The Wizard of Oz at the Orpheum 

Make no mistake, The Wizard of Oz has one star, and he walks on four legs. When the touring show docks at the Orpheum, Dorothy's canine companion, Toto, will be played by a pair of rescued terriers named Nigel and Loki. Both were adopted and coached by Bill Berloni, an unconventional animal trainer with a great origin story.

Berloni wasn't supposed to work with critters. He wanted to be an actor and landed an apprenticeship working backstage at the Goodspeed Opera House in central Connecticut. The Goodspeed's a professional house known for introducing musicals like Man of La Mancha and Shenandoah, and in 1976, it was trying out an unknown piece called Annie based on the popular Little Orphan Annie comic strip. They needed a dog to play Sandy.

click to enlarge Sarah Lasko as Dorothy and Nigel as Toto in “Over the Rainbow”
  • Sarah Lasko as Dorothy and Nigel as Toto in “Over the Rainbow”

"They called trainers in New York, but they were too expensive," Berloni says. "The producer was stuck and needed a sucker. So I was called into the office, young and naive. He said. 'How would you like a part in one of our plays and your Equity card?' So I said, 'Sure.' And he said, 'All you have to do is find and train a dog for no money.'"

"I'd never been to an animal shelter before," Berloni says. He'd never thought about animals having an "expiration date" before. "And I was profoundly moved by what I saw." Although the first production of Annie was a huge flop, Sandy was a hit and Berloni was invited to train another rescue dog when the musical opened on Broadway a year later.

"And so I became a famous animal trainer," says Berloni, who continues the practice of rescuing dogs and making them feel at home on stage.

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Speaking of The Wizard Of Oz, Bill Berloni


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