Published January 26. 2013 4:00PM Updated January 26. 2013 11:56PM
Waterford — When he was 2, Bill Berloni's mother asked him whether he'd like a brother or a sister.
"And I said, 'A dog,'" he told an audience at the Waterford Public Library Saturday afternoon.
It was a moment of foreshadowing for Berloni, who received a Tony award in 2011 as the honor recipient for Excellence in the Theatre for his long career making stars out of strays.
Several dozen gathered in the basement of the library Saturday to hear Berloni tell the tale of how he became the first theatrical dog trainer — the world's only one, in fact, at least in name.
"That's because I made it up," he said.
It was back in the 1970s at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, where a little-known musical called "Annie" debuted to terrible reviews before proceeding to Broadway success and musical canonization.
Working 70 unpaid hours a week behind the scenes in the summer of 1976, Berloni hoped that one day he would land a role in one of the shows. So when the director called then-19-year-old Berloni into his office, he thought his day had come.
The director had realized they would need to cast and train a dog — unheard of in stage musicals until then. For $35 — and the promise of a stage role — Berloni agreed to do it himself.
"(The director) needed basically a sucker to take on this responsibility," Berloni said.
So Berloni was sent to shelters around Connecticut with a Polaroid camera and a van on a casting mission: to find a mutt to play Sandy, Annie's beloved canine companion. It was on this trip that Berloni finally saw for himself the plight of so many abandoned animals who live in kill shelters, their days numbered when they arrive, often living in squalid conditions.
"To me, dogs came from good places," he said.
The dog who would become the original Sandy was set to be euthanized the next day. For $7, Berloni rescued him, put him in his van, bought him a 19-cent hamburger from McDonald's, and brought the bedraggled, antisocial pup back to the theater, to the director's dismay.
But through careful rehabilitation, rewarding with treats and bonding with the cast, Berloni slowly trained him not only how to be a stage dog, but how to trust people again. "Annie" debuted later in the summer, and the dog did well, Berloni said — though the show itself was panned by critics.
Berloni eventually moved to New York to study acting, taking the original Sandy with him to live in a tiny fifth-floor walkup in Greenwich Village. When producer Mike Nichols brought "Annie" to Broadway, the show took off — and so did Berloni's career: At age 20, he became a world-famous animal trainer and quit acting in favor of his newly cultivated talent.
Since 1977, he has since trained animals for 24 Broadway shows as well as for movies, TV shows and commercials, all of them rescues from animal shelters. And he owns 23 rescue dogs of his own at home, fulfilling the promise he made to himself after that first fateful shelter trip in 1976 always to adopt rescues.
With him on Saturday were Chico, who played Bruiser in the Broadway version of "Legally Blonde," and Casey, who is training with Berloni as an understudy for Sandy in the current run of "Annie" on Broadway. Both are rescues — Chico from Newark, N.J., and Casey from Nashville, Tenn.
Saturday, Berloni went through the traditional trainer's moves with them — heel, stay, sit, lie down — before rewarding them repeatedly with treats.
In speaking of his training philosophy, and answering the questions of many dog owners in the audience, Berloni said he plays to the dogs' natural abilities and inclinations, always encouraging and never punishing.
"You're looking into the eyes of nature, and there's free will there," he said.