The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 29: Onstage at the Kodak, Part III
This is Heidi. Last year, she was "discovered" in the park by a pet talent agency; since then, she has embarked on a one-dog quest to break into the business. This is her Hollywood story as chronicled by Times staff writer Diane Haithman. And this is her “head shot”: That longing look was achieved by placing a biscuit just out of reach.
I was walking the very excited Heidi on the morning of her stage debut in the musical "Annie" (see Part I and Part II) when I got the call from a representative of the show saying that I would be expected to walk across the stage with my dog during the Act I musical number "N.Y.C."
I know I'm Heidi's "stage" mother, but wasn't this taking the concept to an extreme? I had been told that she'd be walking across the stage with an actor dressed as a policeman and that she'd be playing a police dog, appropriate typecasting for a German shepherd.
But -- anything for the dog.
The representative asked me to bring a long skirt, and an overcoat; the costume department would find me a hat. Also bring shoes appropriate for walking on the streets of New York, he said -- "but not something like they'd wear in 'Sex and the City.' "
I promised to leave all of my hot pink, spike-heeled Jimmy Choos at home. Up until this point, I'd been more worried about Heidi's wardrobe: The dog trainer on the show, Bill Berloni, had told me that Heidi could not use her regular synthetic leash and choke chain because they were not historically accurate to "Annie," set in the Great Depression. I went out and got Heidi the cheapest plain leather collar I could find.
Later in the day, I received another call informing me that I would be playing "Homeless Woman With Dog" -- not exactly a glamor role, but at least one appropriate to my shoe collection. I'd like to have worn the planned police uniform so Heidi could fulfill her dream of portraying a police dog, but I guess policewomen were few in the 1930s.
We were told to arrive at the Kodak at 6:30, an hour before curtain; when we got there, I found that my role had changed again: Now I was to be a high-society dame, and the dog and I would be escorted across the stage by the character of FDR, played by Jeffrey B. Duncan.
Berloni said the reason he'd decided I should walk onstage with Heidi was that, the night before, a local canine celebrity, Wilshire the Fire Dog, who was adopted and raised by LAFD Station 29, had had a walk-on role, and went onstage with an actor dressed as a fireman. Naturally, the dog was much more nervous with a stranger than he would have been with the real fireman who brought Wilshire to the theater.
Despite the last-minute change in her onstage role, Heidi decided to play police dog backstage in the dressing room. As is customary, an animal inspector came in before the show to make sure the dogs were being properly treated. Already on high alert in her new surroundings, Heidi didn't appreciate the inspector pounding on our dressing room door, and growled at the woman when she came in to look around.
After that, Heidi growled at pretty much everyone who came through the dressing room door -- including cute little Madison Kerth, who plays Annie. She growled at Annie. Undaunted, Madison gave Heidi a treat and petted her. "I'm used to dogs," she said with appropriate orphan spunk. I suggested we leave the door open to avoid Heidi's distaste for knocking -- but we couldn't do that for fear that seeing Heidi would unnerve Mikey, the dog playing Sandy (apparently there had been an unfortunate crossing of paths between Mikey and Wilshire the night before).
A half-hour before curtain, we got a few minutes to run through our moves. We would walk a few steps with FDR and stop while he sang a few lines, then do the same thing again. Then, we'd just turn and walk offstage the same way we came on. Simple.
Because we were coming in from stage right, Heidi was to walk on my right side so the audience could see her -- confusing to the dog, since she's trained to "heel" on my left. Plus she was wearing an unfamiliar collar and leash, so it was harder than usual for me to control her moves.
During the rehearsal, Bill suggested that the three of us just sit on the floor in the wings and have a little dog party, with Heidi happily reclining and munching on treats while Bill and I chatted. Squealing "orphans" scampered by, cooing: "She's soooo cute!" which Heidi seemed to enjoy. Nothing worries a dog more than having a nervous owner repeating: "It's OK," Bill said. Better to just get down to her level and relax.
Despite the noise and distractions, Heidi did just fine onstage -- although in hindsight I wouldn't have left her training treats offstage in Bill's hands, because Heidi kept looking backward to check on her stash. And through careful strategic planning, we managed to avoid any close encounters backstage with Mikey -- at one point hiding out on a loading dock until the coast was clear outside Heidi's dressing room.
Heidi even got recognized in the elevator after the show was over -- perhaps because she was the only German shepherd in the vicinity. "That's the dog from the show!" a little girl squealed.
The girl's mother was more practical, and more smug: "Did she mind being upstaged by Sandy?" she asked me.
No, Heidi didn't growl at the woman -- but her "stage mother" came close.
-- Diane Haithman
Photo: Heidi makes her debut at the Kodak. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times.