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Joan Marcus
Amanda Balon and Mikey in the national tour of "Annie."

When "Annie" opened on Broadway in 1977, it landed with a bang. The musical won seven Tony awards including best musical, ran for 2,377 performances, is in the top 20 longest-running shows in Broadway history and is still one of the most successful musicals ever.

But the phenomenon of a cast full of children was only part of "Annie's" appeal.

A good chunk of the charm came from a scruffy-looking, four-legged mutt who played Sandy.

"Until 'Annie,' there had never been an animal as a character in a play. The wisdom was that the animal wouldn't do the same thing every night. Of course, we were young and stupid, so we did it."

So says William Berloni. Widely recognized as an expert on animal behavior, he's the leading trainer of animals for live performances.

As a 19-year-old boy given the task of finding and training a dog for a little unknown show called "Annie," Berloni was dismayed at the care of animals in the shelters he visited.

"I made a promise to myself to always use dogs in shelters." It was this visit where Berloni spotted a dog who was to be euthanized the next day.

"The producer wasn't around, but I went in the next morning to pick up the first Sandy." Saving him from being euthanized, Berloni turned the mutt into the "Longest Running Dog on Broadway," never missing a performance in seven years.

This Tuesday, when "Annie" opens at Kingsbury Hall, you can watch Berloni-trained Mikey fill those very big pawprints.

Mikey toured with this production for three years as an understudy, so the move to the spotlight was fairly easy. "He was only mildly distracted," Berloni said, mentioning that noises, applause or "someone eating fried chicken on the second row" can be tough distractions for canine actors.

The dogs are taught to respond to hand commands given by the actors on stage. While the orphans dance, Mikey sits in the wing, watching carefully, waiting for his entrance.

Giving Mikey his hand commands in this production is the bubbly, 10-year-old Amanda Balon.

Like most girls who gazed at the red curls, she had "always wanted to be Annie."

"When I was tiny, I used to watch musicals instead of cartoons. One day I saw there were auditions for 'Annie,' and I begged my mom to go."

Now, she's won the Broadway Trophy for Best Child Star in a Musical, and was named Champion Performer of the World in the Hollywood competition.

Leaving a twin brother and an older sister behind in her hometown Orlando, Balon has been on the road for the past three years, first playing two other orphans and finally Annie.

"I was so surprised," she says of getting the title role. "I was jumping on the bed and was screaming my head off, and I was jumping on my mom and screaming my head off. It was so great!"

And she's thrilled with her red hair. "I'm used to it now but at first I was like, 'Oh my gosh!' I was excited about it." Balon goes to the salon once a month for a cut and color and then gets "flat ironed before every show."

Before the final scene, "they tell me to get gussied up, and I have a one-minute-30-second quick change and I don't have time to curl my hair, so we use a wig at the end."

Her enthusiasm is infectious.

Balon, who is killing time until she's old enough to do acting full-time because "that's what I love, so I know I'll do it," talks animatedly about the dog she has come to love.

"His real name is Mikey and he's a great dog. He's really talented. We give him hand commands because we can't say 'stay.' He has an understudy named Lola. We play with them all the time. Mikey comes over to my hotel room and we have sleepovers."

"When the dog runs off stage," Berloni said, "they're rewarded with a little treat. Ultimately, it's approval. The treats and toys are learning tools, but ultimately they just want to be with you. It's the love and acknowledgement of it that's the ultimate reward."

If you go ...

What: Annie

Where: Kingsbury Hall, University of Utah

When: Tuesday through April 13, evening and matinee performances

How much: $25-$55, with $15 student tickets

Phone: 581-7100

Web: www.kingtix.com

E-mail: ehansen@desnews.com