NBC is going to the dogs on Thursday.
Nineteen-year-old New Jersey native Shanice Williams aside, the star of “The Wiz Live” will surely be the adorable Toto, played by an 11-year-old rescue named Scooter, who won the job over his understudy, Ralphie. The man who is responsible for Toto hitting his mark on live TV is also his owner, dog trainer Bill Berloni.
Berloni told TheWrap that he’s not nervous at all about Scooter’s high-profile small-screen gig — even though their family only adopted the 11-year-old participating pooches a few months ago.
“I learned live TV is a lot easier than live theater,” Berloni told TheWrap of lessons taken from his last NBC outing, “Peter Pan Live,” admitting, “[But], the stakes are higher.”
Adding to the calm man’s confidence is that Berloni and his wife only had “Peter Pan Live’s” “Nana” for four months before that undertaking, and their sheepdog performed flawlessly. (And no, Bill did not make his new stars watch “Peter Pan Live” for pointers. Yes, we asked.)
Even if his new hounds don’t have experience with this sort of thing, Berloni has plenty.
Berloni’s pups have been a big hit on the stage since 1977. The dog lover made his coaching debut with the original Broadway “Annie” that year, which saw “Sandy” essentially playing the first actual dog character in a live performance. Before then, dogs were basically used as props, not trusted to be an intricate part of driving the action.
But it really wasn’t so hard to get them there, Berloni told us, explaining that his whole system boils down to “positive reinforcement.” Someone just had to try, and be patient.
“It’s actually very simple … in fact, they don’t like screwing up. When they’re confused, they get stressed out,” he said. “Because they don’t have cognitive thought process, you set up a pattern and they go from Point A to Point B to Point C.”
“They want to go to the theater, they understand the pattern, they’re happy, and so they do it every night,” Berloni continued. “They are much more consistent than the humans. It’s only when the humans don’t give them the right cue, or distract them from what they’re doing, that they make a mistake.”
Stupid humans. And if it’s not the actors or director ruining things for the furry thespians, it’s the audience.
“We do a dress rehearsal, and everything goes perfectly, then the audience comes in and screws it up,” Berloni said, recalling challenges of the traditional stage.
So he’s not nervous for this little TV event, and neither are his dogs — regardless of how many millions of eyeballs are fixated upon the cute Cairn Terriers.
As Berloni put it: “They don’t know what an audience is, they don’t know what TV is — all they know is who feeds them, who loves them and, ‘What do I have to do to get a cookie?'”
And cookies the two senior dogs shall get this Thursday. The reason there are two Totos, by the way, is because that’s an insurance requirement, just in case of injuries. Scooter won the part over Ralphie simply because Williams, who plays Dorothy, gravitated towards him more — the real key relationship for success tomorrow night.
Berloni, who has 30 dogs on his Connecticut farm and is the subject of Discovery Family reality show “Wags to Riches,” said he essentially makes the human actor or actress a mini-trainer themselves, which he’s done with Williams.
It’s important that the human stars be dog people, which she is. Williams spends the requisite and all-important trailer time “rubbing up on” the dogs, Berloni said — a relationship that is necessary to pull this whole thing off.
That said, the “whole thing” won’t be all that much work, this time — at least not to Berloni.
Because the original “Wiz” on Broadway didn’t have a particularly great dog trainer, Toto does not go to Oz with Dorothy in this version, Berloni explained — the little guy is only in Kansas and in the final scene. However, in the touring version of the MGM film, Berloni’s working actor dogs (he has six Totos, in addition to four Sandys and the two “Legally Blonde” dogs) do head to Oz, which provides the pros with some much heavier lifting.
Therefore, “This is a piece of cake,” the calm Berloni assured us. Or, you know, a Milk-Bone.
“The Wiz Live” airs Thursday on NBC at 8 p.m.