November 2, 2012
Guest: Bill Berloni â Susan Orlean
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. A new revival of the hit musical "Annie" is in previews on Broadway and scheduled to open next week. The canine co-star of the revival, playing the role of Sandy, is trained by today's guest, Bill Berloni, who also trained the original Sandy.
In the new production, Sandy is played be Berloni's dog Sunny(ph). If Sunny needs a day off, then his understudy Casey(ph) is ready to take over. Like the original Sandy in the first Broadway production, Sunny and Casey are both rescue dogs, found in animal shelters.
Among the other animals Bill Berloni has trained are the Chihuahua and bulldog in the Broadway adaptation of "Legally Blonde" and the lamb in the revival of "Gypsy" that starred Bernadette Peters. He also trained the first dog to dance with the New York City Ballet. He's been in doggie showbiz for 30 years and has written a memoir called "Broadway Tails," spelled T-A-I-L-S. A new edition was published in September.
He also is a behavior consultant to the Humane Society of New York, and in 2011 the Tonys presented him with a special honor for his work as an animal trainer. I spoke with Bill Berloni in 2008.
Bill Berloni, welcome to FRESH AIR. According to your book, the original Sandy got run over two weeks before opening night and went on. I mean, it's one of the best trooper stories I've ever heard, and I was wondering if you embellished that at all.
BILL BERLONI: Actually, I did - you know, I was actually kinder to the situation. I mean, because it was purely accidental. Just so our listeners know, you know, in that summer, we used to build scenery in a big barn, literally a big barn. And Sandy would come to the set with us every - or to the shop with us every day and he would hang out, and then he would come to the theater with us every night while we were doing other shows.
And as the opening night got closer, they started laying down the scenery they had built on the floor to paint it. And I was off doing something else in another part of the shop, and he stepped on a piece of scenery that was wet, and so, you know, the painter said: Well, we've got to move him to out back.
So they took him, and they tied him to a tree out back where there was some shade. But he decided to go under one of the delivery trucks to lay in the sand. And the delivery person came to take the truck, not thinking to look for the dog, and heard this squeal and accidentally ran him over.
The accident dislocated his leg, and the vet we took him to thought it would take a month for him to heal, and he had to be rested. You know, and, of course, the producer was noticeably upset. You know, he was like: Now what are we going to do? We've got to find another dog. You know, if this dog doesn't make it to opening night, I'm firing everybody who was involved. And so all of a sudden my colleagues' jobs were at risk, and, you know, we would never force an animal to perform.
And as Sandy was so enamored by what his life had become that he would get agitated when he didn't come to the shop, or when he didn't come to the theater as we were looking for other dogs. And then, you know, the director, Martin Charnin, saw the bandages on his leg and said: Let's use it. It's great. He'll - you know...
BERLONI: And so that's what we did.
BIANCULLI: I don't know if that's cold or warm.
BERLONI: Oh, well, you know, he was able to walk on stage. And there's a behavior in "Annie" where at a certain point, he jumps up and puts his paws on his shoulders and we had - I told Andrea McArdle, who was the original Annie, not to do that cue and give him the hand signal. But at that moment he did it anyways, which was just the look - unconditional love.
BIANCULLI: It must have been very powerful dramatically if people believed the injury.
BERLONI: But nobody in the audience knew about the injury. And - but certainly for all of us in that theater last - you know, that night, it was, like, the power and the loyalty of animals was just, you know, right there in front of us.
And I feel blessed to be in their company every day, you know, because they're creatures with the absence of malice, you know. All they want to do is please. And so it's a wonderful life to have and to see that sort of loyalty and compassion.
BIANCULLI: Was "Annie" the show for which you developed - I don't know whether it's called the Berloni drop or the bologna drop?
BERLONI: Yes. Initially, in "Annie," Annie and Sandy meet, and then they're separated. And halfway through the first act, they wrote in a scene, after the show had become successful, before we went to Broadway, where they wanted him wandering the streets of New York looking for her. And they needed him to sit center stage, look right, look left and then exit.
And dogs have very poor eyesight. They don't see clearly at, you know, 20 feet. And so while Sandy would come to me, he - I couldn't get him to stop center stage, because he would come about 10 feet, five feet to the wings, where he could see me clearly. And then he'd see his hand signal and sit.
So I needed to devise a way to get him to stop center stage. And so, you know, as I clumsily was rehearsing, I noticed that every time I dropped a treat, he would stop what he was doing and pick it up. And so that - aha, the aha moment.
So I thought if I could drop a piece of food, and so we tried treats, and then the tap dancers would step on them and they'd crunch all over the place. And being somewhat young and poor, about the only thing I had in my refrigerator in 1977 was bologna. So we thought, there you go. It'll stick right to the deck and tasty, and so that's somehow how that came up.
BIANCULLI: You've said that the original Sandy acted in "Annie" for seven years. What happened to that original Sandy after, you know, retirement from the stage?
BERLONI: After the dogs are done with their shows, whether they last one night or seven years, they're mine forever. And he went into semi-retirement and, you know, did appearances around the country. And then as he became older and frailer, you know, I took care of him until he passed away in his sleep.
And it was just so moving to me, you know. He died when he was 16 years old, and what I thought was somewhat of a trivial addition to the entertainment field, they did an obituary for him in The New York Times with his picture, and it wasn't a joke. It was very serious, you know, because one of the things we'd do, and we continue to do, is raise awareness for the plight of homeless animals. And Sandy became that poster child.
You know, he was really the first dog to, you know, become famous and say that he was from an animal shelter and not bred from a line of Lassies or, you know, Benjis or something like that. So I was quite moved that the entertainment industry got it.
BIANCULLI: You've trained 30 or 40 different Sandys over the decades, which means I guess you've also trained 30 or 40 Annies, including Andrea McArdle, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alyssa Milano. Which of them took to the dogs and your training the best?
BERLONI: You know, they all were wonderful, and I was blessed in that my first charge at training a dog was working with a dog and a child. And animals love being loved, and so most performers are on stage to be stars or to fulfill their careers. Working with children, you're really working with the essence of innocence.
So to take a child into a studio and say, you know, we're going to play with Sandy so that he gets to love you, and they go OK, and it's real, and it's genuine, and I think it's one of the things that makes "Annie" so popular. When you see the kid onstage with one my dogs, you're really seeing a love affair, you know, not just onstage but offstage.
So the kids have always been great. I love working with kids because even if they're afraid of dogs, in two or three sessions I can let their innocence come through, and they could have a great time. Andrea McArdle will always be special, you know, because she was the one who taught me that. But Sarah Jessica Parker, Sarah and I are still friends, and initially she had never had a dog. Her family had cats.
You know, but she was enough of a professional to go OK, I'll try this, and Sarah was just as good with Sandy as Andrea and the other girls were. So working with children I never have a problem with. In fact, I enjoy it the most. Getting adults to forget who they are and what they're doing and enjoy working with the dogs is a little harder.
BIANCULLI: How many dogs do you have at home?
BERLONI: What day is today?
BERLONI: As of today, we have 20, and 15 to 20 seems to be my magic Broadway number. Today we have 20.
BIANCULLI: Twenty? And you have a young daughter, don't you?
BIANCULLI: So how does she relate to all of these animals?
BERLONI: I dedicate my - the opening of the book to my wife and my daughter. And, you know, I believe having an animal in a child's life is very important because it teaches them altruism. It teaches them that they're not the center of the universe, that there are other creatures that need care and respect.
And so if I give nothing else to my daughter, she seems to be very well-centered in that. You know, she lives with creatures she has to help, she has to interact with, she has to share her home with, she has to share this world with. And so there are times where, if she becomes forgetful and doesn't pick up her toys or stuff, they get destroyed.
So there are many valuable lessons to be learned by having animals, and certainly, you know, in her 10 years, she's probably seen 10 or 12 creatures that she's lived and loved with passed away, so I mean, many issues we talk about, and so I think she's okay.
BIANCULLI: Bill Berloni, author of the book "Broadway Tails" in our conversation from 2008. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: Let's get back to my 2008 interview with Bill Berloni, author of "Broadway Tails." He's trained the star and understudy dogs for the role of Sandy in the revival of "Annie," which opens on Broadway next week. Berloni also trained the original Sandy for the first stage production.
Do theater audiences react differently to animals onstage? I mean, is there something about the live aspect of theater that makes it special to them to witness?
BERLONI: Absolutely. I mean, you go to live theater to experience the moment, to experience the energy and the joy of watching live performers. And over the years, you know, I've come to realize that we are most - you know, you walk into a theater, pay your money, and you suspend disbelief. You know that the actors onstage are acting and that it's a made-up story.
But with animals, everyone knows animals don't act. And so people will say to me - they'll go to the edge of their seats because they're waiting for the dog to make a mistake or waiting for it to go out of control. And so what's exciting is, I believe, an audience member comes and sees an animal and go oh my God, it's really happening.
You know, that - the reality to the animal is so real. It's the ultimate acting challenge. You know, it's like watching two lovers onstage do a love scene who in real life we know are husband and wife. You know that it's a real relationship. And so, you know, watching an animal onstage brings the audience to the edge of their seats because they know that you really can't control an animal.
So it brings a heightened reality to the experience, and I think again, watching a little girl sing "Tomorrow" to a dog she loves, you know, is much more exciting, I think in a certain way, you know, than watching two actors trying to do a love scene who, you know, are unattached.
BIANCULLI: In addition to "Annie" and "Legally Blonde: The Musical," in between are a couple of dozen other credits, stage and elsewhere. One that really surprised me, I would have never expected to find your name popping up associated with this, it's that famous Richard Avedon photo of Nastassja Kinski where she's naked except for a giant python wrapped around her body. So where were you, and why were you there?
BERLONI: When "Annie" opened on Broadway, Richard Avedon shot the characters from "Annie" for Vogue magazine. And I was 20 years old and went to the studio, and for whatever reason, he was particularly impressed with this kid who had this dog.
He got my number from the press agent, and he called me and he said: I have this idea for a photo shoot with a snake. Do you train snakes? So I'm thinking: Oh, my goodness. I've got a chance to work with this world-famous photographer. So sure, I train snakes. So what do we have to do?
BERLONI: Well, we just have to drape it on a model. I said okay. And he said how much? And I'm thinking: Do I have to pay him? Until I realized he was asking me how much I would charge him. So back in 1977, I went - I thought of the highest amount of money I could think of, which was $250. He went, okay.
So I called a friend of mine at the ASPCA here in New York, who was the exotic animal consultant, and she knew a snake guy in Brooklyn. So I called the snake guy and he said: Sure, I got a, you know, a boa. And so I said look, I'll split the fee with you. I'll give you $125. We'll work for an hour, you know, easy money. Agreed. So the day of the shoot - I'd never met him.
We arrive at Mr. Avedon's studio, and this guy comes in with a chest, an ice cooler. And he's got sort of long hair and straggly beard and he looks kind of rough around the edges. And, you know, Mr. Avedon comes in with Nastassja, who's a teenager, wrapped in a blanket, and he said, you know, we're going to drape the snake on her.
And so it was a very sort of - certainly out-of-worldly experience for me. And she whispers something in his ear, and he comes over to me and he goes: You know, she doesn't feel comfortable with that gentleman. Do you mind handling the snake? And it was one of those defining moments where I went: Oh my God, I am terrified of snakes.
So do I admit to this world-famous photographer that I'm afraid of snakes, or do I suck it up and do it? And I went, okay. So I go over, and the reason you put reptiles on ice is to lower their body temperature so they become less mobile.
So I pick up the snake, and it is cold, and in my mind slimy, but I pick it up, and I turn and look at the table and there is a naked woman lying on it. Now, I'm 19 and a half years old. I had not seen many naked women in my life.
So there I am with the snake in my hands and a naked woman in front of me, and I didn't know which frightened me more, especially when I had to start draping it over her body near her private parts. I was a mess. But somehow, I got them there, and we stepped back, and he started shooting.
And after about 10 minutes, the snake warmed up and we had to put it back on ice. Well, after 30 minutes, I was a seasoned snake handler. I was, like, all over this thing. And, you know, the next thing I know, this becomes an iconic photograph that has been seen around the world.
BIANCULLI: In "Gypsy," not the current Broadway revival, but the previous one with Bernadette Peters, you used a lamb. How do you train a lamb, and how often do you have to replace lambs?
BERLONI: In "Gypsy," the family, the Hovick family, of which June Hovick and Gypsy were part of - and Mama Rose - loved animals. They were vaudevillians who had all sorts of animals, and so that was written into the script, their love of animals. And how and why a baby lamb was chosen, I'll never know.
BERLONI: But, you know, when Bernadette was leading this revival, she wanted me to work on it because she knew that I would make sure that the animals weren't ever hurt. And whether it's a baby pig or a baby lamb, you know, you get these creatures when they're five to seven days old because they grow so quickly.
And when you're handling any infant creature of that age, you have to be very careful about their stress level, feeding, all that sort of stuff. And how do you train, you know, those animals? Basically, the lamb had to be carried on and be quiet for a lullaby.
BIANCULLI: And (unintelligible) and be sung to.
BERLONI: And be sung to. And from having recently had a baby a few years before, I remembered, you know, when I gave my daughter her bottle, there would be this milk buzz, there would be this euphoric: Ah, my belly's filled with warm milk. I'll just lay here. And I thought, well, maybe that works for lambs, too.
BERLONI: And it's exact - it does. You know, it's amazing what a little warm milk will do for you. So each night before the lamb went on stage, we would give her, you know, her formula, and she'd go onstage sucking her little lips, eyes half open, digesting her milk, and then 10 minutes later she'd be up and awake and ready to play. So her feeding schedules were tied around the performances at the Shubert Theatre every day.
And they would last 21 days. By the time the lambs were 21 days old, we would be into the next lamb. I would go up to a farm in upstate New York, get a baby lamb, bring it back, wash it, diaper it, and we'd switch it out. And we ended up going through, I think, 23 or 24 lambs over the run of "Gypsy."
BIANCULLI: Are lambs always available?
BERLONI: No. That was the other thing. I talked to one of the original stagehands who worked on the Ethel Merman production, and they used to go to the meat market - this was in the 1950s - get baby lambs, use them and then barbecue them after the show was over, when they got too large, which in the '50s was an accepted practice for meat animals.
Certainly, we weren't going to do that on the current production. So - and they only - lambs only have babies once a year, and it's in the spring. So I was not only charged with finding lambs all year round, but what do we do with them afterwards? And I found a - there is a farm, world-famous farm that produces sheep milk cheese.
It's one of the gourmet places. It's in upstate New York, and it's all organic. And they artificially inseminate sheep all year round so that they're continually lactating, and they keep the female sheep and they send the boys to the meat markets.
So we went - I found this place, and they generously loaned me baby lambs because I would bring them back, you know, clean and healthy. So I could say to Bernadette and the theatrical community, if you want to see any of our lambs, go up to the farm, and they're grazing up on some beautiful fields.
BIANCULLI: Throughout your entire career, is there one onstage animal moment that you remember as either the most surprising or the most embarrassing, just that really stands out, or even the most touching?
BERLONI: You know, surprising, embarrassing, two totally different things. I'm so glad as an interviewer you didn't ask me if they went to the bathroom onstage. That's a big one. Embarrassing? A lot of times, you know, the animals will get confused, and when they get confused, they look for dad.
So in the middle of a song, if somebody drops a line or doesn't give them a cue, they will look offstage at me as if to say what do I do now. That usually gets a big laugh.
BERLONI: Probably the most embarrassing - again knock on wood, and I don't want to knock on wood here in the studio - I've never had an animal eliminate onstage. But I tell a story where when "Legally Blonde" premiered in San Francisco, the bulldog character was in one scene, and it got a huge response. So they came back to New York and said Bill, we want to write her into a second scene. Her name is Chloe(ph).
I said OK, so in the second act she returns, you know, with the UPS guy, who's falling in love with one of the characters, and they devise this simple thing where she would run onstage and get her toy, the UPS guy carries a toy on. And bulldogs have sort of sensitive digestive systems.
And our opening night preview in New York, she was so happy to run onstage for her toy, she ran onstage to the characters and vomited.
BERLONI: Which in bulldog language is the ultimate, you know, I am so happy I'm going to chuck my lunch up. You know, and so on the one hand I was like well, at least she's happy. And on the other hand, you know, the performers are like oh great. So, you know, they had to use this toy to clean up the vomit before the production number.
And she never did it again. So that was probably, again, the only time I've ever had an animal throw up on stage but out of sheer joy.
BIANCULLI: Well, Bill Berloni, thanks very much for being here on FRESH AIR.
BERLONI: My pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Bill Berloni, author of the book "Broadway Tails," in our conversation from 2008. The latest example of his animal training can be seen now on Broadway, where the revival of the musical "Annie" is now in previews. It opens next week. Berloni also is the author of "Broadway Tails," about the rescue dogs he trains for showbiz. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. If you're a baby boomer, you might remember the old TV series "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," about a German shepherd and a boy named Rusty who lived with a cavalry troop in the American West. In 1954, Rin Tin Tin was such a big star he was, quote, "interviewed" by a writer for the New Yorker, who noted that he turned up his nose at roast beef and drank milk from a champagne glass.
What many of us didn't know, until next our guest, writer Susan Orlean, told us, is that Rin Tin Tin the TV star was a reincarnation of an ever bigger movie star who had dominated the silent screen in the 1920s and nearly won an Oscar for Best Actor. The original Rin Tin Tin was rescued from a World War I battlefield by Lee Duncan, an American Doughboy who devoted his life to training and promoting that dog and others that bore the Rin Tin Tin legacy.
Susan Orlean's book about the Rin Tin Tin and about America's evolving relationship with dogs in the 20th century is called "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend." Orlean is a staff writer for The New Yorker, who has written seven books, including "The Orchard Thief." Susan Orlean spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Susan Orlean, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, people of our generation when they hear the name Rin Tin Tin, they think of the TV show of the '50s, probably most of us. But what we learn from you is that in the 1920s, the original Rin Tin Tin was a silent movie star. How big was he?
SUSAN ORLEAN: His fame in the 1920s might have even been greater than his fame in the 1950s, which is considerable. Part of that is because the impact of movies was so enormous. But he was also a superstar. He literally and figuratively leaped off the screen.
These movies were greeted as events. People of all ages went to the movies. They were shown all over the world. It wasn't a minor statement to say that he saved Warner Brothers.
Warner Brothers was a small studio at the time that they began making Rin Tin Tin films. Not only did he make them a major studio, but every time they found themselves in any sort of financial straits, they would release a Rin Tin Tin film, and it would set things straight. He was known around the Warner Brothers lot as the mortgage-lifter for that reason.
DAVIES: Now, he made more than 20 silent pictures, and he was the star, right? I mean, what were the plots like? How was he depicted?
ORLEAN: He was always the hero, and he always saved the day. But he didn't do it with the snap of a finger. There was always a struggle. And he was in these films with the big silent film actors of the time, and yet he was the big draw, even when he was in a movie with June Marlowe or Charles Farrell or Jason Robards. Rin Tin Tin was the leading man.
DAVIES: There would be real character development, right? Rin Tin Tin might have been accused of a crime, like killing sheep, and then his master might doubt him and even consider doing away with him, and then both he and the master have to struggle with their relationship.
And, you know, we should say that this was a time when he wasn't the only animal prominently featured in silent films. You write there was this other dog, Strongheart, which was also a big draw. Why were animals more prominently featured in silent films than they later were in talkies?
ORLEAN: Not only was Strongheart making films and a huge box office draw at the time, but nearly 80 other German shepherds were starring in films in the '20s, which is just a staggering fact and something that really astonished me. And they were the leading actors in those films. Moreover, dogs look much more natural not talking than people do. When you see some of these films, the people are - there's a quality in a silent film that's a bit ridiculous because we know people can talk, and yet there they are either pantomiming or using exaggerated gestures to make their point and then having the inner title card flash up and explain to us what they've just said.
A dog is just doing what they do naturally. And they never look - they never look diminished the way people sometimes can. So they were the perfect silent hero. They just suited the medium absolutely perfectly.
DAVIES: DAVIES: So what happened to Rin Tin Tin when the silent movie era ended?
ORLEAN: At the end of the silent film era, Warner Brothers terminated Lee's contract. They sent him a letter saying they were putting all of their attention as a company into this new medium of talking pictures, and everyone knows, as they said in the letter, that dogs don't talk.
In silent film, dogs and people didn't talk. Dogs then were on the same level as people in film. As soon as people were starting to hear speech in film, they became fascinated by it. They were obsessed with the technology. The fact that dogs didn't speak made them seem so much less interesting in a movie when people were so fascinated by the new capacity to hear sound in film.
So the 80 German shepherds that were starring in movies during the 1920s basically all lost their jobs, and really Rin Tin Tin is the only one among them who managed to sustain a little bit of a career. He started appearing in B-films that were coming out during that time. So he was no longer with a major studio, but he was still making films, whereas most of those other dogs just vanished and perhaps retired to a comfortable house somewhere in the country.
DAVIES: Dogs don't live forever, and in 1932, Rin Tin Tin dies. What was the impact on the entertainment world?
ORLEAN: It was a huge event. It was on a scale that is hard for us to imagine now. When Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, radio programming around the country was interrupted with a news bulletin announcing his death.
The next day there was an hour-long radio program in his memory. Every major newspaper carried a significant obituary extolling his virtues and talking about the loss of Rin Tin Tin as a tragedy, as an irreplaceable figure in American and international culture.
I just think it was viewed as a loss that was insurmountable. A lot of movie theaters hung pictures of him, and a lot of stores around the country, the shop owners would put - had a picture of Rin Tin Tin in their window as a sort of memorial to him and his passing.
DAVIES: Our guest is Susan Orlean; her new book is "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Susan Orlean. Her new book is called "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend." I want to talk about Lee Duncan, the man who was Rin Tin Tin's trainer throughout, you know, so much of the life of the character.
He got Rin Tin Tin as a soldier in World War I. Just tell us a little about his background, why he got into the Army.
ORLEAN: Lee was born in the late 1890s in California. His mother was a young woman who had fallen in love with a man who proved to be not very reliable, and after she had a second kid, he abandoned her.
She was really not able to take care of her kids very well, and she put them in an orphanage for what turned out to be five years. She was finally able to reclaim both Lee and his sister when her own circumstances were improved a little bit, and she moved to a huge ranch that her parents were managing.
So Lee grew up on that ranch. He was a pretty lonely kid with no special ambition. The one thing he really wanted to do was to fly, and when World War I began, and the opportunity to enlist presented itself, he did enlist, I think mostly imagining that he'd get a pilot's license out of it.
Of course, he ended up in a horrific piece of history. He was stationed in France and was in a squadron that was really in the thick of the battle. His greatest affection had always been animals. So what he did when he had time and was on furlough and so forth was actually tour the countryside looking for a dog to bring back with him when the war was over.
DAVIES: And one of the fascinating parts of the story that you relate here is the way as many as 16 million animals were used in World War I. I mean a lot of them, you know, mules and horses pulling artillery, but dogs were used not by the United States but by the European armies. What were some of the roles that dogs played in the military then?
ORLEAN: Dogs played an enormous number of roles. They were sentries, of course, and worked as guard dogs. They laid communication wire. They carried messages. They worked as cadaver dogs, meaning that after a battle had ended, they - dogs who were trained for this purpose were released onto a battlefield to quickly identify to the medics which of the bodies still had life in them.
They were many times carrying supplies, first aid supplies, out into a field so that any soldiers who were injured could - and who were able to help themselves in some way - could get the supplies from the dogs, or if they were dying, they could have the companionship of a dog as they were in their last moments.
DAVIES: And just so I'm clear about this, the cadaver dogs would be trained to, when it smelled - it distinguished the smell of a live soldier from a dead one and then bark when he found a live one?
ORLEAN: Exactly. I mean, when you think of a huge battlefield strewn with bodies, and many of them were beyond help, but a medic had to quickly find the soldiers who still had some life in them and not waste their time stopping at each body.
So the dogs helped basically work as a triage unit and head out into the field, and dogs can distinguish between a live and a dead body. So they would sit beside the soldiers who were actually still alive, so the medics could quickly get to those people.
It was an incredibly important role, when you look at the numbers of soldiers involved in some of these battles in World War I and imagine that there could be 1,000 bodies laying out in a field and only a few medics who had to get to those soldiers who were still alive as quickly as they could.
DAVIES: Other dogs carrying, as you said, medical supplies onto the field. And I love this: terriers that were saddled with packs of cigarettes to cheer up the troops.
ORLEAN: Yes, I think these were probably the most popular dogs in World War I, the cigarette dogs, and they were often - they used little dogs, these terriers. They were just saddled with packs of cigarettes, and they would wander around among the troops delivering the cigarettes, and I'm sure they were warmly welcomed.
DAVIES: All right, so tell us about how Lee Duncan found Rin Tin Tin.
ORLEAN: Lee was stationed in the Mews Valley(ph) in France, and he had been sent to examine a battlefield that the Germans had just been pushed out of, just to see if it would serve as a suitable landing strip for the Allies. When he got to the field, he noticed a building that had been hit by artillery but he recognized that it was a kennel. He decided to just take a look and see what was left of this kennel.
Inside he found the bodies of a dozen or so dogs that had been killed by the shelling. At the last minute he heard a whimpering in the back of the kennel.
So he made his way through this array of dogs who had been killed and found a female who was alive and had just given birth. She had a litter of five puppies.
He, being an animal lover, simply could not walk away, even though in the middle of a very intense period of World War I having dogs would not be a very convenient thing, moreover having a mother and newborn puppies, but he could not leave them. He wrangled them somehow into his vehicle and took them back to the barracks and decided to take care of them.
DAVIES: You know, most of the folks in my generation know of Rin Tin Tin from the TV series in the '50s. And you write about this. This was a big revival of the Rin Tin Tin career. What was Lee Duncan's situation in 1952 when TV was growing and this idea came out?
ORLEAN: The early '50s were kind of a difficult period for him. During World War II, he had been very purposeful. He had been involved with the Army, helping them trained the K-9 Corps and Rin Tin Tin was the U.S. Army's mascot during that period. So he felt very purposeful and was earning enough money to be comfortable.
But when the war ended he was a little bit lost. There, he made one movie right after the war, which starred Rin Tin Tin called "The Return of Rin Tin Tin," and then nothing was really happening. You know, dog movies were not the big deal that they had been in the '20s. He was very skeptical about television, which was a very new medium at the time. So he was casting around, and I'm not quite sure what he thought would happen.
He was in some financial straits. In fact, at that point, he had had a sponsorship with Ken-L Ration and that's where he got his dog food for free. And Ken-L Ration basically came to him and said, you know, you're not really doing enough right now to warrant us treating you as one of our sponsors, so we're going to cut off your dog food.
And Lee's financial circumstances were tight enough that that really mattered. To lose the free dog food really mattered. So he thought I've got to do something and obviously the big excitement at the moment was television. So he finally opened himself up to the idea that maybe Rin Tin Tin's future would be in TV and not in film. And it turns out he was right.
DAVIES: I believe a stunt man brings this producer, Bert Leonard, to visit Lee Duncan, right?
ORLEAN: Yes. And Bert had an idea the minute he met Lee and saw the dog. He hatched a plan. He was a great storyteller, and he came up with this idea that Lee loved, which was to set the show in the late 1870s. It would star a boy and the dog who were the only survivors of an Indian raid.
And who are taken in by a cavalry troop in Arizona, and live with them and have their adventures together. And Lee loved the idea. So did Screen Gems. And the next thing we knew, Rin Tin Tin was debuting on American television in the fall of 1954 and was an immediate huge success, once again having the kind of acclaim that he had had in the 1920s, both in the U.S. and all over the world, because the show was broadcast internationally, as well.
DAVIES: Right. And TV had this enormous reach and there was merchandising, right? There were Rin Tin Tin lunchboxes and thermoses.
ORLEAN: There was Rin Tin Tin - practically everything you wanted was available in a Rin Tin Tin-branded version. And this was the early beginning of merchandising. You know, there was no merchandising before the '50s. Rin Tin Tin was one of the early big licensors. And kids went crazy. There were Rin Tin Tin products of just every sort, both identified with the dog and with the stars of the show, Rusty and Sgt. Rip Masters who became huge stars in and of themselves.
DAVIES: Our guest is Susan Orlean. Her new book is "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us we're speaking with writer Susan Orlean. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of "The Orchid Thief." Her new book is "Rin Tin Tin." The series went off the air in 1957, then there were Saturday reruns. Do you think there's another comeback in store for this character? Are you it?
ORLEAN: You know, the idea of a hero is one obviously one of the enduring columns that holds up the whole idea of art and storytelling. So the way that Rin Tin Tin is a hero makes him a character that can be revived endlessly. And I feel like we've come to look at dogs with a great deal of admiration again the way that we did in earlier decades.
We've seen them again in service in the last decade or two that has made them seem heroic again. Dogs doing search and rescue after 9/11. Dogs working in therapy roles. I think that we've, once again, started to look at them not just as pets but as these rather extraordinary creatures who live with us and can work for us. And it makes me think that Rin Tin Tin would once again resonate with a lot of people.
DAVIES: You've begun raising a lot of animals. And you wrote, I think it was in The New Yorker, about your experience with chickens. What interests you about chickens?
ORLEAN: Yes. I had suddenly, some years ago, became completely obsessed with the idea of having chickens. And when I moved to the country, the realization that I could really have them came as this great excitement. And I started with four and then added, and then began adding a few other animals.
I now have turkeys and guinea fowl and ducks, and just got some geese. It was, I think - the fact is I like animals in general. I never had livestock and it was really fun to have the experience of having animals that weren't house pets, but were, kind of, workers.
And yet taking care of them gave me this enormous satisfaction. And chickens are really funny and they're a lot of fun to watch and be around. And I like the fact too that they were useful. I mean we - I haven't bought eggs in years because my chickens provide them for me.
DAVIES: Right, but when you bring the mentality of a pet owner to this, do you then find you're taking your chicken to the vet when it gets sick?
ORLEAN: Yes. And I will say this was a great realization that I was not a true farmer. One of my chickens was sick and I called a poultry farm in my area to ask them for the name of an avian vet and there was a long pause on the phone. And the owner of the poultry farm said, well, if the chicken is sick then you cull it, which I realize is a very nice way of saying you kill it.
And it's a very practical response if you have a poultry farm of thousands of chickens. But I couldn't bring myself to do it and I took my chicken to the vet, which made me, probably, one of the few people in my community that had brought their chicken into the vet. And the vet was a little surprised. For some reason, when I made the appointment, they didn't know that it was a chicken and she opened the crate expecting a kitten.
DAVIES: Did the chicken have a name?
ORLEAN: Yes. Her name was Beauty. And although on her prescription it said Chicken Orlean, which I found...
ORLEAN: ...which I found incredibly funny and touching. And, you know, I don't bring my chickens into the house. I don't, you know, have them in the bathtub with me. I mean, people can certainly - there are people who treat chickens like pets that way, and I don't.
They definitely live outside. But when you have a small enough flock that you can name all of them, your relationship with them is quite different from if you're a farmer with, say, 100 chickens. And there are just certain practicalities to how you treat them when you have that many.
DAVIES: Well, Susan Orlean, we're out of time. It's been fascinating. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
ORLEAN: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Susan Orlean speaking with Dave Davies. Her book about the first major show biz animal star, "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend," is now out in paperback.
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