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Bernadette Peters

Bernadette Peters' spring performance at the Lied Center for Performing Arts was a highlight of the year. (Courtesy photo)

Courtesy photo

When Bernadette Peters was little, she, like most kids, wanted a puppy.

"I begged and begged and begged to have a dog," the 63-year-old actress, singer and children's book author said in a phone interview this week to promote her concert Saturday at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.

Her parents eventually granted her wish, adopting a mixed-breed dog when Peters was 9. They named her Suzy.

"She was like the guardian of the family, a real family dog," Peters said. "No one could argue in the house (because) she would start barking. No one could hit (because) she would start barking."

Who knew then that pup would one day lead Peters to her "pet project"?

Twelve years ago, she and friend Mary Tyler Moore, founded Broadway Barks, an annual, star-studded dog adoption event benefiting animal shelters throughout New York City.

Today, Peters is a proud owner of two dogs, Kramer and Stella, both adopted from shelters. Kramer is a mixed-breed dog who looks like Tramp from "Lady and the Tramp," Peters said. Stella is a pit bull.

"I used to be afraid of them myself," Peters said of pit bulls. Her previous dog, after all, was a poodle named Rocco. "Then, I finally realized what wonderful dogs they are.

"They used to be the family dog at the turn of the century…," she added. "Like in ‘Our Gang' comedies, Petey was a pit bull. Helen Keller had pit bull therapy dogs. They are so loving. They are lap dogs."

Peters will pay her first visit to Lincoln this weekend. Although she was originally scheduled to perform in the fall, the date was moved back after she signed on to star in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," which closed in January.

In May, she starts a six-week run of Sondheim's "Follies" at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

To say she is fond of the composer, may be a bit of an understatement. Her first Sondheim musical was "Sunday in the Park With George" in 1984. She also played the witch in 1987's "Into the Woods" and Mama Rose in the 2003 revival of "Gypsy." Her performances in "George" and "Gypsy" earned her Tony Award nominations.

"He's really been something that I love doing," she said. "He just writes about such interesting things. It's like it opens up my mind and takes me away. It's so interesting. I think he does that for the audience, too. Hopefully, he does."

Peters will share several Sondheim songs during her solo performance Saturday night. Her program also will feature Rodgers and Hammerstein selections, including "Some Enchanted Evening," Peggy Lee's "Fever" and the American folk song "Oh Shenandoah."

"What I like to do when I perform is go out and surprise myself," she said. "And if I surprise myself, then the audience is surprised. I sort of describe it like I know what country I'm going to, but I don't know what's going to happen when I get there."

Born Bernadette Lazzara on Feb. 28, 1948, Peters is the youngest of three children. She took her stage name from her father, Peter Lazzara. She began performing at the age of 3 with appearances on "Juvenile Jury," the classic TV game show "Name That Tune" and "The Horn & Hardart Children's Hour."

She made her theatrical debut in "This is Goggle," starring James Daly and Kim Hunter, directed by Otto Preminger. While still in her teens, she appeared in "The Most Happy Fella" and "The Penny Friend" and performed in the national touring company of "Gypsy."

Peters made her Broadway debut in 1967 in "Johnny No Trump." Her two Tony Awards came in 1985 for her role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song and Dance" and in 1999 as the lead in "Annie Get Your Gun."

She said Broadway today is noticeably different from when she started, with many of today's shows as "more spectacular."

"But the bottom line is the same," she said. "You still have to entertain. (A show) has to work in an entertaining way. That can be in different ways."

Like having something to say, she said. Or surprising you. Or appealing to children.

Like "Spider-Man"?

"Right," she said, "like ‘Spider-Man.'"

She gained national celebrity through her work in movies and television. Memorable film roles include those opposite Burt Reynolds in "The Longest Yard," Steve Martin in "The Jerk" and Clint Eastwood in "Pink Cadillac." She earned an Emmy Award nomination for her work in the Fox TV series "Ally McBeal."

Her recent appearance in "A Little Night Music" was her first show on Broadway since "Gypsy" in 2003. In between, she lost her husband of nine years, Michael Wittenberg, an investment banker who died in a helicopter crash in 2005.

She added author to her resume, thanks, in part, to her dogs. She was approached to write a children's book to benefit pet shelters in New York City. She used Kramer as her subject in "Broadway Barks," a story about a homeless dog.

Then her editor told her they needed a song for a CD to go inside the book.

"I thought, ‘Oh my God, who's going to write the song," she said. "I'm not going to write it. I never wrote a song before in my life. So there I am on a plane, and this song comes to me, the music and lyrics at the same time. It was a lullaby. I call it ‘Kramer's Song.'"

A plane trip resulted in the second book, "Stella is a Star," a story about a pit bull who believes no one likes her so she masquerades as a pig.

"(My writing) revolves around plane travel," she said. "The second book I wrote on the plane. I wrote the song in a car coming from the plane."

The best part?

"(Kramer and Stella) know their songs," she said. "When I sing Kramer's song, he walks over. He loves his song. He comes right over and wags his tail."

Reach Jeff Korbelik at 402-473-7213 or, or follow him on Twitter at


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