From the March 2019 Issue of ShowSight. Click to subscribe. Pictured above - The crowds at Madison Square Garden are not above an emotional outburst. Photo by Dan Sayers
The ‘Boo’ Heard ‘Round the World: Emotions Erupt at Westminster 2019
The Westminster Kennel Club and Madison Square Garden (MSG) are treasured New York institutions. Each is positioned at the center of its respective universe and once a year their orbits intersect. However, these two American icons —one the world’s most glamorous dog show and the other the greatest arena in the world—are not exactly synonymous. On the one hand, Westminster represents parentage and pedigree, the exhibition of purebred dogs from the finest families. On the other hand, the midtown amphitheater hosts some of the most raucous sporting and musical events to be produced anywhere on the planet. So, when these two legendary institutions come together, magic and mayhem can ensue. This year, the collision was deafening and the “booing” could be heard
‘round the world.
“The Garden” is a cacophonous coliseum. The current and fourth MSG officially opened on February 11, 1968. Located between 7th and 8th Avenues from 31st to 33rd Streets directly above Penn Station, the stadium’s first event was “The Night of the Century,” a star-studded salute to the USO hosted by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. A week later the New York Rangers played their first hockey game at the “new” Garden, beating the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1. On October 14, the Knicks opened their season with a 100-96 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Bulls. Despite the loss, fans of the hometown basketball team were undaunted. The ’68-’69 roster played 14 games to capacity crowds. The cheers from 19,000 sports fanatics certainly tested the strength of MSG’s brand-new circular ceiling. New York ticket holders, after all, are not especially known for their reserve.
In addition to welcoming thousands of enthusiastic sports fans, the mid-century arena opened its doors to throngs of music lovers during its first year. When B.B. King played his electric guitar, “Lucille,” on July 17, 1968, “The King of Blues” raised the roof off the arena with his sophisticated soloing. Other musical acts were even more boisterous. The rock bands Cream, The Doors and The Jimi Hendrix Experience played to capacity crowds. In 1969, James Brown, Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones performed to audiences that were only too happy to join the chorus singing, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash, it’s a gas, gas, gas!”
The first Westminster Kennel Club dog show to take place at the Garden’s new address delivered more snow than gas. The event took place on February 10-11, 1969, and was accompanied by a nor’easter that paralyzed the city. More than 20 inches of snow had fallen by Tuesday, closing the New York Stock Exchange for the first time in its history. Predictably, dog fanciers were less deterred by the precipitation. In fact, the club’s 93rd annual all-breed show went on as scheduled despite the devastating storm. On the final night, six dogs stood on the Garden floor to vie for Best in Show. The indomitable contenders were the English Springer Spaniel, Ch. Magill’s Patrick CD, the repeat Group-winning Smooth Dachshund, Ch. Crosswynd’s Crackerjack, the Old English Sheepdog, Ch. Prince Andrew of Sherline, the Skye Terrier, Ch. Glamoor Good News, the Toy Manchester Terrier, Ch. Renreh Lorelei of Charmara and the Chow Chow, Ch. Gotschall’s Van Van. Judge Louis J. Murr selected the Skye as his ultimate winner for breeder/owner-handler Walter Goodman and his mother, Adele, who founded the Glamoor Kennels in 1937. Newspaper articles of the day reported that the determined Mr. Goodman arrived at the Garden with “Susie” draped around his shoulders to keep her from the snow-covered sidewalks. When asked by a passerby why he wasn’t carrying his mother and letting the dog walk, New Yorker Walter replied, “I’m not showing my mother!”
Then as now, Mr. Goodman’s tenacity and dead-pan humor characterize the steadfast resolve of the typical dog fancier. Although good sportsmanship is expected from exhibitors and comradery is encouraged, dog shows are still competitive events where emotions often run high. (This is especially so at winner-take-all events like Westminster.) Uncontrolled negative outbursts occasionally do happen, but misconduct in the ring is subject to a bench show hearing. Not so the (mis)behavior of spectators and fans. As Westminster’s visibility among the general public has increased thanks to live broadcasts across two channels, one streaming service and one app, interest in the show has grown. More dog-loving locals are also coming to watch the dogs compete, and they want to root for their favorites—and voice their displeasure. (New Yorkers expect the Garden to be clamorous and are often, shall we say, enthusiastically engaged.) This enthusiasm was particularly lively at this year’s show, surprising the sensibilities of many long-time Westminster attendees.
Passionate displays from the crowd are nothing new in the wide world of sports. An article in the May 2018 edition of Psychology Today titled, “The Two Emotions That Drive Sports Fans” addresses the reasons why some spectators at the Garden this year might have felt compelled to “boo” when their favorite dog didn’t receive the nod. Author Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. references a series of studies conducted at National Chun Cheng University (China) on the measure of “Sports Stadium Atmosphere” at spectator events. First published in European Sport Management Quarterly, the report breaks down the factors that contribute to satisfaction while attending a live competition. As Krauss Whitbourne explains, “The ‘entertainment’ dimension is composed of what might be considered aspects of the game [show] that have no relation to the team’s [dog and handler’s] performance.” The author mentions elements such as acoustics and lighting that can elevate the energy inside an arena. Even a JumboTron can intensify the excitement. “Emotional factors also heighten the fan’s experience, and include the actions of other spectators, whether there are groups who are cheering and performing various rituals (such as a wave), the importance of the game, and then a factor called ‘passion,’” notes Krauss Whitbourne. “Here’s where we get the key emotional contributor, and the one that can make life beautiful or horrible, depending on how much you care about the team [dog and handler] and the game [Westminster].”
At the Garden this year, the passions of some spectators seemed to be at an all-time high. Owing to the enthusiasm of each dog’s performance in the Best in Show ring, the air in the arena was positively electric. Some devoted dog lovers just couldn’t contain their zeal, shouting out their favorite’s call name with paparazzi-like intensity. Outbursts like this have become more frequent at America’s most beloved dog show, leading some to comment on a more generalized coarsening of public discourse. In fact, when the name-calling turned to booing this year, many seasoned fanciers were horrified, taking to social media to voice their objections. But this year’s outbursts weren’t the first time people voiced their displeasure at the Garden, and they likely won’t be the last. As writer Jeff Chase opined in a Bleacherreport article titled, “The Most Famous Booing Instances in Sports,” heckling will always come naturally during a sporting event. “Let’s face it, we always want to see our teams [dogs] do well and make the right choices,” offers Chase. “And when they don’t, we can’t help it. We have to boo.”
At dog shows, the acceptable form of “booing” requires the offended spectator to share his or her displeasure ringside in a hushed voice spoken through a raised hand: “What is that judge thinking!?” It’s more sneer than jeer. Protestations spoken any louder than this are at risk of being picked-up by nearby cell phones and posted on Facebook faster than you can say, “Boo.” Of course, the heckling expressed at the Garden this year was broadcast in real time for all the world to hear. But this didn’t seem to matter to the handlers or the judge, and it undoubtedly made little difference to the breeders and owners of the dogs on the floor. That final moment on Tuesday night belonged to all of them. The rest of us were simply there to watch. Free to boo, but also free to cheer.