Sandy, Toto and Chowsie Walk into a Bar... : Working a Show with Animals

Tom Briggs

We all know how much fun it is to have a dog in a production.  Its presence brings a lighthearted, homey element to the rehearsal process and to the backstage life of a production.  Luckily, most shows that require a canine character also require children, who are delighted to babysit the pup while offstage.  

Often someone in the company is the master of the dog employed, making everything easier, including getting the mutt to and from the theater.  Audiences are enchanted to see animals on the stage, even if Sandy dozes off while Annie is singing and she has to pull her/him offstage by the collar, or Toto pees down Dorothy’s leg during “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or Chowsie takes a dump on the table where Mr. Goldstone is enjoying his eggroll, each of which I’ve experienced.  And then some.

 Heidi Gray as Annie and Macy as Sandy

Heidi Gray as Annie and Macy as Sandy

Ever work with a pig?  When I became the Producing Artistic Director of St. Bart’s Playhouse, the venerable New York City community theater that has been continually presenting productions on Park Avenue and 50th Street since 1927 and continues to this day, I chose to open my first season with the musical Li’l Abner.  It’s a wonderful show that I adore to this day.  I don’t quite understand why it is so infrequently produced.  Anyway, one of the characters, Moonbeam McSwine, is a hog farmer, and I decided that she should be accompanied by one of her charges when she enters during the opening number.

I secured a small, adorable piglet from a farm in New Jersey a few weeks before we were to open.  I purchased a rhinestone collar for Petunia, my thought being that Moonbeam would lead her on a leash for her entrance.  The first time I reached into the pen to pick up Petunia, her air horn squeal laid me flat against the wall.  “Reet!  Reet!”  Pigs don’t like to be handled and have no defense mechanisms, other than that frightening voice.  After growing a second pair, I did pick her up only to discover that she was a fierce wrestler, even for one so small.

Flash forward.  Petunia is in her collar and on the leash for her first rehearsal.  The opening number begins.  “It’s a typical day in Dog Patch, USA.”  (From offstage: “Reet!  Reet!”) “Where typical folks do things in a typical way.”  (“Reet!  Reet!”)  Finally, Moonbeam enters, dragging the piglet by the neck across the stage, kicking and squealing the whole way.

Thus it became clear that the leash idea was not going to work, and I told Moonbeam that she would have to carry Petunia on.  The lovely young woman playing Moonbeam was out the door so fast that I had to chase her to the subway station.  Somehow I persuaded her to stick with us.  It was at this point that my savvy stage manager suggested that we might have a vet prescribe a mild tranquilizer for Petunia, just to take the edge off, as they say.  And so we did.Flash forward: The first dress rehearsal.  

As prescribed, Petunia is given half a pill at half hour.  (Have I mentioned that, by this point, Petunia has gained many pounds and that the diminutive Moonbeam can barely lug her?)

The opening number begins.  “It’s a typical day in Dog Patch, USA.”  (From offstage: “Reet! Reet!”)  “Where typical folks do things in a typical way.”  (“Reet!  Reet!”)  The game Moonbeam enters hauling the sow over her shoulder, its constant screeching drowning out Moonbeam’s lyrics.  The following night we give Petunia a whole pill at half hour, but with the same outcome.

Flash forward: Opening night:  I give Petunia a whole pill an hour before curtain and another whole pill at half hour.  The opening number begins.  “It’s a typical day in Dog Patch, USA, where typical folks do things in a typical way.”  (Nothing from offstage!)  “First we rub the sleep from our eyes, gets our grub and shoo ‘way the flies.”  Still, nothing from offstage and I’m greatly relieved!  Moonbeam enters, cradling the by now sizeable sow in her thin, quivering arms. So catatonic looks the drugged Petunia that she could have been a stuffed animal.  Halfway through Moonbeam’s brief solo, Petunia lets loose with a load that shoots down Moonbeam’s legs and pools at her feet.  When the barefoot dancers come on, they slip on the shit which flies over the first several rows of the audience, who hold their programs over their heads for cover.

To say the least, it was not an auspicious opening for my first production as the head of the theater company.  Thereafter, we found the right balance for Petunia’s drugs and costumed her in polka-dot Pampers, just in case.  When the production closed, we never saw the whole-hearted actor who played Moonbeam again.

I also employed two dogs and five chickens for Li’l Abner, but they were surprisingly easy to deal with.  I have used neither a live lamb nor monkey in my productions of Gypsy, nor kittens when I staged You Can’t Take It with You.  When I did State Fair, the wonderful and smart John Davidson so wanted us to use a live boar to portray his prize-winning Blueboy.  I got him over that in a hot minute.  John did not deserve to be upstaged by an animal.  And neither did my sweet Moonbeam, wherever she may be.  I suppose the moral of this story is that sometimes when an idea you have just isn’t working, you need to let it go.