Westminster: It's not for weenies!
By Cindy Williams
Westminster! Even the name is big. When I think of our trip to The Big Apple with our first show dog I am struck with the largeness of it all, the huge amount of taxis, pedestrians and traffic, the skyscrapers, the Hotel Pennsylvania with its 17 floors and 1,700 rooms. It is all large, larger than life. It was everything I imagined and more. Well, minus the fairy tale ending of going Best In Show, of course.
I decided to enter Westminster when my beloved show Beagle, Ch. Lanbur Lil Mis Honey Pot, "Honey", completed her conformation championship. My original intent was to retire Honey from the show ring, but then a friend suggested I enter her at Westminster. That planted the seed that grew into the Big Dream which lead us to the Big City. Why not share that experience with the dog that as a six-month-old puppy walked into that very first show ring with me? We are a team. It seemed only fitting!
So off I go with my husband Jim, more gear than we'd ever take camping for amonth, and one little beagle, all loaded up in my aging Ford Explorer. The drive alone is big, approximately four and a half solid hours of highways and high speeds. By the time we reach the Bronx I have developed a nice sheen of sweat from driving in the heavy traffic for so long. No problem -- once we hit the Henry Hudson Highway we have another hour of bumper to bumper, horn honking, creeping, crawling, city traffic to catch our breathe in. Not to mention the exhaust fumes.
We have no problems until we take a right turn onto Seventh Avenue, only one block down from the hotel, and manage to squeeze through the crowds of pedestrians only to be stopped by two police officers directing us over to the right-hand side of the road behind a squad car. Who, us? What did we do? The light was green...we were following a K-9 patrol car even...what could we have done wrong? Well, it just so happens that there are many streets with NO RIGHT TURN in Manhattan. Lucky for us the officer is sympathetic to my pleas of innocence, or maybe he just feels sorry for the bedraggled country bumpkins from New Hampshire in a beat up Ford Explorer with a Beagle for a show dog. The lady driving the Lincoln Continental behind me is not so lucky. We see her get a ticket and later find out those tickets run $90.00. Welcome to New York! Getting back across the four lanes of street to reach the entrance of the Hotel Pennsylvania only one hundred feet away is actually the most daunting task of the whole drive but since this story is not supposed to be about the drive alone I will spare you the details and jump right to the joy of unloading.
Basically, if you are going to be a Westminster newbie and arrive on Sunday with all the other newbies and the paparazzi (I kid you not), you'd better prepare to unload in the middle of the street, parked half in the crosswalk, with hundreds of gawkers and passersby eyeballing you. Do not expect any valet service unless you count the homeless man who offers to carry some of our two hundred bags into the hotel for whatever we will give him. We are desperate and so is he so it works out to be a win/win situation. In retrospect that probably isn't the smartest arrangement for us country folk to agree to. Desperation and near panic lead us to do strange things. Lord knows what that man could want with my dog bowls and brushes but I suppose he could swipe the bag with the tickets in it and be off to Westminster if he wasn’t a nice guy.
During our whole process of unloading and struggling to figure out HOW to unload in the middle of the busy street we manage to attract the attention of a USA/Animal Planet filmographer complete with tripod and movie camera. He decides to set up right next to my truck, commenting about my beagle decals and the reflection of the Empire State building in my window. I know he is only filming us because we look like an accident waiting to happen. My husband is struggling with loading as many of our things on our trolley as he can and he is realizing two bungee cords are not going to cut it. Of course our trolley isn't the official dolly used by all experienced exhibitors. Oh no, it is the Total Trolley of Infomercial fame and it is proving to have 100 uses, but none of them are doing my husband a bit of good as he struggles with the bags and gear. Meanwhile, I am doing my best not to blow my fifteen minutes of fame by having a meltdown or making some stupid expression that will haunt my dog show days forever. It is the oddest feeling being on "reality" TV in the middle of the street in NYC with hundreds of people rushing all around. Somehow we manage to contain the usual yelling and four letter words that typically would erupt under this kind of tension and the film maker finally gets bored and moves on. His misfortune indeed, as no sooner has he left than the pile of luggage that was barely strapped on the trolley manages to topple over into thestreet and my husband finally gives that Oscar-winning scene.
The Hotel Pennsylvania:
At last we enter New Yorks' Hotel Pennsylvania which was built in the years after World War I. This hotel is a giant among giants. With 1,700 guest rooms, the Pennsylvania is one of Manhattan's largest hotels. From the front the hotel looks grand and fancy, befitting the big band movie "Glenn Miller", which was filmed there during the hotel’s better days. Glenn Miller and his Orchestra opened at the Cafe Rough in the Hotel Pennsylvania on January 4, 1940, for a three-month engagement. Shortly after finishing this booking the orchestra recorded Jerry Gray and Carl Sigmanâ's interpretation of the hotel’s telephone number which must now be the most famous telephone number in the world: "Pennsylvania 6-5000!" The hotel’s lobby is teaming with people, dogs, gear and luggage piled high on dollies. The Total Trolley continues to prove that it is not the wisest choice for this hobby and tensions are running high. Day trippers abound asking to take pictures of our dogs and I decide to grab a Diet Coke out of the cooler as another exhibitor passes by muttering something to himself about needing a beer or two or three. It is all rather exciting, I think. I had no idea that regular people would come to the hotel a day before the show just to take pictures of the people and dogs arriving. With Madison Square Garden and Penn Station directly across the street it is no wonder that it feels like the whole world has come to meet our dogs. I have no doubt that you could bring a clean mutt from the pound on this day, make up some fancy breed name for it, and get in on all the adoration.
After waiting in line for about 45 minutes we get the keys to our room and the service of a very outgoing valet named Frankie. Frankie is funny and he is smooth. He knows just what to say as he is guiding us past the nice lobby elevators and through the heavy swinging doors that lead to the hallway lined with freight elevators. We join in with the long line of dog handlers and dollies waiting for empty elevators that we can squeeze all our stuff and show dogs into.
Frankie starts on his much-rehearsed speech about the hotel and the rooms. He asks us if we are familiar with the scene from "Best In Show" where the couple with the Norwich Terrier can't get their credit card to work so the hotel manager puts them up in a supply closet. "We sure are," we say, chuckling. "We own the movie!" Frankie grins. "That was a spoof on the rooms at this hotel." He says. "Hmmmm...interesting..." we reply.
When our turn to ride the freight elevator is over and we enter the hallway lined with rooms Frankie's story isn't sounding quite so funny. The carpet is old and worn. The walls are bare of anything but dirt and dings. It's dark. It's dingy. Now I am starting to see why this is a two star hotel. But it gets worse, much worse, when Frankie, still babbling, opens the door to our "room." Honestly, I have never seen such a depressing hotel room. I don't know if I can legally describe how bad it is. I think I may prefer the supply closet if a clean toilet comes with it. There is one double bed and a shower stall. The single window faces a brick wall and the ceiling has a section missing. The bed doesn't even have the customary "ugly hotel comforter" on it and again the walls are bare except for...well, you can guess… dirt and dings. Immediately my husband is trying to negotiate with Frankie for a better room but all Frankie can do is give us a manager’s number and a recommendation to be NICE and not pushy when we call. I can't hear exactly what my husband says when he calls but I do catch the words "extremely" and "grateful" and the next thing I know we are heading back down the elevators to the lobby for a new set of keys.
Back to the freight elevators we go praying that this new room is more than a meager improvement over the last one. We are in total disbelief that such a famous hotel could have rooms such as our previous one for the prices we are paying to stay here! We leave the freight hall and enter the new floor that is an immediate improvement to the eye. The carpet on this floor is not bad. Gold-framed mirrors hang on walls which are clean and freshly painted. A fancy table with a flower arrangement welcomes us to this floor. Two housekeepers stroll past us chatting in Spanish. Even Honey seems to have an extra bounce in her step on this floor.As we approach our new room Jim and I are getting more and more excited...weare on the front side of the building; the side with the views of Madison Square Garden and the Hudson River. We continue down the hall and are getting even more jubilant when we discover we have been given a corner room at the end of the hallway. That should greatly limit the foot traffic noise! Upon opening the door of our room it is as if a miracle has happened. The new room has a huge king bed complete with the standard "ugly hotel comforter.” It is light, bright and nicely decorated. It has a mini refrigerator and there are TWO huge windows with incredible views. Madison Square Garden is right across the street and the huge "Dogs Rule" banner hanging from it makes a nice backdrop from our window. The other window looks up Seventh Avenue and we can watch the multitude of taxis and people, many dog people, rushing here and there. Horns are honking, and the city is looking frantic down below but right now things are looking up, way up, for us.
On Monday Jim and I plan to go scope out The Garden (the common nickname ofMadison Square Garden) and watch some of the classes. We leave Honey in herposhed out crate after I potty her down in the basement where the Hotel Penn’sinfamous "green room" is set up. You can potty your dogs in "the green room"along with some of the most highly advertised dogs in the country and in doing so you can be privy to some pretty comical moments which are probably best kept to yourself. After you potty your dog you can also try out a jog-a-dog treadmill or a doggie massage, or even make a deposit in the canine semen bank, amongst other things. We decide to skip all that for today and head directly to The Garden.
My first impression of The Garden is very positive. It is spacious, clean, and has plenty of security and vendors. We scope out our box seats and soon spot many of the usual characters down in the rings showing their dogs in front of a sold out crowd. After a few minutes of sitting in our seats we decide to mosey down and join the masses of people cruising the benching area. Westminster is one of onlytwo benched shows left in this country. Exhibitors are required to have all dogs not currently in the show ring present in the benching area so that they are available for the public’s viewing on the day they are shown. Talk about a mob scene! As we slowly make our way in the tightly packed crowd we feel bad for the many exhibitors, dogs in arms, trying to get to the rings without getting totally disheveled squeezing through the impossible mass of spectators.
Over the course of the two days we spend at The Garden we discover that expensive box seats are not really a necessity. Often spectators with generaladmission tickets cruise the stands and slip into any available seats, alwaysupgrading when possible. We find ourselves doing the exact same thing andactually only spend a fraction of our time in our own box seats which we eventually sell. But that's a story for another time.
Monday night after the groups we decide to bring all our show gear over for the next day to save time and stress in the morning. Since Honey has been back at the hotel while we watch groups I ingeniously think we can kill two birds with one stone by incorporating her evening walk into our gear trip. Back across the street and down the side road we trek to The Garden with dog and gear. It is now nearing midnight and the weather is nasty and cold. It rained hard all day and is still drizzling as we hurry into the freight entrance of The Garden, past security and up the ramp to the freight elevator. Unloading our gear is a fairly quick process and we are tired but feeling pretty good as we start back out of the benching area enroute to the labyrinth of halls which will lead us to the freight elevator, back down to thebasement and out to the street. Unfortunately, I am about to learn a ratherunpleasant lesson on removing dogs from The Garden without carrying the yellow slip of paper proving ownership on me. There I am, about to cry, arguing with thesecurity people who want to keep my dog, getting glared at by my husband whois overtired and getting very irritable, and at my wits end because I am not leaving my precious Honey in that building all night long. Finally a top security officer comes, assesses the situation and takes my license to copy in case any dogs turn up stolen at the show. I also receive a lecture on exactly why I should appreciate their strict policy on removing dogs from the building, which in retrospect I do. So folks, don't forget your ID slip for your dog. Staple it to yourself if you must, but make sure you have it with your dog at all times in The Garden. And with all you will have to remember if you are showing a dog at The Westminster Dog Show, believe me, that is easier said than done.
The Big Day:
Manhattan is certainly the city that never sleeps and if it is the night before Westminster, and you have a dog being shown, you probably aren't going to get much sleep either. I certainly don 't. I’m up and in the shower at 6am. All it takes is one little peek out our curtains to see the other dog people up and on their way into The Garden to get me going. Fortunately the water pressure in our shower is wonderful and before my husband is even awake I am dressed and packed and ready to take Honey on a quick trip down to the Green Room before heading across the street.
There’s certainly a palpable excitement in making our way into The Garden this time. I also remember all my important papers, especially my ownership/entry form. I am at my benching spot by 8am sharp and have time to talk to a few people in our breed. Some I know, some I finally get to meet. Everyone is "up" and excited. The big morning has begun without a hitch. Tuesday’s crowd never does quite match the madhouse proportions of Mondays. While there is a constant stream of spectators it never quite resembles the mob scene of the previous day. For that we are all relieved. Since all the exhibitors in my row have beagles, which are a fairly simple breed to touch up on show day, almost everyone is grooming their dogs in the benching area. This certainly attracts the public’s interest. It seems to me that the 13" beagle Quincy, shown by junior exhibitor Alyssa Irwin, attracts the most attention from the beagle loving public.
Beagles are scheduled for 11am. I am a bundle of nerves until Honey’s breeder offers to take her in the ring. I jump at the chance to have his years of expertise guiding my dog. I carry Honey through the crowds and wait for Jon ringside. I’m excited yet very calm because I'm not worrying about showing her myself. I admire all the beautiful beagles awaiting the call to enter and before long Jon comes and whisks Honey away from me for a little "getting to know you" time. During the judging I feel much like a football coach on the sidelines. The pressure is off me, but my little player that I’ve trained from a youngster is in there without me. Honey behaves well for Jon but she doesn't seem quite her usual self. I am sure that all the cameras, the huge number of spectators, the extremely cramped rings and just the tension in the air affect my young dog. There are twelve beautiful beagles in the class and Honey doesn’t win, but we never expected that she would. She does look beautiful and shows well under the circumstances. I am so proud of her. Looking back without the lights shining in my face and the exuberant butterflies in my stomach I wonder if I should have shown Honey myself. Though her breeder did a perfect job with her and I know we still would not have won anything with me at the top of the lead, at least I would have experienced the exhilaration of showing my own dog at Westminster. Instead I have a rather hollow feeling watching from the sidelines. In this respect I learn a huge lesson on this big day.
Best In Show:
Tuesday night the final three groups are set to show with the sevenfinalists from all the groups then going up for Best In Show. The Garden is packedand the atmosphere is charged. Jim and I happen to luck into some floor seatsthanks to a friend of ours that comes down with a horrendous head and chestcold that is later termed "The Westminster Crud." Scores of participants,including both of us, bring this nasty bug home with us to remind us of our NewYork trip for several weeks to come. As the remaining three groups are being judged I thoroughly enjoy the camaraderie of all the well dressed dog people around us. Everyone is dressed to kill. Many tuxedos and ball gowns fill the box seats and the judges all look like they walked out of all day makeover sessions. Likewise the grooming of the dogs is impeccable and the showmanship of the exhibitors and dogs that remain for best-in-show are extraordinary.
This is not your average dog show! The German Shorthaired Pointer bitch "Ch Kan-Point's VJK Autumn Roses," a.k.a. "Carlee," that ultimately wins best-in-show steals my husband's heart right from the Sporting Group. Her movement is nothing less than phenomenal. During the Best In Show judging when Carlee stacks for judge Lynette Saltzman and holds that stack for what feels like an eternity I feel my eyes welling up. Carlee's movement combined with her now famous stack has our whole row of spectators muttering that she has to have the win. Thank goodness Judge Lynette Saltzman feels that same passion and when she points to Carlee I don't think there is a dry eye in the building. As Jim and I lead Honey and our soon to be obsolete Total Trolley (we buy a real dog show dolly from CherryBrook) out of The Garden we hand the security agent our entry/ownership form. The security staff collects all the forms for the last time this year from all the exhibitors leaving with dogs. I hand my form over with relief!
Back out on the street we are stunned at the number of people who arehanging around to catch one last glimpse of the dogs. I still find the celebrity ofhaving a dog shown at Westminster amazing and cannot even begin to imaginewhat it must be like for Carlee and her people. As we walk toward the HotelPennsylvania for one last time Jim points out the Empire State Building. It islit up in purple and gold, the colors of Westminster, in honor of the show.It is like the icing on top of the cake of a wonderful day. Huge.