The soul of Madison Square Garden
They adorn every wall, desk, table and shelf in the office of Madison Square Garden’s in-house photographer; dozens of pictures, some in color, some black and white. Woven together, they chronicle the last half century of a building that has managed to fulfill a claim worthy of a carnival barker: The World’s Most Famous Arena.
Hired a couple of years before the current Garden opened in 1968, George Kalinsky has witnessed and then captured all of its many iconic moments. Ali and Frazier in The Fight of the Century. Willis Reed’s dramatic walk onto the court. The Rangers breaking The Curse. Frank Sinatra’s return. John Lennon’s last performance. The nominations of three presidents and visits from two popes.
With the Garden’s 50th anniversary fast approaching, Kalinsky reflected on many of his favorite moments during a recent conversation in his office, surrounded by images that spurred a stream of stories.
He spoke softly, but with passion, his eyes widening behind thick-framed glasses as he recalled going back and forth between the court and the locker room to check on whether an injured Reed would emerge from the locker room to play in the 1970 NBA Finals, and again as he relived the day that Sinatra showed up in his doorway, asking that he teach him everything he knew about photography, all in five minutes.
“I’ve felt a part of this building, going all the way back to the beginning,” Kalinsky said, a collage of many of his better-known photos visible over his shoulder. “The building was not brick and it was not mortar and it was not cement and it was not glass. The building was humanity. It had a personality. It had emotions and feelings. It could sweat and it could bleed. It could do all the things that, if a building were a person, it would do.”
First Look podcast, with MSG discussion at the 14:15 mark:
Kalinsky uses a similar metaphor when he thinks back to his first two years at the Madison Square Garden Co., watching the new building rise from the ground, describing it as the eagerly anticipated birth of a baby.
If the Garden is a “living, breathing thing,” as Kalinsky describes it, then his are its eyes.
You needn’t look far to find its hands.
Or its heart.
Kalinsky’s association with MSG traces back to his beginnings as a photographer.
While in Miami interviewing for a job as a newspaper cartoonist early in 1966, he spied the unmistakable figure of Muhammad Ali crossing the street to the 5th Street Gym, where he famously trained with Angelo Dundee. Hustling to follow Ali into his workout, Kalinsky was stopped by Dundee, who told him visitors had to pay a dollar.
“I’m the photographer of Madison Square Garden,” Kalinsky quickly retorted, holding up the small 35 mm camera that he’d brought on the trip.
Dundee raised an eyebrow. But he relented.
“OK, comedian,” he said. “Come on in.”
The building was not brick and it was not mortar and it was not cement and it was not glass. The building was humanity. It had a personality. It had emotions and feelings. It could sweat and it could bleed. It could do all the things that, if a building were a person, it would do.
Kalinsky shot Ali sparring, then took his film back to the Herald, which used one of the photos. When he returned home to Long Island, he brought the roll to the head of MSG’s boxing department, John Condon. Condon liked the work enough to hire Kalinsky to shoot Emile Griffith, the middleweight champ who regularly headlined the Garden. That led to an assignment shooting the Knicks, where he got a great image of Reed blocking a dunk. The Rangers hired him to shoot. Then the Garden hired him to shoot college basketball.
After three months of paying him to photograph most every event in the building, MSG executives decided it might be more cost-effective to put Kalinsky on the payroll.
“It just seemed a natural thing,” Kalinsky said.
At the Garden, it was a time of transition. While its iconic name dated to an open-air arena leased to P.T. Barnum in 1879, MSG was in its 41st year at its third location, with construction underway on a fourth. The project had drawn the ire of the city’s first wave of preservationists, who opposed the demolition of Penn Station, a vast, classically columned building that would be leveled to make room for the new arena, built atop the rail lines.
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
» Opened: Feb. 14, 1968
» Owner and operator: Madison Square Garden Co.
» Original cost: $123 million ($1 billion renovation 2011-13)
» Capacity: Basketball 19,812; Hockey 18,006; Concerts 20,000
» Food concessionaire: In-house since 1990 (replaced Harry M. Stevens)
» Soda pouring rights: Coca-Cola (since 1910; predates current venue)
» Sponsorship: Marquee Partner – Chase (2010); Signature Partners – Anheuser-Busch (2010); Coca-Cola (2010)*; Delta Air Lines (2009); Kia Motors (2012); Lexus (2012); SAP (2013); DraftKings (2015); Squarespace (2017)
» Architect: Charles Luckman Associates (Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects and SCI Architects oversaw the recent renovation)
» General contractor: Turner Construction (original and renovation)
» Scoreboard provider: Daktronics
* Original relationship dates to 1910
Even amid that political tumult, there was excitement about the new Garden. From the time he was hired, Kalinsky photographed progress at the construction site. Every so often, they’d take a headline entertainer or star athlete over to the site for promotional photos.
The new MSG would open with a USO variety show hosted by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The night before, Kalinsky went to the building, eager to see what it looked like as the finishing touches were applied. He found more than 700 workers hustling everywhere, hammering and drilling and painting and stringing wire.
“Everybody was trying to finish,” Kalinsky said. “I sat there all night and watched. I never went to sleep, because I felt this was my baby, too, and I felt I was a part of it. I just watched as everybody was trying to make this wonderful new addition to the world perfect.”
Like most who have spent decades at the Garden, Kalinsky has favorite memories, and a unique perspective on many of them.
The day that Pope John Paul II visited in 1979, Kalinsky was the only photographer allowed to be within close proximity.
When the limousine ferrying the pope pulled up to the Garden, Kalinsky was waiting along with the company’s top brass. The first to emerge from the car was the archbishop of New York. He looked at Kalinsky and motioned for him to open the car’s rear door.
After he did so, he extended a hand, which John Paul used for support as he climbed from the car. Kalinsky welcomed him to Madison Square Garden and they spoke briefly.
“I'm talking to the pope and everybody is looking at me,” Kalinsky said. “[MSG Chairman Sonny] Werblin is looking at me. John Condon is looking at me. People from Gulf and Western [the conglomerate that then owned MSG and the teams]. Maybe there were seven or eight people total.
“I’m talking to the pope and Sonny Werblin hasn’t even had a chance.”
As it turned out, Kalinsky’s prime location led to a photo seen around the world. As the pope went to the stage, he noticed a 6-year-old girl standing near the front. Motioning for a security guard to lift her over the railing, he took her and settled her atop the cart that carried him in. Kalinsky captured the shot at precisely the right moment, from the ideal angle, the light from flashbulbs going off across from him setting her face aglow.
“It turned out to be the pope’s favorite photo,” Kalinsky said. “It stayed on the pope’s desk at the Vatican for 17 years until he passed away.”
The photo is part of the Garden’s Defining Moments exhibit.
In the days leading up to the historic Ali-Frazier fight in 1971, Kalinsky again found himself in rare air. He was in his office when he looked up to see Frank Sinatra in his doorway, introducing himself and extending a hand.
“I hear you’re a great photographer,” said Sinatra, who famously had secured a ringside credential to shoot the fight for Life magazine. “I want you to teach me all you know about photography in five minutes.
“Five minutes turned into an hour. And the hour turned out to be two hours at Patsy’s for lunch. We talked a lot about photography. And we talked a lot about Ava Gardner.”
Several of Kalinsky’s photos from Ali-Frazier are among his better known. His shots from the fight are terrific. But the promotional images he captured leading up to it are indelible. Tired of the same old, square-off photos that promoters had used for years, Kalinsky set out to produce something more eye-catching. He got Ali and Frazier together at the Philadelphia gym where Frazier trained, a spot with which he was intimately familiar.
There, he had them pose forehead-to-forehead, something not typically done at the time. When they finished, he took them over to a large window, where he had Ali “ham it up,” clawing as if trying to get in while Frazier stood stoically next to a heavyweight champ training headquarters sign.
While Kalinsky is most proud of the sessions he shot outside the ring, there is one from the fight that has become a favorite, largely because Frazier told him it was the one he liked best of any from his career.
“Joe, why is this picture so important to you?” Kalinsky once asked Frazier. “It’s just another picture of somebody hitting somebody.”
“Look at my feet,” Frazier said. “They’re both off the ground. That was the moment that became so important. I seized the moment. My feet were off the ground. And that will never be again.”
Malcolm Shaw didn’t intend to get off the subway as it slowed to a stop at 50th Street, near old Madison Square Garden, on that morning in 1963. A 22-year-old carpenter from Belfast who’d been in the States for less than two years, Shaw was on his way to his union hall in lower Manhattan. He’d been out of work for more than a month, but he was hopeful. His union representative had assured him that they’d find him something if he came by. But he also suggested Shaw stop at the Garden along the way to see if there might be work available there.
One of Shaw’s first assignments in the States had been at the Garden, helping to build a stage for the Bolshoi Ballet. He was so proud, he told everyone he knew about it. Growing up in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of WWII, there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment that would appeal to a budding young man. There were movie theaters. And fights on the radio. If you followed the fight game, you knew that the biggest bouts typically emanated from Madison Square Garden.
You had to be there that night to understand it. Have you ever been any place where the electricity in the air just made your hair stand on end? It was unbelievable. It was unreal.
“When I came here there was three things I knew about America,” Shaw said. “The Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. And Madison Square Garden.”
Much as he liked it, Shaw wasn’t inclined to go to the Garden as his union rep suggested. He figured it was probably a waste of time. But when the train pulled into 50th Street, Shaw had a change of heart.
“I don’t know to this day what made me get off the train, but I did,” Shaw said. “I went down to the Garden and the guy said, ‘I got five days work.’
“Well, that five days turned out to be one very long week.”
Shaw chuckled and nodded, his eyes turning to the floor below, where a crew prepared the stage for a Billy Joel concert. Fifty-five years later, he’s still at work at the Garden at age 78, ably filling the role of head carpenter. He’s built stages for big concerts and laid the hardwood before big basketball games. When seats needed repair, Shaw fixed them.
He’s had a hand in putting on most of the Garden’s more memorable events, starting with the first, the USO show featuring Hope and Crosby back in 1968. Shaw was at the Zamboni gate cutting plywood on the morning of that show when a limo pulled up and the two entertainers approached him, checking to make sure they were in the right place.
PHOTO: REBECCA TAYLOR / MSG PHOTOS
The Garden 366 exhibit is a giant calendar located on the sixth-floor concourse (the arena’s main concourse) and captures a single moment — sports and non-sports — from the site’s history for each day of the year, and is updated as new memorable moments happen in the building. On Nov. 12, 2017, the one-year anniversary of the first UFC event in the state of New York, MSG unveiled its “UFC Moment” memorializing the venue’s role as the host of the event.
Later that day, Shaw’s boss brought him two tickets to the show. He was working and couldn’t use them, so he gave them to his wife, who brought a friend. Shaw was in the bowels of the Garden during the show, then worked all night to break down stages. When he finally got home to his wife, she told him about the show. She also gave him back the tickets, which nobody had torn or taken.
Shaw threw them in an underwear drawer, where they remained for decades, until an MSG public relations staffer heard his story and asked him to bring them in. Now on loan to the Garden archives, they’re displayed behind glass on the eighth floor, along with other memorabilia from that first show.
Many of Shaw’s favorite moments are the same as Kalinsky’s but his experiences are unique.
Like Kalinsky, Shaw managed to be close by when John Paul’s limo pulled up in 1979. When the door opened, he and the Garden’s chief engineer dropped to their knees alongside the path that had been cleared for the pontiff. As John Paul passed, each kissed his ring.
“When my mother heard that,” Shaw said, “she thought I was a saint.”
Shaw remembers standing in the corner, near courtside, when Reed limped onto the floor before Game 7. When the Rangers won the Cup, he kissed his fingers and touched it before it got to the players waiting on the ice.
But it was the Ali-Frazier fight that still tops all moments for Shaw. That night, his boss asked him to work the event, stationing him at the back of the ringside section where the many celebrities were seated, where he’d be readily available if a seat or railing broke.
“You had to be there that night to understand it,” Shaw said. “Have you ever been any place where the electricity in the air just made your hair stand on end? It was unbelievable. It was unreal.
“When that bell rang for the first round, you could’ve gone down and robbed the box office. Everybody was here [in the seating bowl] to watch. Security. Ushers. Everybody was just glued to the ring. It was quite a night.”
Shaw pointed down to the front of the closest section of the current Garden configuration, picking out the exact spot that he occupied that night.
“I like to brag that not only was I ringside for the Ali-Frazier fight, but I was on the payroll,” Shaw said.
“Who’s better than me?”
Standing in the upper reaches of the Garden’s top deck, Michael Hayes pointed down to the arena floor, to the site of what still stands as one of his favorite childhood memories.
A retired high school history teacher, Hayes, now 64, is sure he was one of the first patrons through the gates for the Hope and Crosby USO show that christened the new Madison Square Garden.
He was 14 years old, the son of a policeman and a homemaker who raised five boys and two girls in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. In the months leading up to that night, Hayes had discovered the mobility that came with an understanding of the subway, venturing to games at Yankee Stadium and to Manhattan to explore the streets.
A couple of months before the new Garden was to open, one of Hayes’ brothers saw an ad for the show in the Daily News and suggested he save his money to go to it. Though he was much younger than the show’s target demo, the boy loved Hope and Crosby, staying up late to watch their road show movies whenever he could.
Hayes did save his money, and when he came up short of the $10 he needed for a ticket, his mother made up the difference.
On the night of the show, he was so eager that he got there a couple of hours early. Walking up Seventh Avenue after emerging from the subway, Hayes saw klieg lights pointed toward the sky.
You want to have respect for our valued architecture, but at the same time we want to be able to express who we are as New Yorkers today. I thought, in 1968, that’s what this building did for me. It spoke to me as a kid. And I suspect it’s spoken to many others over the last 50 years.
“It was thrilling,” Hayes said. “I got so excited that I ran to the building.”
When he got inside, he realized he might be the first patron to enter. After finding his seat near the top row, he scanned the seating bowl in awe. There was nobody in sight, so he made his way to the lower bowl for a closer look at the stage, where some of the acts still were rehearsing.
The ushers and security guards didn’t seem to mind. When one heard that he’d made his way from Brooklyn on his own, he told a few co-workers. An usher brought him a program and a press kit, which contained glossies of some of the stars.
They let him sit in a seat in the front row until the person holding the ticket showed up. He moved to another seat until that person came, and then plopped down on a step at the front of an aisle, where he was allowed to remain through the whole show.
One of the highlights was when Hope clowned with Rocky Marciano in a boxing skit. Crosby played the referee. Barbara Eden nursed Hope’s bruises. At the end, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney came out.
The boy couldn’t wait to tell his father he saw Marciano “fight” at the Garden.
When it was all over, Hayes ducked backstage to try to get autographs. The bigger stars declined, but he got a few of the lesser names: Band leader Les Brown, gossip columnist Walter Winchell and the children’s show host Ray Heatherton, along with his better-known daughter, Joey Heatherton.
Nearly 50 years later, Hayes stood at a high-top table on the Garden’s upper concourse, where he opened a shallow box. He lifted and then gently opened the program, flipping through it to the page with the autographs.
“I probably moved 30 times, and I always brought it from place to place,” Hayes said. “Every now and then I’d take it out and look at it. I don’t know. It was, like, one of the nicest things I did when I was a kid. It was a unique memory and it was a pleasant memory. So I kept it all for 49 years.
“With the 50th anniversary approaching, I thought, maybe the Madison Square Garden people would like to have this for their archives.”
Like so many New Yorkers — and others from around the globe — Hayes came back to the Garden many times over the years, for games and for concerts, and once to a rally for presidential candidate Richard Nixon while on a youth group field trip.
Because he was in his teens when the new Garden opened, Hayes wasn’t aware of the controversy that surrounded its construction on the site of the old Penn Station, which preservationists still mourn. Instead, he remembers being awestruck by this vast, cylindrical arena cast amid a city of rectangles and squares. When he entered the vast lobby, his jaw dropped.
“You want to have respect for our valued architecture, but at the same time we want to be able to express who we are as New Yorkers today,” Hayes said. “I thought, in 1968, that’s what this building did for me.
“It spoke to me as a kid. And I suspect it’s spoken to many others over the last 50 years.”