BND Magazine

May 4, 2014

Canine casting call: 'Wizard of Oz' is looking for Toto

Seven dogs are hoping to get their big break in show business this summer.

Each auditioned for the part of Toto in "The Wizard of Oz" at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville last weekend.

One of the most disciplined dogs was Dennis, a white and tan, poodle-Chihuahua mix. Owner Tony Weiss pointed out that he won a Best Trick contest at a fall festival in Florissant, Mo.

"We just kind of went through his repertoire," said Tony, 62, a veterinarian. "He climbs a ladder, and he jumps over a little hurdle, and he does it on German command."

Dennis hopped onto the Dunham Hall Theater stage at SIUE and quietly obeyed Tony's instructions to "sitze" (sit), "komme" (come), "platz" (lie down) and "bleibe" (stay).

"Does he follow hand commands?" asked Peter Cocuzza, a theater professor who is directing the play.

"Well, it's best when you combine the two," Tony said. "He can probably become bilingual if he has to."

Next up was Maggie, a white and tan shih tzu, the only dog with theatrical experience. She appeared in the Edwardsville High School production of "Shakespeare!" last fall.

"She did great," said owner Roberta Goeckner, 45, of Edwardsville, a pharmacist.

"In fact, at the end of the show, they had a question-and-answer session for middle school students, and the questions weren't about the sword fights or the pyrotechnics. They were about the dog."

Barking discouraged

SIUE students and community members will perform "Oz" July 16-20 as part of the university's Summer Showbiz series.

Peter invited dogs to audition regardless of breed or color, although Toto must be small enough for Dorothy to carry.

The dog also should refrain from barking while trotting on and off stage and remain calm while human actors are delivering lines.

"There are 14 munchkins in the play, so he will get plenty of attention," Peter said. "But we also don't want him to be too excited."

SIUE student Ben Nickols, 20, of Excelsior Springs, Mo., stood in for Dorothy, who was out of town, and tried holding some of the dogs. He's playing the scarecrow.

Jamie Wiechens and Ann Blakemore came with Sheba, their Scottish terrier mix, despite the fact she is black and larger than Toto in the "Oz" movie.

"We would love to have Sheba on stage," said Jamie, 34, of Maplewood, Mo., a museum art installer and part-time dog groomer.

"She loves performing. She should be in the circus or agility. She loves to run and jump, and she loves to climb. She can climb a tree and then stand on the limbs."

Jamie brought a picnic basket to Dunham Hall so Sheba could demonstrate her finesse climbing in and out of it.

Energetic or calm?

One of the most energetic dogs at the audition was Dexter, a brown and black border terrier. He darted up and down multilevel platforms, sniffing and wagging his tail.

"Everyone says he looks like Toto (because of his scruffy face)," said owner Missy Shacklady, 24, of O'Fallon, a veterinary technician. "And we like to do different things with him to keep it interesting."

Dexter is not only an aspiring actor. He's training to be a therapy dog for children in hospitals.

"The border terrier is an old breed, but it's fairly new to the United States," Missy said. "There are lots of them in England. So we try to get him in the public eye as kind of an ambassador."

Sadie was the last dog to show up on audition day. Two others arranged private meetings with Peter. A cat was turned away, even after his owner's no-barking pitch.

Sadie, a Pomeranian mix, is owned by Jeanne Fearno, 68, of Wood River, a retired Schnucks employee.

"I just thought it would be fun," she said. "Does Sadie do a lot of tricks? No. But she's calm. She's Miss Laid Back, and she enjoys attention."

Well-behaved bunch

The audition was deemed a success, particularly since no one knew in advance if any dogs would show up.

"It went very well," said Kim Bozark, marketing coordinator for SIUE theater and dance. "No one barked, and no one poo-pooed."

The university produced a different version of "The Wizard of Oz" in the early 2000s -- without Toto. This time around, Peter is feeling braver.

He considered using a stuffed animal or puppet instead of a live dog, but that seemed a little strange.

"We're going to have a lot of children in the audience," Peter said. "It's will be much more joyful for them to see a real animal scurrying across the stage."

The dog audition was a first for "Oz" stage manager Kourtnee Brenner, 33, of Edwardsville, but make-up designer Shawna Trusty had been through it before.

She helped produce "Annie" at another school. The cast needed a Sandy.

"We did the same basic stuff (to see which dogs were quiet and disciplined)," said Shawna, 20, of Excelsior Springs.

"But in 'Annie' there's the classic decision scene where the dog catcher asks who Sandy's owner is. The dog has to look to stage left, then look to stage right and then choose Annie."

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