If one grew up in New York City, the Garden can only mean one thing: Madison Square Garden; The world’s most famous arena.
The Garden was, and still is, a central point of my positive childhood memories. In “walking distance” of our apartment, The Garden offered us the thrill of the circus when Ringling Brothers would come to town, the excitement of professional rodeo (who know at the time I would find myself living in Texas many, many years later where Rodeo is a commonplace as a slice of Pizza in the Big Apple), and the magic of the Ice Capades. But, for me, the Garden was primarily one thing; the mecca of college and professional sports. This was the home of the New York Knicks (basketball) and the New York Rangers (hockey), teams that I lived and died with as a kid. Teams that almost every kid in the city lived and died with.
When I speak of the Garden, I am speaking of the “Old Garden”, the one that existed at Penn station before the newer, glitzier Garden was built. Those of us who lived in the city during the 60’s exhibit great fondness and reverence when speaking of The Old Garden. Perhaps it’s not merely fondness…. Maybe love? Simply walking past that Old Marquee triggered excitement. Tonite! “Rangers Vs. Boston”, Tonite – Boxing- Floyd Patterson vs. George Chuvalo, Tonite- Iron Maiden- In Concert…. And on and on. I know it was only perception, but to me, it seemed that there was always something “big” going on at Madison Square Garden, and why wouldn’t there be, it is the world’s most famous arena.
My earliest memories are of the circus coming to New York. Ringling Brothers “Greatest Show on Earth”. It was always Dad that took us while Mom stayed home getting a great Italian Dinner ready. Usually we were joined by Uncle Vincent and Cousin Chris. Our favorite part was, no debate, seeing the animals and, if one was early enough, which Dad always made sure we were, The Garden had a feature where early arrivers could actually go below the main area and get an up-close look at all the animals that would be appearing in the show; tigers, lions, elephants…. stunning creatures, especially to a very young New York kid. I have since come to not support any Circus or animal type “exhibit”; these beautiful, noble creatures were created to be free and not caged up for the enjoyment of man. But, as a child, I knew no better, and I would be lying if I said I was not totally mesmerized by the animals.
Then there was the Rodeo. I loved the Rodeo, especially the Bull Riding. I had a real “thing” for Bulls as a young kid. I have no idea why, but I loved them. I drew them, had little plastic bulls as toys and sought them out in books and magazines. My Aunt Fil took a trip to Spain when I was very young and brought me back a hand crafted model of a Matador and a Bull. It was a prized possession. I staged my own Bull Fights while playing with these two beautiful toy models, but every time I staged the fight, the Bull always won, the Matador never had a chance. So, seeing these magnificent creatures up close was thrill at the Rodeo. Them throwing the riders all over the area was fun as well. I particularly liked the Rodeo clowns who would save the riders from being gored or trampled with their crazy, but very brave antics.
There were times when the Garden offered an extra-special treat to all us New York cowboy kids… a personal appearance by one of our TV Cowboy heroes; Roy Rodgers, Hopalong Cassidy, The Range Rider.
Seeing them in person after religiously watching them on TV? Amazing.
But, as I said, when I think Madison Square Garden I think of sports, particularly the New York Rangers. I was an avid Ranger fan from as early as I can remember. I worshiped them and despised any team that invaded our Garden to play them. The Bruins, The Canadians, the Black Hawk; all hated foes.
I didn’t get to go to many games, but it was a thrill every time I did. God Bless him, it was always Dad who took me. He didn’t know a thing about Hockey, but he made sure he tried because he knew how much it meant to me. He never had time for sports, he was always working, but on the occasions he asked me if I wanted to go see the Rangers play at the Garden? Priceless.
I know now that it was a financial sacrifice for him to do things like this. Hockey tickets back in the day were not crazy expensive as they are today, but it’s all relative and he never hinted that he was tired or that money was tight. One would have thought he was the Biggest Fan in the world, even though he didn’t know when to cheer or even what was happening on the Ice. He let me tell him when to get excited. He knew our guys, the New Yorkers, were the guys in Blue. I would point out a good play or yell at a significant hit and he would yell right along with me. However, when a fight broke out on the Ice? It took no coaching on my part at all. He took it personally. One of those guys from another city, without a blue uniform, was fighting with one of “our guys”? No way. Dad would be on his feet yelling at whomever from the Rangers was involved in the altercation, to “knock that “so and So” (he tried not cursing in front of me) on his ass!! (not always successful). That was a moment. He was into it. Maybe not understanding the rules, the scoring, the penalties or even the length of each period; but now it was one of “his” New Yorkers in a fight….if he could , he probably would have gone on to the ice to join the fray. Damn, I freakin loved those games.
As we left the Garden after the event, I remember always taking a few moments to just stare at the Marquee outside, that iconic, wonderful Marquee. I was there. I was at that event, I was part of it. If we carried the day we would emerge onto the bustling streets around the Garden a-glow. If we lost, we would get them next time.
.. and how I looked forward to the next time at the words most famous area. Madison Square Garden.