On February 14, 2021, iconic handler and judge Frank Sabella passed away. This interview was conducted with the assistance of Johnny Shoemaker.
I was born at the height of the Great Depression on September 20, 1929, in New York. My family lived between 62nd and 63rd streets on Second Avenue in a cold-water flat. I lived in that cold-water flat until I was 18 years old. My mother was a cigar maker and my father worked for the Work Project Administration (WPA).
The WPA was part of the New Deal of President Franklin D Roosevelt. Life was not rosy, but at that age it seemed grand to me. I did not have the experience to know any better. I had nothing to compare it to. I managed to get through public elementary and high school.
After I graduated, I got a job working with the phone company as a file clerk for the Yellow Pages. I hated it. I was thinking that if the rest of my life is going to be that boring, it was not going to be filled with joy of any kind.
One evening, I was introduced to what I had been born to do. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. My friend had invited me to attend an evening with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which was a ballet company created by members of the Ballets Russes in 1937. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo featured such dancers as Frederic Franklin, Alexandra Danilova, Maria Tallchief, Tamara Toumanova, George Zorith, Nina Novak, Raven Wilkinson, Cyd Charisse, Marc Platt, Irina Baronova and Leon Danielian. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured chiefly in the United States after World World II began. The company’s principal dancers performed with other companies, and founded dance schools and companies of their own across the United States and Europe. They taught the Russian ballet traditions to generations of Americans and Europeans.
Once I saw this production, I made up my mind that this is what I wanted to do. I continued to work at my boring and now-hated job at the phone company. At night, I attended ballet classes.
One evening after my ballet class, my friend, Carl Shook, who I had met at ballet class, told me I should audition for Mr. George Balanchine of the School of American Ballet. George Balanchine was one of the 20th Century’s most prolific choreographers. He was a renowned Russo-Georgian-born choreographer. He took the standards and techniques from his education at the Imperial Ballet School and fused them with other schools of movement that he had adopted during his tenure as a guest choreographer on Broadway and in Hollywood. He did this to provide needed income. Among his theater and film projects were On Your Toes, I Married An Angel and the Goldwyn Follies.
I did audition for Mr. Balanchine, and, lo and behold, Mr. Balanchine gave me a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. I was set. I could quit my job and take classes during the day. I dedicated my life to taking dance classes.
In those days, most Italians frowned on the idea that a young man wanted to be a ballet dancer. I resorted to hiding my ballet slippers and tights under my bed.
My best friend during this period of my life was Marvin Rapport. Marvin’s parents owned Rapports Kosher Restaurant in downtown New York. Marvin worked at his family’s restaurant. He had lots of money and went out and bought show horses. He taught me to ride. With the ability to ride I got a job at the stable cleaning horse stalls and I also brushed horses. On the weekends I would take groups of people out for a horse ride. I also made sure those riders did not abuse their horses or race them in the park. This also gave me money that allowed me to continue taking my dance classes.
It is not easy to ride horses and take ballet classes, as you can injure and abuse the wrong muscles. One day during class I pulled my tendon, which laid me up, as I was unable to take classes for a while. It took a long time to heal, but it gave me time to think.
At the end of the day, I realized that to be a really good dancer one would have had to start earlier in life, like they did in Russia. When you start young you get to know the techniques and then you can concentrate on perfecting your performances on stage.
At this stage of my life I met a dancer named Richard Beard. Richard is mentioned in Sir Frederick Ashton’s book as the Marlon Brando of the ballet stage. Sir Frederick Ashton was a British ballet dancer and choreographer who also worked as a director and choreographer in opera, film and revue. He often worked with Margot Fonteyn, creating the Bride in Le Baiser de la Fee for her.
Richard and I became very good friends, and at that stage in his life he was a dancer on "Your Show of Shows" in New York. I was working as a dancer on the "Dinah Shore Chevy Show," also taped in New York.
One night Dick and I went out to dinner. We talked about putting a nightclub act together. We knew we needed to have a very attractive and sexy and talented dancer to work with us. We found that woman in the form of Marion Sanders, and she completed our trio of dancers. We hired Tony Charmoli, who was a very successful choreographer on television, to stage our act. Tony Charmoli began dancing on Broadway in such shows as "Make Mine Manhattan" but soon moved on to television with the production of Stop the Music in 1949. He worked with such stars as Dinah Shore, Lily Tomlin, Danny Kaye, Julie Andrews, Cyd Charisse, Shirley MacLaine, Mitzi Gaynor and others. He won two Emmy Awards and had eight Emmy nominations.
Tony agreed to help us, and the rest is history. We were very good, and we worked every major nightclub in the United States. We also did a stint for one year in Paris at the Lido. This great success produced really good money.
During this period I had left home and had my own apartment, so I decided now is the time to get my first dog. When I lived at home, I was never allowed to have a pet. I knew it was going to be a black Standard Poodle. I bought the book "The Complete Poodle" by Lydia Hopkins. I got to see pictures of some of the greats of the day. It didn’t take me long to decide that the Puttencove Poodles had the look I liked.
This was around 1953, and as luck would have it, I saw an ad in The New York Times offering black Standards with Puttencove breeding. I instantly bought my first purebred dog for the grand sum of $150.
This bitch, when she grew up, turned out to be my first champion. The lady I bought her from suggested the same handler that had finished my bitch’s sire as her handler. PCA was my bitch’s first dog show. She went third in a class of three. All through my life everything that happened to me was for a reason. The reason, as it turned out, was that I got to see Anne Hone Rogers show a dog. It was pure magic for me! Anne, in her youth, looked like a Vassar girl. She had the look of elegance, and it carried down the lead to her dogs.
I decided then and there she was going to handle my dog. So on Monday, I called her and said, “Would you be interested in showing my dog?” She said, “Why don’t you bring her up to the kennel?” As a result of that call, I had the privilege of driving up to Mahopac, New York, where her kennel was located. She looked at my bitch and told me to take her home and let her grow up and bring her back in a year. I did that, and in a few shows, she became a champion, and my relationship with this woman was started. She told me who to breed the bitch to, which I did, and the result was a litter in which there were two champions and my dog was a Group winner from the classes.
Frank Sabella showing Ch. Acadia Command Performance to Best in Show at Westminster in 1973. “I've been handling poodles for 14 years and have seen some good ones. But Bart is a really great one,” he told The New York Times, which called their stint in the ring "a true command performance."
Traveling and working nightclubs became very successful and was great! Then came the job of jobs! We were offered a contract to go to Paris to work at the Lido for one year. [Le Lido de Paris is one of that French city's most famous cabarets. — Ed.] In those days, nightclub performers could never fly, so one had to get there by bus, car or train. So off we went with the two dogs, my boyfriend and fellow dance partner, Dick Beard, and our other dancing partner, Marion Sanders, by boat on the Isle De France.
In those days, the ships had kennels on them for people to use when they brought dogs. Lots of people in England would bring them back with them. When the purser came and asked us if we would perform at the Gala, he said we could use the first-class exercise rooms and also first-class dining rooms for all meals. We didn’t need to keep the dogs in the kennels as we could bring them to our cabin in second class. Of course, I was elated.
When we got to Paris we found a hotel that would take Marion, Dick and me and the two dogs. It was one block’s walk from the Lido. We did two shows at night. The late show was at 1 in the morning. We had two Poodles in show coat and we managed to do that for one year with no nights off at the Lido. It is amazing what you can do when you are young.
After finishing at the Lido, the show was then taken to Los Angeles … the complete show. It’s funny, as people in Paris seemed to applaud when they saw women’s breasts … but somehow in Los Angeles it wasn’t OK, and the long and short of this story is the show ended as a complete bomb. The one thing it did accomplish was that it got us to Los Angeles. Los Angeles was the changing point in my life because I knew once I was in Los Angeles I would never want to go back to New York again to live. I decided to give up dancing in nightclubs. My partner got a job with Tony Charmoli as an assistant choreographer.
I went to a dog show one day and at the Beverly-Rivera KC Show and that is where I met Tom Stevenson and Ann Howe. Tom Stevenson was at one time an actor who appeared in lots of movies in Hollywood and showed and bred Toy and Miniature Poodles under the Challendon Kennel name. [I am honored that in his later years, Tom gave me the wooden kennel name sign that hung at their kennel — Johnny.] Ann Howe was also interested in Poodles and came from great wealth, and she and Tom showed their own Poodles most of the time. In my opinion, Ann was a better handler than Tom.
At that point of time, they were in the process of getting married, so I happened to mention to Tom that I was going to stop dancing and I wanted to get a job as a groomer. Tom mentioned to me that his kennel and his grooming shop and his client list might be on the market because he and Ann were getting married. They were going to move to northern California. I decided to make that choice. Everything I am today and everything that I have ever become is because of Tom Stevenson. He said to me, “If all you did is groom pets every day you will go crazy, so my best suggestion to you is to get a handler’s license.” Everyone that I was and everything I became is thanks to Tom Stevenson. If it had not been for Tom, none of this would have happened.
One of the clients in Tom’s grooming shop was Colonel E. E. Ferguson, who way before I knew what a purebred dog was had Best in Show-winning Great Danes and Poodles in all sizes. I had his two pet dogs to groom every two weeks ... I would go up to his house to collect them, I would then groom them, and I would take them back to his home.
After two months, Tom said, “You know what, if you are at a dog show and you see any dog you like, buy it and I will sponsor it.” Well, that was the beginning of my career as a handler and the beginning of my success as a handler. I remember one day having a conversation with him and him saying to me, “What’s wrong with you? You sound depressed.” I said “Ernie, I really think I should have won that Best in Show.” He said, “Listen, young man…. if you won every Best in Show, then there would be no reason for people to go. It doesn’t work that way. You have to learn and make yourself become a good sport,” and because of him I learned a lot.
Ernie taught me three invaluable lessons. Number 1 is, if you get upset at a dog show and you put it on your face, nobody cares, least of all the judge. He or she is not going to take the ribbon back and say … “You know what …. I made a mistake, let me give it to you where you will be happy.” Number 2 is, when you are successful and you get a sour look on your face, what it does is it allows your enemies to gloat. They think, “Oh look he lost, he is in a bad mood.”
And Number 3 is, he taught me that dog shows are not for one dog and they are not for one person. They are held for a group of people. One of which I was fortunate to be part of. Because in those days, we had people who had not only tons of money, but they were able to hire people who advised them the best of their breeding program. They also advised them of what they should do and how they could become a success. They were the ones who made all of the decisions, and these ladies and gentlemen were truly ladies and gentlemen. Today the majority of people who show dogs do not want your opinion. They want one thing, and that is a blue ribbon and more. They do not always get that. These people are very rarely happy.
Frank Sabella showing Frederick of Rencroft to a Group 2 at Westminster in 1967 under judge Melborne T.L. Downing.
Just one quick example of the people who were involved in dogs that I was talking about. When I was reading "The Complete Poodle," there was a picture of a Poodle sitting on a cushion made of bronze. There were three copies of these fireplace pieces. The King and Queen of England had one pair … there was also a pair in Belgium, and Mrs. L.W. (Flora) Bonney had a pair.
I wrote to Mrs. Bonney and said I would love to see the fireplace figures. She said, “Are you coming to PCA?” I said, “Yes I am.” She said to me, “After the show, my chauffeur will pick you up and bring you to my house for lunch. Then you can see the fireplace pieces.”
They were beautiful … they were magnificent. I flipped over them!
At that point in time, Flora Bonney had a lady who was her nurse, her lifetime companion, named Miss Kathleen Staples. Miss Staples said, when I was admiring the pair, “Flora, when you die, you should leave these pieces to this young man, as he truly loves them.”
Mrs. Bonney said — and I will never will forget it — “Why should I wait until I die? Young man, are you coming to Westminster?” I said, “Yes, I am,” and she said, “Do not take a lot of luggage.”
When I went to Westminster there were the two fireplace pieces ... wrapped, packaged and crated for me to take home. Later on, on the advice of Mrs. Bea Godsol, I donated them to the AKC Dog Museum, which at that time was located in St. Louis. They are now on display in the AKC Museum of the Dog in New York City.
Though best known as a Poodle handler, Frank Sabella also showed a number of Afghan Hounds in the late 1950s and '60s.
I have a funny story to tell you about a dog that was I was showing at a show that held the groups in the evening. This particular show had a spotlight on each group winner as they were presented. This dog was a white Miniature Poodle and it was loaded with powder. When the spotlight came on and the dog shook … it looked like the atom bomb had gone off.
I guess I was the only one who noticed it. Captain Berry, who was the AKC field representative, came over to me and asked, “Do you think that Maxine Beam’s apricot poodle is the correct color?” I told him it was a proper apricot color. That was what he thought was more important, as he paid no attention to my dog, which was loaded with white powder! It had tons of foreign substance!
This is a point where I am going to become a little bit controversial. You know that I am very old fashioned in my belief that there are three trims on a poodle that are acceptable. They are the puppy (up to 12 months of age), continental and the English saddle. I know there is a great thing in which the people want to make it is less difficult to trim so the feet do not show on the poodle. In my experience in showing poodles, if you cover something up and people cannot see it, they do not acknowledge it, so it does not become either good or bad.
The Poodle standard is very explicit about the foot. The foot is what gives the dog its elegant carriage and light, springy action. So when you have a dog shown today in a modified continental (commonly referred to as the “hunt” trim), they have covered the foot, and I think that if you cover something and you do not see it soon becomes unimportant. I think in the future, since the feet are not seen, will become less important and you will not have good-moving Poodles. I think that is a mistake as I believe they should be shown in trims such as the continental and the English saddle where the feet can be seen. I do not approve of [the modified Continental] at all.
I think that the face on a Poodle is very important, and unless you see the face you will soon forget it. With these modified trims where you have the topknot that covers the face or domed trims on the head like a French trim, it takes away from the shape of the head and you can lose the beauty of the head. The Poodle’s head is the first thing you see when you judge a dog. It has to be beautiful. The expression and eye placement and shape will soon become less important because you will not see them, as the coat is in the face.
Frank Sabella examining his eventual BISS winner, Ch. Southwestern Lord Henry, at the 2011 Greyhound Club of America National Specialty. Handler Lesley Anne Potts.
Another thing is ewe necks destroy the outline … because what you see is not a square. With a ewe-necked dog, you can push the head back to the withers, and it can make an illusion of a dog being square, when it is really not. I believe the ewe neck is coming back, and it is a problem with the breed today. The tail set you can forget … as it is so common today. We have soon forgotten about where the tail set should be and the tail should be. The tail set, where it is now, you have the tail which is usually in the wrong place and lots of time the tail is over the back also. Now it has become the norm and we are beginning to place dogs like that, unfortunately. There are group and BIS show winners like that now.
The fronts are terrible, too, as the dog does not have enough forechest. The front is now coming out of the neck and not under the withers where it should be. You can correct it, but it is going to take a lot of work done by people who know the breed standard and breed to lines that have good fronts. I personally do not think the fronts will ever come back because fronts are so hard to correct, just like the tail set.
The undocked tails I am not an admirer of. If the tail set is correct and the tail does not curl over the back, that is fine and I can agree with it. Natural tails are the thing of the future, and I think that soon you will not see docked tails.
I have had three muses who have been in my life. They are in this order: Annie Hone Rogers Clark, Bea Godsol and Michele Billings. They became a big part of my life and helped me in so many ways with their wisdom and friendship. I miss them all today.
Some of the judges that I admired in the past are: Colonel Ferguson, Anne Clark, Michele Billings, Bea Godsol, Percy Roberts, Alva Rosenberg and Louie Murr. We have some good judges today, but some of them do not match the skill and knowledge of those of the past.
If you see a dog that excels in breed type, he or she can still pass it on. Breeders must look at pedigrees and study them and the dogs and bitches in the pedigree. Learn about a breed, study the breed and then start to breed … in that order.