NEW YORK – Bernadette Peters stopped by a desolate corner of Brooklyn the other day to hang out with a special group of fans. They were literally barking.
A deafening chorus of woofs greeted the two-time Tony Award winner as she toured the Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition and checked in with shelter dogs Louise, Melissa, Sparrow, Joseph, Bobby, Greg and Diamond.
“This is my passion,” she says after scratching furry backs, stroking tails and caressing grateful ears. “I realized what a womanizer is because I’m a dog-inizer. I want every dog, like the man who wants every woman.”
The love goes both ways: Many animals in this no-kill, privately run animal shelter owe their lives to Peters, who is known to scan the lists of dogs scheduled to be euthanized and rush over to save them from death.
“It isn’t hard to find people who care about animals, but when you have the passion that Bernadette has and the drive and the consistent effort to save all these critters, that’s special,” says fellow actor David Hyde Pierce.
Peters visited the shelter on this day hoping it will be the last time she sees many of “her dogs” there – several will be starring in Saturday’s adopt-a-thon she co-founded 15 years ago called Broadway Barks.
She and fellow actress and animal advocate Mary Tyler Moore started the annual star-studded event in 1999 in Shubert Alley – a pedestrian alley at the heart of the Broadway theater district – to help promote animal adoption and raise awareness of the plight of homeless animals.
The free event has grown from a folding-table affair with a few animals from six shelters to a mammoth one with celebrities, musical acts and animals from 27 shelters across the city. There will be signed memorabilia such as calendars and stuffed dogs, with all proceeds going to help homeless animals.
Broadway stars this year scheduled to attend and introduce the animals include Sigourney Weaver, Laura Osnes, Bebe Neuwirth, Isabel Keating, Annaleigh Ashford, the girls rotating the lead in “Matilda the Musical,” the lead of “Annie” Lilla Crawford, Victoria Clark, Harvey Fierstein, Andrew Rannells and new Tony winners Gabriel Ebert and Billy Porter. Music will be provided by the cast of “Jersey Boys.”
“We’re all there for the love of animals,” says Jane Lynch, a veteran animal-rights activist who has been playing Miss Hannigan in the “Annie” revival on Broadway and was asked by Peters to help out Broadway Barks this year.
Shows represented will include “Once,” “Newsies,” “Motown the Musical,” “Kinky Boots,” “Rodger’s + Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark,” “Pippin,” “Wicked” and “Mama Mia” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
“What’s so wonderful about Broadway Barks is that it reaches a whole new audience all of its own – theatergoers and theater lovers and show fans, not to mention so many of the cast and crew,” says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA, which sponsors the event. “It’s got a brand of its own and a fantastic draw. Who doesn’t want to see the cast and crew members of Broadway shows that are running now? It doesn’t get any hotter than that.”
The event estimates it helps find homes for 200 animals each year, part of the reason the numbers of animals killed in the city has been falling.
An estimated 31,000 animals were euthanized in 2003 and only 8,000 last year.
“We’re doing better, but we’re still not there yet,” says Peters, who calculates that there are 7 million unwanted animals nationwide. “I’m not giving up. I’m not giving up.”
From poodles to pugs, Peters is a dog lover, a woman whose hand naturally gravitates to a snout and a muzzle. At the shelter, she is no Broadway diva. She unlocks the cage doors and gets down on her knees to play with the dogs, scratching bellies and getting licks. Chili, a 9-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier, later comes out to melt into her with what has to be a doggie smile.
Peters grew up in New York with a father who loved animals.
“He would rescue birds and bring them home and fix their broken wings,” she says. She got her first dog at age 9.
A visit to the city shelter 15 years ago galvanized her into an activist. She saw so many homeless and abused animals facing death that she felt compelled to act.
“We shouldn’t discard them,” she says. “It’s the last frontier where we’re allowed to behave barbaric.”
Peters, who has two rescue dogs of her own, is always on the lookout to connect a homeless animal with a loving home, as she did recently with the actor and singer Cheyenne Jackson. He had been mourning the loss of his dog Zora and wasn’t ready for a new dog when he got an email from Peters.
“Not even any text in the email, just this picture of this dog came up,” says Jackson with a laugh. “It was this little scrapper. He looked like the Tramp from ‘Lady and the Tramp.’” Jackson and his husband, Monte Lapka, soon welcomed Brillo into their lives.
Recently, Jackson was named one of the grand marshals at San Francisco Pride’s Parade and Peters was delighted to see him photographed along the route cuddling Brillo.
“It was meant to be,” Peters says, like a happy matchmaker.
Lynch and Pierce may be the big stars at Broadway Barks this year, but both know they’ll be taking a backseat to the sweet, furry visitors to Broadway.
“The irony, of course, is that when you go there you think you’re the celebrity, but once you get on that stage you realize, ‘No, it’s the animals,’” says Pierce, who is starring in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and has two dogs at home. “You’re sort of a glorified plant stand for a dog or a cat – and that’s absolutely fine.”