For me it all began before Christmas on December 9th, 2003, at one of Manhattan’s truly fabulous restaurants, the Blue Water Grill, which is not a place where dogs usually hang out. They can’t afford it. It was an upscale PR luncheon given by the Westminster Kennel Club to unveil their new souvenir poster for the 2004 dog show, the profits of which are to go to the Animal Medical Center. Of course, the luncheon was also a posh event to remind us that the next Westminster show was soon upon us. I was fortunate enough to go with my dear friend and neighbor, Carol Benjamin, fellow dog book author and successful mystery writer whose next Rachel Alexander mystery, “”Fall Guy,”” will be published by Morrow next September.
What’s great about these events is seeing many of my friends and colleagues who are too busy to hang out with me throughout the rest of the year. Wandering in and sitting with us was Valerie Feldner, formerly of TV Guide and now gone freelance and Lisa-Croft Elliot and Mary Bloom, two of my favorite dog photographers. Also sitting at our table was Wendy Diamond, Publisher of Animal Fair Magazine (she never goes anywhere without her Toy Poodle who is discreetly hidden inside a black handbag and placed under the table) and far too many others to mention. You’d never know Wendy’s dog was under the table, unless you got your ankle too close.
Like everything else connected with Westminster, it was a classy event. There was an abundance of fancy food, an open bar; wine poured like water, the best dog people around, and a good representation from the media. Maybe I’m just a sucker for linen tablecloths and polished silverware but I loved it.
An added pleasure for the event was the presence of three previous Westminster Best in Show Winners and their handlers. What a joy that was. The dogs were placed on presentation tables next to their handlers: Bill McFadden and Mick (Ch. Torums Scarf Michael) the Kerry Blue Terrier who won in 2003; Scott Sommer with J.R. (Ch. Special Times Just Right), the Bichon Frise who won in 2001; and John Oulton with Kirby (Ch. Loteki Supernatural Being), the winning Papillon of 1999. Like all dogs, they loved it when you came up and rubbed their heads and talked to them like people. Even great champions revert to dog stuff at the appropriate time. This winter has been a particularly hard one and it was an endearing thaw to be able to hug Mick and have him lick my ear and hug me back. I could feel his heart against mine and he was truly an affectionate dog. What a privilege. I rarely get to break biscotti with such illustrious athletes. That was even more fun than spending an afternoon with Ms. Benjamin, and that’s saying a lot because she always keeps me laughing.
The brief ceremony for unveiling the poster was shepherded by Westminster Show Chairman, Thomas H. Bradley, 3d. At the podium, he introduced WKC President Peter R. Van Brunt, then Dr. Guy L. Pidgeon, President and CEO of the Animal Medical Center, the new host of the Westminster live telecast on USA Network, Mark McEwen, formerly of CBS News and Analyst, David Frei, Westminster’s own Public Relations Officer, who fielded our questions with grace and a refreshing directness in his answers.
Just before the poster’s original watercolor was undraped, its artist, Misha Lenn, from the Boston area was introduced. With a Yul Brenner look, he was as imposing as his creation. The painting as you can see, is as bright and uplifting as Westminster itself, captures in a colorful montage the dogs, the “”Garden,”” the dressy folks in their gowns and tuxedos, and exudes the excitement of the great dog event. Tom Bradley then invited everyone to send in our twenty-five dollar checks for the poster. Oh, well. I knew we were going to pay for all that good food and wine somewhere down the line. Still, it is a great poster.
“”WESTMINSTER. THERE’S ONLY ONE.”” That’s the slogan this year proclaiming the 128th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and you’ll find it on their very bright 2004 poster.
Speaking of Westminster, an interesting thing is evolving. This past November 15th was the second year for the National Dog Show on NBC, hosted by The Kennel Club of Philadelphia and sponsored by Purina. It is presented immediately after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Like the Westminster telecast this too has David Frei as its expert analyst but on this show, he is partnered with host, John O’Hurley formerly of the Seinfeld Show. Frei is a good choice for these positions because he is not only a competent and appealing media personality, he is also an AKC-licensed judge, a breeder, a PR specialist, an author of dog books, and an all-around dog man.
Adding to this canine mix is the premiere of another telecast of an important dog show, the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship show, from Long Beach, California. It was seen simultaneously on Animal Planet and Discovery Channel, Saturday, January 31, 2004. This was a three-hour condensation of the actual show and offered prize money totaling $225,000, with the Best in Show champion walking off with a cool $50,000 and a shiny new Suzuki XL-7 SUV. Not bad. This is unprecedented in the world of dog shows as far as I can recall.
If you just look at the surface of it, it is too easy to assume it is warfare for our collective attention. But if you step back and look at the big picture you might see it another way. By the time I got involved with dog shows as a writer, they had fallen off the assignment sheet of newspaper sports departments where they had once been very prominent. Almost every major newspaper in America covered dog shows on a regular basis, partly as a sporting event and partly as a high tone society event. It used to represent the privileged class at play, as horse racing did at one time. As a matter of fact, it was at the height of it all in the mid-thirties that the Dog Writers Association of America was formed with many of its members working the sports page on a proliferation of newspapers.
As class barriers began to fade, so did the coverage of dog shows from the sports and society sections of newspaper. Of course, dog shows themselves have never diminished. Ironically, as newspapers dwindled in numbers, dog shows have increased dramatically, without newspaper support, I might add. Finally, the folks on Madison Avenue and their clients have begun to notice the staggering demographics of canine competition and are getting their feet wet. Dog shows are back but on television, for anyone who wants to watch. It doesn’t matter whether you own an industry, run a veterinary clinic, have inherited great wealth, or work on an assembly line. If you love dogs, then all you have to do is turn on the telly, kick your shoes off and pull the aluminum tag off a cold one. It’s a great resurgence of the way it used to be, but in 21st century terms. Who knows, this may all turn into the dog world’s version of the Triple Crown: Philadelphia, Long Beach, and finally, Manhattan.
Still, my heart is with the purple and gold Rosettes and sterling silver bowls. For me nothing can replace the glamour, the excitement, the prestige of Westminster-at-the Garden. No matter how hard it snows, you hop the subway and you’re right inside. Like the Kentucky Derby, it’s the run for the Rosettes.
Mordecai Siegal’s next book will be, “”THE COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the Cat Fanciers’ Association,”” published by HarperCollins next September. His most recent book is “”The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year (Simon and Schuster). His most durable books are “”Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt,)”” “”When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (Little, Brown,)”” the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “”I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster)”” “”The Cornell Book of Cats (Villard),”” “”The Davis Book of Dogs (Harper Collins),”” He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers Association.