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Saving the furry stars of ‘Annie’

Bret Tuomi as police officer Mikey dog as Sandy Caroline Heffernan as Annie.  |  Liz Lauren ~ For

Bret Tuomi as the police officer, Mikey the dog as Sandy and Caroline Heffernan as Annie. | Liz Lauren ~ For Sun-Times Media

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Where to adopt

Thinking about welcoming a little orphan Rover into your own home? The following shelters and rescue organizations all have multiple dogs available for adoption to good homes:


420 Industrial Drive, Naperville

Naperville Area Humane Society
1620 W. Diehl Road, Naperville

Rover Rescue

Rover Rescue is a home-based rescue and foster volunteer-run organization.

Kendall County Animal Control
802 John St., Yorkville

Aurora Control and Care
600 S. River St., Aurora

Kane County Animal Control
4060 Keslinger Road, Geneva

Anderson Animal Shelter
1000 S. Lafox, South Elgin

To see photos and stories of adoptable pets at these and other shelters and organizations in and around the Fox Valley, go to

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:32AM

The sun is bound to come out tomorrow for a couple pups who took center stage at the Paramount over the past two weeks.

“For the first two weeks of the show, Rover Rescue brought in four pups,” said Brian Michael Hoffman, actor and dog handler in the Paramount’s production of “Annie.”

“We have serious interest in Remy and Howie, and Tootsie and Whiskers were adopted in the first week of the show.”

The Rover Rescue dogs are just a few canines that will grace the Paramount’s stage during the six-week run of “Annie,” playing the role of a stray that gets picked up by the dog catcher. After their performance in the first act, the dogs await their adoring audiences in the Paramount’s lobby, where their rescue volunteers have forms and information on all the dogs available for adoption.

Hoffman has given hundreds of dogs the supporting role in productions of “Annie” around the country, and he’s found them new homes in the process.

The first Sandy

The idea, Hoffman said, was born out of the story of “Annie,” — an orphaned girl adopted into a better life — and his work with the theater world’s most respected animal trainers.

“All the dogs are rescues,” said Hoffman, surrounded by two scruffy mutts, his black shirt covered in their sandy-colored dog fur. “I work for William Burloni, and in the mid-’70s when “Annie” was written, he was an apprentice working in the scene shop.”

Hoffman said young Burloni was sent on a hunt for a scruffy, sandy-colored dog of indeterminate breed that could play Annie’s canine companion, “Sandy.” The hunt took him to every shelter in the New York area, and to one dog, previously abused, barely willing to creep out of its cage for Burloni, and scheduled to be euthanized the next morning.

“But it had the right look and he knew it was his dog. He didn’t have $7 ... so he went and collected up all the money from the cast and crew for the adoption fee and slept that night outside the shelter.”

When the shelter opened the next morning, Hoffman said, “the dog was literally on the table. Bill threw himself over the dog, threw the money at the shelters’ employees, and said ‘This is my dog.’”

Luckily, after a bit of coaching, the very first Sandy was made for the stage.

William Burloni Theatrical Animals has since trained dozens of animals — mostly dogs, but on occasion also horses, pigs and birds — for the theater.

“And they’re all rescues,” said Hoffman. “Every single one.”

New tricks

Luckily, it doesn’t take much to coax a dog — even a local dog from a rescue organization — to bark on cue, Hoffman said.

“We had one, we put her in the dog catcher’s cart, and she just howled,” said Hoffman. “We try to be mindful. These dogs just came from shelters. The last thing we want to do is put them through more stress.”

Hoffman is an actor by trade, but took an interest in Burloni’s dogs in a touring show of “Annie” about 12 years ago, helping one of Burloni’s trainers drive the dogs from town to town, care for them and get them ready for shows.

When directors realized they could block Hoffman on stage to give the dogs their cues while Hoffman was acting other parts, he found a niche.

“I’m always moving,” he said, walking through his scenes, songs, dog cues and costume changes.

In the Paramount’s “Annie,” Hoffman plays Mr. Bundles, the laundry man who sneaks Annie out of the orphanage; radio broadcaster Bert Healy, a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet; and a servant in Warbucks’ mansion.

Throughout the performance, whether on stage or behind the curtains, he’s cueing Sandy — though audience members would be hard-pressed to detect his hand motions.

“Caroline (Heffernan) does everything,” he said, referring to the show’s star. “How she’s petting him, where she’s petting him, are all cues. I’m just a facilitator.”

Hoffman is also the only member of Burloni’s staff who both handles the dogs, and acts on stage with them. The special skill of working with the animals has meant a lot of job security — in addition to his work with Sandy look-alikes, he’s also worked with cairn terrier Toto from the “Wizard of Oz” and chihuahua Bruisers from “Legally Blonde,” among others, in national, regional and touring theater productions.

The furry stars

But the furry stars of “Annie” are special, Hoffman said.

Sandy is played by Mikey, an 8-year-old shaggy blonde dog rescued from a neglectful home where he was tied up outside 12 hours a day. Hoffman has been working with Mikey since he was first rescued in 2005. Mikey’s understudy is Oliver, a slightly darker, definitely shaggier 5-year-old mutt with one ear permanently perked.

“Oliver still has a lot of puppy in him,” said Hoffman. “He could play Sandy in a pinch, but the audience would be watching him a lot more — he’d be pawing at Caroline while she’s trying to sing her big number.”

While Oliver could still use a little coaching before a big-time debut, he and Mikey make great spokesdogs for animal rescues, and the local partnership is something Hoffman said he loves doing. His best record is 32 adoptions in a three-week run in Texas, shortly after Hurricane Katrina left so many dogs homeless, and he’s hoping to top that record in the six-week run of “Annie” at the Paramount.

“But it’s not really about the number, it’s about doing it,” Hoffman said. “Hopefully, it’ll start a conversation and people will remember Rover Rescue or the Humane Society and think about adopting when it’s time for a pet.”

In addition to Rover Rescue, Hoffman has partnered with the Humane Society of Naperville and ADOPT.

“It really is life imitating art,” Hoffman said, “taking a pup out of a shelter and completely changing their life.”

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