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Category: Heidi Chronicles

The Heidi Chronicles Chapter 32: Smelling a rat in Hollywood

HeidiThis 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.

As Heidi is discovering, breaking into show business can't always be as glamorous as her recent visit to Jim Henson Studios or landing a walk-on in "Annie" at the Kodak Theatre. Sometimes -- and, some might argue, most of the time -- Hollywood is just about rats.

While she usually a perfectly behaved darling, Heidi has a problem with distractions, particularly small animals such as squirrels, or not-quite-so-small animals, such as the skunk she went after two days before her stage debut at the Kodak.  "Stay" means nothing to her when something fast and furry has entered the picture.

HeidiA stage or screen dog must learn to ignore distractions, however attractive.  So to her most recent training session, Heidi's trainer, Sue DiSesso, brought along Sweetie, an affectionate six-month old gray rat, so we could train Heidi not to chase her like a living chew toy.

Who knows what that dog is sniffing at on her walks when she dives her nose into the ivy or stares up the trunk of a palm tree, but to the best of my knowledge, Sweetie was the first rat Heidi had ever met on a professional basis.

In fact, the closest Heidi had come to a Hollywood rat was her recent encounter with the Mouse, the industry insider's name for the Walt Disney Co. As Heidi's fans may recall, Heidi was invited -- sort of -- to a screening of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" on the Disney studio lot in Burbank. While waiting for the show to start, she took an unauthorized stroll through the lobby of the Animation Building, where she had her picture taken -- sort of -- with the world's most famous rodent, Mickey (this photo probably ensures that Heidi will not be invited back).

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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 31: Heidi 'meets' a digital dog at Jim Henson Studios

HeidiThis 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.

On Friday, Heidi was animated, to say the least, by her visit to the Jim Henson Studios in Hollywood. The wizards of motion-capture technology at the studios have created the new animated character Philbert the dog for the PBS educational series "Sid the Science Kid," which introduces preschoolers to basic scientific concepts.

Philbert, a dog Sid's grandmother adopts, makes his debut in the series of 10 new shows that begins today. "Sid" airs locally on KCET, which co-produces the program with the Jim Henson Co.  The animated dog was brought to life  by using a real dog, a Great Dane named Daisy, who performed on a motion capture stage at the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, where the dog's body movements are recorded and the facial expressions and barking are puppeteered (and barked) in real time by a Henson puppeteer.

Although dogs, horses and other animals have been used in motion-capture to create animated characters before, Philbert is the first animated dog created by this method to have a recurring role in a TV series. In the photo above, Heidi sits with digital puppeteer Bruce Lanoil as he uses hand and arm equipment to manipulate the face, neck and head of Philbert on the screen. Both the animated dog and Lanoil have their tongues out because Lanoil is at the same time adding the sound effect of panting.

"It takes the onus off the dog, since I have control of the neck and face -- the dog had to basically be on the set and be a dog, and not have to worry about motivation," Lanoil says. As to why the animators use the motion-capture process instead of starting from scratch, he adds, "It's the physical being of the animal in the space and how it moves; it is very, very difficult to replicate the grace and beauty of the animal in motion. It gives us a lot less to do."

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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 30: Dog star hounded by playwright

HeidiThis 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.

It has come to my attention that not everyone is as pleased by Heidi's show business success as I am.

I've failed to prepare Heidi for this sorry aspect of the entertainment industry. Along with training our girl to sit, stay and speak, I should have warned her about the many sharks she will encounter, flashing their fins in that murky sea called Hollywood. They are predatory creatures, blindly following show biz' 10th Commandment: Thou shalt not get ahead before I do, especially if thou happeneth to be a dog.

That rule also extends to the theater community, where devoted people spend more time making less money than they might in Hollywood. I was dining recently with playwright Susan Rubin, artistic director of Indecent Exposure Theater Company, when I casually mentioned that Heidi was making her stage debut at the Kodak Theatre, in "Annie" -- you know, that really big theater built especially to accomodate Heidi's very good friends Dustin, Meryl, Angelina and Denzel at the Academy Awards.

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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 29: Onstage at the Kodak, Part III

HeidiThis 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.

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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 28: Onstage at the Kodak, Part II

THeidihis 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.

Mikey, a cute lop-eared terrier mix who was removed from an abusive home, plays the role of Sandy in the 30th anniversary tour of the Broadway musical "Annie," which recently passed through the Kodak Theatre. It's a rescue-to-riches story. "We have a million-dollar investment in this dog," said Bill Berloni, who has trained rescue dogs to play Sandy since the show opened in 1976.

I had brought Heidi to meet Mikey -- coincidentally at the park where Heidi was first "discovered" by a pet talent agency -- to make sure the two could get along before Heidi arrived at the Kodak for her walk-on appearance in "Annie" the next day. Heidi's big break was facilitated by Bill, who loves to give rescue dogs a chance. Mikey arrived in an official red "Annie on Tour" van with Bill and Patrick Peavey, a former software engineer turned dog handler who also appears in the ensemble onstage.

Since we were meeting a million-dollar canine, I thought it best not to mention that Heidi -- who as yet has received no salary for being a dog -- had suffered a "Marley" moment and gotten herself sprayed by a skunk the night before.

It's a scientific fact: Dogs who have been skunked show an increased tendency to want to cuddle up real close to you almost immediately after. A frantic bath had restored Heidi to her usual fluffy freshness except for few hot spots around the ears, but I prayed that Bill would not get too close downwind.

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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 27: Onstage at the Kodak, Part I

THeidihis 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.

Whether you're a human actor, or a dog star, getting the part is all about who you know.  That's how our Heidi landed a walk-on last week at the Kodak Theater -- home of the Academy Awards -- in a touring production of the Broadway musical "Annie," which closed Sunday.

In this case, Heidi's connection was Broadway's premier theatrical dog trainer, Bill Berloni, who rescued and trained an abused stray who became the first dog to portray "Sandy" in 1976. The show moved to Broadway in 1977, and Berloni has been associated with the show since.

I interviewed Berloni for the Heidi Chronicles in early December about his book, "Broadway Tails" -- and, touched by Heidi's history as a rescue, Berloni invited Heidi, sight unseen, to do a walk-on in "Annie" when the show came to town. I didn't tell Heidi -- or Heidi's fans and entourage -- about the invitation since I know the vagaries of showbiz, but I began humming the sunny "Annie" anthem, "Tomorrow," to my bemused dog that very day.

Bill had told me that the easiest role for Heidi would be as a regular dog-on-the-street in the first-act musical number "N.Y.C." All she needed to be able to do was to walk across the stage on a leash, led by an actor. Easy enough, I thought.   

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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 26: Heidi meets 'Marley'

Mark_forbes_jonah_and_heidi_2

After weeks of having her ego soothed with Buddy Biscuits (they're shaped like people), Heidi has finally gotten over being snubbed by Rusco, the famed Chihuahua who portrayed Papi in Disney's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua." And now Heidi has moved on to take a meeting with another celebrity dog: a 3 1/2-year-old sweetie pie named Jonah, one of the 22 yellow Labradors who played the role of Marley in the holiday hit tear-jerker "Marley & Me."

"Marley" trainer Mark Forbes of Birds & Animals Unlimited was more than happy to bring Jonah to Johnny Carson Park in Burbank to meet with Heidi and compare training notes. Once the dogs had given each other the sniff test, it didn't take long for Heidi to abandon me completely to head off with Mark and her new boyfriend Jonah to let Mark put the pooches through their paces.

We learned a lot.

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The Heidi Chronicles: Chapter 25 -- New Year's resolutions

HeidiThis is Heidi. She was "discovered" this year 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 the result of seeing a biscuit just out of reach.

I can't say 'twas the night before Christmas, but it was the Saturday after Christmas -- and Heidi was having her last training session before the New Year.  And the budding starlet was, in the words of her trainer Sue DiSesso, "fooling around."

This is one of Heidi's main problems -- she gets the behavior right eventually, but not before fooling around.  That is, wandering in the wrong direction on the way to hitting her mark, stopping for a drink of water in the middle of a turn or just before obeying a commend to sit, stand or stay, or suddenly playing dead instead of whatever she's been asked to do because she knows it's cute. The dog fools around.

This training session also followed one of Heidi's less obedient walks through the neighborhood.  Today's distractions included not one but two separate vehicles in which the rider in the passenger seat happened to be a dog, hanging out of the open window. Naturally, Heidi had to drag me into the street toward the passing vehicles in order to wish the dogs a very loud "happy holidays."   This is the point at which passers-by tend to turn and cluck with pity at the poor woman walking her killer wolf.

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The Heidi Chronicles: Should dog actors strike too?

Heidi This is Heidi. She was "discovered" this year 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 the result of seeing a biscuit just out of reach.

Last winter, during our daily walks in "Valleywood" -- that, is the studio zone that includes Studio City, Universal City and Burbank -- Heidi and I often encountered screenwriters walking the picket line during the bitter 100-day writers strike that finally wrapped on Feb. 13. Though not one to get involved in studio politics, Heidi would often show her solidarity by bouncing excitedly and pulling on the leash.  In Heidi's mind, idled writers merit at least as much attention as squirrels and cats.

Because she is an aspiring actor, Heidi is even more concerned about the looming threat of a strike by the Screen Actors Guild over many of the same issues, including receiving royalties from content distributed via new media. Although no one is yet striking, or picketing, a shepherd on the verge of a promising career has to wonder how an actors strike would affect the canine performing community.

In order to calm the dog, I consulted an expert: Trainer Mark Forbes of Birds & Animals Unlimited, trainer of the 22 dogs who portrayed Marley in the new film "Marley & Me."

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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 23: Proper conditions for the working dog

Heidi

This is Heidi. She was "discovered" this year 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 the result of seeing a biscuit just out of reach.

After her first stage acting experience at Performing Arts Studio West in Inglewood (see Chapter 22), I couldn't wait to tell Heidi's trainer, Sue DiSesso, how well Ms. Big Ears had done working with live actors in an improv situation.

For Heidi, "going the distance" means performing a behavior without insisting on staying close to the person giving the commands (that would be me). Heidi is a herding dog, and that includes people as well as sheep. She favors body contact as a communication tool because sheep are none too bright --probably why very few sheep enter the acting profession.

But at the studio, Heidi went the distance. And Sue was indeed proud of Heidi; it was the person giving her the commands (that would be me) who screwed up.

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