Pet Tales: Two dogs hit the stage for 'Legally Blonde' at the Benedum

Not just any dog can get up on stage, night after night, to perform before live audiences. Because a Chihuahua named Chico and a bulldog named Nellie can do that, they’re in town for Pittsburgh CLO’s production of “Legally Blonde The Musical.” It opened last night and runs through June 22 at the Benedum Center.

The 8-pound fawn-colored Chihuahua cast as “Bruiser” and the 20-pound bulldog cast as “Rufus” have their own dressing room, which they share with Schuyler Beeman, who also sings and dances in the show’s ensemble.

 "My main title is handler, but I’m their best friend,“ he said. ”They live with me 24/7.“

When the dogs make their first appearances on stage, ”The audience goes crazy, and Chico and Nellie thrive on that reaction. They love the energy that comes from the audience.“

These are canine rags-to-riches stories. Both dogs were rescued from shelters by Bill Berloni, a professional animal trainer ”who has been making stars out of strays“ for 35 years, according to his autobiographical ”Broadway Tails.“ In the 2012 book, he wrote about the dogs he has rescued, loved and trained, including dogs that played Sandy in ”Annie“ on Broadway. In 2011 Mr. Berloni became the first animal trainer to receive the Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater. When I interviewed him in 2012, he was living in Connecticut with his wife, daughter, 22 dogs and 18 other animals.

Mr. Beeman has worked with Mr. Berloni for the last 18 months, traveling all over the country with dogs who act.

Chico was 18 months old when he got his big show business break. In 2006, Mr. Berloni found him in the Newark, N.J., shelter of the Associated Humane Society.The family that gave him up had left him alone for many hours in an outdoor cage, where he was taunted by children. Chihuahuas are a training challenge because they are feisty, independent little dogs.

”Mr. Berloni has a knack for finding dogs that enjoy performing,“ Mr. Beeman said. Dogs that don’t work out are adopted by cast members or by Mr. Berloni or his friends. Same thing when a dog retires from acting.”

Chico and Nellie have performed all over the county in national tours and regional theater.

Chico earlier performed in the Broadway production of ”Legally Blonde,“ the story of a beautiful bubblehead who is given an unlikely admission to Harvard Law School. She takes her Chihuahua with her and helps a friend recover a beloved pet bulldog that is part of a custody dispute.

Chico and Nellie are trained to respond to verbal commands and hand signals. When waiting in the wings with Mr. Beeman, the dogs get very excited when they hear actors say the lines that come right before the dogs walk onto the stage. 

They get treats during rehearsals for hitting their marks, and actors give them treats on stage ”because we want the stage to be a positive experience for them,“ Mr. Beeman said. ”The audience isn’t supposed to see them getting the treats.“

I met Chico and Nellie last week during a rehearsal break. The quiet, laid-back bulldog lumbered across an empty rehearsal hall and plopped down on a padded dog bed. Chico spent much of the time cuddling in the arms of Mr. Beeman.

When Post-Gazette photographer Michael Henninger aimed his camera and started clicking away, Chico aimed his big eyes and long nose at the photographer and barked shrilly.

"He’ll keep barking at you unless you give him a treat,” Mr. Beeman said. “Chico can be such a diva.”

Mr. Beeman gave the photographer a treat. Mr. Henninger gave it to the dog, and Chico was back on his best behavior.

Nellie was 10 months old when Mr. Berloni found her at the Humane Society of New York in 2008. The people who gave her up had named her Zena The Princess Warrior because they said she was a hard-to-handle hellion. Those days long behind her, she loves to be petted and rubbed under her chin and neck. White with brown spots and weighing just 20 pounds, she’s the smallest bulldog I’ve ever seen. The males can weigh 40 to 60 pounds.

Despite the old show business adage about being upstaged by children or animals. Mr. Beeman says the “Legally Blonde” actors enjoy these dogs. 

“There is immediate relaxation” when the dogs are on the rehearsal stage, he said. “They function like therapy dogs.”

Only the four actors who have scenes with Chico and Nellie were allowed to pet the dogs and interact with them during pre-show rehearsals. The other actors were disappointed but cheered up when Mr. Beeman said that once the actual performances are well underway and running smoothly, the two-legged actors can officially meet and greet their four-legged co-stars.

Adoption and Care Fair

In what may be the largest event of its kind, the annual Pet Adoption and Care Fair will be held next Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Christ United Methodist Church, 44 Highland Road, Bethel Park (15102).

As many as 40 shelters and rescue organizations will be there with adoptable animals, and last year 60 pets were adopted into new homes, said event chairman Joe Hirsch. There will be training and agility demonstrations, pony rides, food and vendors. Admission is free, and people are invited to bring their own well-behaved, leashed dogs.

This is the 11th year that Hearts and Paws Ministry of the church has put on this event. This year a new partner is the pet ministry from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Contact Linda Wilson on her Facebook page, or 412-263-3064.