Overland Park Cindy Williams can tell you something about every animal she's ever known.
These days the film and television actress, rehearsing for a stage production in Overland Park, has three dogs and a cat in her Woodland Hills, Calif., townhouse.
All were rescues: Pharaoh, a cat; Polly, a part Chihuahua; Louie, a bichon frise; and Eddie, the newest member of the family. She found him a few months ago in Palm Springs, Calif., tied up without water in 100-degree heat. Williams isn't sure what he is.
"If Snoopy and Eddie from 'Frasier' had a puppy, that's who my Eddie looks like," she said.
Williams, best known for her long-running series "Laverne & Shirley," can't go to an animal shelter without being a bit overwhelmed. So when she contracted with the New Theatre Restaurant to headline its production of "Sylvia," she made a suggestion. The play is about a stray dog and her relationship with the people who take her in, so why not use the production as an opportunity to find homes for dogs?
New Theatre co-owners Richard Carrothers and Dennis Hennessy went for it. But they were an easy sell. They both have rescue dogs.
Carrothers said many of the actors he and Hennessy hire at the New Theatre do volunteer work for Animal Haven, a no-kill shelter in Merriam.
"She said, 'Oh, it has to be a no-kill shelter,' " Carrothers recalled. "She said she couldn't bear the idea of introducing a dog to the audience knowing it only had a few days to live."
The plan is this: At the end of each performance of "Sylvia," which opens Nov. 11, a homeless dog will be introduced. A card on each table will be available for theatergoers to fill out if they're interested.
More than 70 dogs will be offered for adoption during the run and the New Theatre will pay 50 percent of every adoption fee, which at Animal Haven is $120 for an adult dog or $150 for a puppy.
"I'm looking forward to finding them homes — wonderful, wonderful homes," Williams said on a recent afternoon to Teresa Johnson, Animal Haven's CEO.
At any given time, Johnson said, the shelter has about 300 dogs and cats. During the course of a year, Animal Haven accepts about 4,000 animals and adopts out about 3,600.
The organization contracts with 12 cities in Johnson County and sometimes accepts stray dogs and cats from the Kansas Animal Health Department. Aside from the fees collected from those contracts, Animal Haven relies principally on contributions for revenue. The organization's budget this year is about $1.2 million.
Across the street is the group's Lost Pet Center, where all animals are initially housed. They are kept there for the length of time required by the cities involved. If they haven't been claimed by their owners in that time, they move across the street and become available for adoption. About 60 percent of the dogs are reunited with their owners, compared with just 5 percent of the cats.
One of the dogs Williams saw on her recent visit was Paulette, a black chow who had been at Animal Haven two years, making her the longest-term resident. She was adopted Oct. 22. All the current residents have been there less than a year, according to Johnson.
As Williams continued her tour, she came to an exercise cage with two energetic beagles, whom the staff had named — you guessed it — Laverne and Shirley.
Johnson thinks the dogs were named by the staff before they knew Williams planned to visit. She said animals that come to the shelter in pairs often are named for celebrities or TV and movie characters.
Williams fell in love with the beagles at first sight.
Soon, Williams was on the ground, trading kisses with her new best friends.
"You're a good girl, Shirley. You're a good girl," she said, patting Shirley on the belly. "Oh, honey, I wish I could take you both."
Williams made an executive decision on the spot that Laverne and Shirley would be exhibited to the New Theatre audience as a pair.
Williams has a long history of involvement in groups such as Actors and Others for Animals and the Fund for Animals. She won't go to zoos. She hates circuses, except for those that don't use animals, such as Cirque du Soleil.
"They have little souls too, and people who don't know that should grow to know that," she said. "I just can't stand it. Animals, children and old people, not necessarily in that order, are the disenfranchised. They don't have a voice."
When she sees homeless pets, she is tormented by the possible backstories. Why aren't the owners trying to find them?
"Wouldn't you look in every town and every facility in the surrounding area?" she said. "Those beagles ... were obviously somebody's dogs. So where are these people? What's the story? Were these people who died of old age? Or was it just some unfortunate thing where animals are being abandoned because of the economy? That's what's happening in L.A."
If she has her way, no dog introduced on the stage of the New Theatre will go unadopted.
"The doors will be barred," she said. "No one gets out."