard of Oz offers challenges for the dogs, including being still during the musical numbers. © Daniel A Swalec

Sarah Lasko — the leading lady in The Wizard of Oz, the musical that opens Tuesday night at Bass Hall — was a cat person growing up.

But “must love dogs” is part of the job description when playing Dorothy, the Kansas farm girl who gets swept away by a tornado to a magical land with her four-legged friend, Toto.

“They asked me during the very first audition: ‘Do you like dogs?’ ” Lasko remembers. “It was obvious from the start it was going to be a requirement.

“I love dogs, but I never actually had one as a pet. I grew up with cats. But I was ready for a dog.”

After she was cast as Dorothy, the actress not only had to master every nuance of her performance, but also trained to work as a dog handler — because it is she who gives Nigel and Loki, the two adorably talented cairn terriers that play Toto, their commands onstage.

Watch closely and you’ll see subtle interaction between Dorothy and Toto.

Canine co-stars

Lasko says she could not have asked for better canine friends and co-workers.

“It’s been fun learning how to be a dog handler onstage,” she says. “It’s definitely a challenge having a live animal onstage, but it’s also been really quite easy because they’re so good at what they do.

“Our dogs are incredible. They know the show backwards and forwards. They know what to do every night. They’re so smart, so consistent.”

Nigel, the main Toto, and Loki, the understudy, have even bonded with Lasko off the stage.

“We have sleepovers sometimes in the hotel,” she says. “It’s so fun.”

He was in an animal shelter there. I found him online and I called and adopted him sight unseen.

Dog trainer Bill Berloni

These dogs’ tales — from hardscrabble early lives to stardom — are classic showbiz success stories. They are both rescue animals, given their second chances because Bill Berloni, their guardian/trainer, saw something extraordinary in them.

“Nigel, our main dog, came from Little Rock, Ark.,” Berloni says. “He was in an animal shelter there. I found him online and I called and adopted him sight unseen, which is unusual, because usually I go to see the dogs to make sure they have the right temperament. That was six years ago.”

In addition to the current North American tour of The Wizard of Oz, which began in December, Nigel has appeared as Toto in The Wiz alongside Ashanti on the New York stage, and co-starred with Marcia Gay Harden in the 2011 movie Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You.

“We found Loki five years ago through a rescue group called Cairn Rescue USA,” Berloni says. “He was an owner surrender (from a Missouri puppy mill) and a sweet little guy.”

Loki’s first production of The Wizard of Oz was as the understudy in the 2009 national tour. The next year, he took over as the lead Toto on that tour.

Nigel is basically a hero dog. He’s not afraid of anything ... Loki is more of a snuggler ... He could lay in your lap or in your arms forever.

Sarah Lasko, “Dorothy”

They have distinctly different personalities.

“Nigel is basically a hero dog,” Lasko says. “He’s not afraid of anything. He’s my protector. If we are out in public and there’s another dog, he’s always ready to make sure that I’m safe.

“Loki is more of a snuggler. He likes to cuddle up with you. He could lay in your lap or in your arms forever.”

Those traits show up on stage, too.

“Onstage, Nigel is always ready to do anything,” Lasko says. “He would jump through hoops on fire. He’s kind of fearless. Loki is more the kind who’s ready for you to take the lead.

“They’re very different, but they’re both very sweet.”

Toto is a very demanding role for a dog actor: people onstage and backstage running in all directions, bright lights, loud noises, people in the audience.

“It is one of the most complicated shows for an animal performer, because in our story Toto is with Dorothy pretty much in every scene,” Berloni says. “So we do give him rest breaks throughout the show.

Believe it or not, out of all the things he has to do over the course of the evening, the hardest of all is simply sitting still when Dorothy sings

Dog trainer Bill Berloni

“But believe it or not, out of all the things he has to do over the course of the evening, the hardest of all is simply sitting still when Dorothy sings Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

“Dogs like to play. Dogs like to move. But if, while Dorothy is singing the hit song, Toto is scratching his ear or looking offstage, that would distract from her song.”

Strays to stars

Beloni is legendary within his industry. The first dog he trained for stage work was for the role of Sandy in the original Broadway production of Annie in 1977.

“I was 19 years old and working at the theater where Annie was produced,” he says. “I wanted to be an actor. So in exchange for acting in one of the plays, I agreed to find and train a dog for this new show they were doing. When Annie opened and became a huge success, I was suddenly a famous animal trainer.”

That dog was a rescue animal — and every one that Berloni has trained since has been a rescue, as well.

“When I went to the shelter looking for Sandy, I was profoundly moved by that situation,” he says. “I made a promise to myself that if I ever got another dog, I would rescue it, too. I’ve kept that promise.”

34 The number of dogs theatrical animal trainer Bill Berloni has on his Connecticut farm

When Berloni’s animals aren’t on tour or working in film or TV, they get to kick back on his 90-acre farm in Connecticut.

“We currently own 34 dogs,” he says. “There are young ones in training, there are the ones who do the work and there are the ones who have retired and are living out their lives with us.

“The active ones can work until they get arthritic — and even then, they can have careers in films playing old dogs.

“When they’re not working, they live with us. They eat, they sleep, they go outside and hang out, all of them grouped in appropriate play groups — and they just have regular dog lives.

“Then, when a project comes up, we put them back into training,” he says. “But I feel it’s very important when they’re not working for them to have normal lives and just be dogs.”

Does your pet have what it takes to be a star like Nigel and Loki?

“It takes a special dog,” Berloni says. “We need dogs who are outgoing, who are very friendly, who deal with stress well, who have no aggressive tendencies and who like to work, so no couch potatoes.”

The Wizard of Oz

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