Starring for the animals: Bernadette Peters lends her voice, talent, and time for shelter animals

Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore

Bernadette Peters has had a busy year. The Tony award-winning actress has a new book out, Stella is a Star, and she returns to the stage this season as Desiree in the Broadway revival of Steven Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. But on July 10, three days before her debut, Peters attended rehearsal and then spent the afternoon starring in a one-day show of her own, Broadway Barks.

Twelve years ago, Peters and her good friend Mary Tyler Moore co-founded Broadway Barks—an annual event supported by the Broadway theater community to promote animal adoption in New York. Recently, Peters took some time out of her über-busy schedule to talk about her new Broadway role, Broadway Barks, and her passion for animals, especially her dogs, Stella and Kramer.

Broadway Barks took place three days before your debut. You had to run out of rehearsal for the event, and then go back to rehearsal.

Yes, that’s right. It’s always a busy day, but very energizing.

You came up with this idea about 12 years ago from a conversation with Mary Tyler Moore—is that right?

Well, not exactly. Mary and I were dear friends, and I know that she loves animals, you know, like since she was a child. She took a dog from some man who was hitting it with a stick. So anyway, when I was in Annie Get Your Gun, [our cast] had won the Gypsy of the Year Award, [a fundraiser] for Broadway Cares. So we were feeling really good about ourselves and we said, “What else can we do?” Then we said, “Well, what about animals?” And it was my assistant and my stage manager and we went, “Oh my God, we could get Shubert Alley and everybody could come out from the shows.” I said, “My friend Mary would love to get involved, I’m sure.” So I spoke to Mary, and she said she was on board.

So this was the 12th Broadway Barks?

Yes, it started 12 years ago with six shelters. They’re all still with us, and now we have 27 because we can’t fit anymore in the alley. Last year, we had over 250 cats and dogs adopted from that one day. So now people know to come to Broadway Barks to adopt. It’s an adoptathon.

You have a Pit Bull, Stella, who you most recently wrote a book about.

I do. She is an amazing dog. You know, they used to be the family dog at the turn of the century. You see Victorian pictures of babies holding on to their Pit Bulls. And they used to be called the “Nanny Dog” because they’d take care of the babies. Petey was a Pit Bull from the Our Gang comedy. And Helen Keller had a Pit Bull. So, it’s just that it became the vanity dog of the tough guy right now.

I remember when I was a little girl growing up and German shepherds were the dogs of the tough guys. So they really abuse and malign these dogs horribly, just horribly. They didn’t want to fight; they were just made to fight, because they would do anything for you. Whatever you put on them, they will do. So it’s people. People have the problem.

Have you always had Pit Bulls, or have you had other dogs?

She’s my first. I used to be afraid of the Pit Bull. I used to cross the street until I got to know what they were really like. They’re like lap dogs. So she’s my first one, but I’ll always have one.

And I saw on your web site BernadettePeters.com that you feature adoptable Pit Bulls under “Bernadette’s Picks.” How do you choose which dogs to be on your site?

I don’t always take a Pit. I usually know the dog because I rescue for the BARC Shelter in Brooklyn. And if I know a dog from another shelter, I’ll put them on also if I have their photo.

Now, you’re doing this AND you’re a Broadway star. How do you have time for everything?

I don’t consider myself a real animal rescuer. I mean, I rescue the dog and I send them to BARC and they take it from there. The rescuers are the real heroes; those people who decided they were going to do something and make a difference. I hold them in such high esteem.

But having somebody with your kind of visibility makes a big difference as well.

No, it’s my passion. Believe me.

How did your passion come about?

I’ve always loved animals, and when my dog died, I went to the ASPCA and said, “I have to take this dog because the dog has diarrhea, no one is going to adopt the dog and the dog is going to be put to sleep.” And they said, “No, we’re not the city shelter anymore. We’re the ASPCA. So the dog will not be put to sleep.” So I said, “Oh, I’d better see what’s going on in the city shelter.” So I went there. And I couldn’t believe the amount of dogs that were there. I said,  “This situation needs help.” That’s when we got our second dog. We got our first dog from the ASPCA, Kramer; Stella came from the ACC, the city shelter.

Well, God love you.

I can’t not do it.  [I hear at work] “OK, when are you going to get back to work? Enough with the saving dogs. Get back on stage!”

What’s the scene like for Broadway Barks?

It’s a big walkway between 45th and 44th, between Broadway and 8th, right off Broadway. What happens is between shows, people from the shows come up–Sean Hayes, Kristin Chenoweth, Kelsey Grammer, and many others. They get to meet their shelter and the dog or cat that they’re going to talk about. So they come up on stage and try to get them adopted, all the lovely, lovely creatures. To me, they’re called companion animals for a reason. They’re only here for us. They’re here to make our lives better. And we dispose of them so readily. People should really think about that.

When you started off, did you imagine that Broadway Barks would turn into what it is today?

No, I’m so thrilled. I love that the Broadway community has embraced it and they go, “Oh my God, why haven’t I done this before? This is so much fun.”

How is your book, Stella is a Star, being received?

It’s doing really lovely, and it has the most beautiful paintings by Liz Murphy. I love the story. It’s about a Pit Bull who doesn’t think anyone likes her, so she’s masquerading as a pig. And within the book she learns to love herself for who she is. The book is really about not judging people from the outside and learning to love and accept yourself, which is something I think we all have to do eventually.

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