By Ed Silverman
It happened 25 years ago, but the memory of the event still burns brightly. It is March 23, 1984 — Howard Cosell’s 66th birthday — and Howard and I are about to become fugitives. But to understand the gravity — or was it levity? — of the occasion we have to flash back about a month.
Howard and I are in our respective adjoining offices at ABC in Manhattan. Howard is the host and senior producer of the critically acclaimed ABC-TV Sports- Beat and I am the managing editor- coordinating producer.
I hear Howard’s unmistakable voice urgently summoning me. “Quick, Eddie, in my office — now!”
As I walk into Howard’s office, there is Neil Leiffer, the award-winning photojournalist for Sports Illustrated, who has just returned from an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro. He flashes a big grin and extends hands cradling two boxes of Cohiba cigars made exclusively for Fidel Castro.
“Mission accomplished,” he intones, “from Fidel himself.”
As far as Howard and I are concerned Neil is now the greatest living American journalist.
I break open a box of the fragrant smokes and Howard and I step out into the central hallway of our office suite to light up. The look of sheer pleasure on our faces is transitory, morphing into dismay and horror as the thick clouds of cigar smoke suddenly trigger the over-sensitive automatic fire alarm, which we frantically, but unsuccessfully try to cancel.
Minutes later the elevator doors pop open and a phalanx of New York’s bravest, shouldering hoses and axes and dour looks, surround us.
An irate fire captain reads us the riot act.
“Turning in a false alarm is a criminal act,” he tells Howard, “AND IF THIS HAPPENS ONE MORE TIME YOU GUYS ARE GOING TO JAIL..”
And with that he stalks off.
I tell Howard, “You know that TV Guide Poll where you won both the most liked and the most disliked personality voting? Guess which way the Chief voted.”
Fast-forward a month to Howard’s birthday. We have just finished our lunch, delivered by the Stage Deli.
Howard’s secretary enters the office and says it’s important for us to come out into the hallway.
The entire staff awaits and they sing Happy Birthday. Standing in almost the very same spot where Howard and I had transgressed by lighting our contraband stogies, the ladies of the office light up a huge birthday cake — with LOTS of candles.
I am about to shout “no!” when the first plume of smoke triggers the damn smoke alarm.
This is a bad dream. It can’t be happening again!
Wiping the last vestige of mustard, coleslaw and middle-cut tongue from the corner of his lips, Howard says to me, “I just remembered I have a lunch engagement at the Friars Club. I gotta run.”
“You mean WE have a luncheon engagement at the Friars, don’t you Howard?” I say as I swallow a last bit of pastrami.
We head for the stairwell to avoid the firemen. As we emerge 12 floors below, we see a stream of firefighters rushing toward the elevator.
We kill an hour walking around before returning to the office.
We step off the elevator with great caution. Howard asks his secretary, “How mad was the fire chief? Are we in trouble?”
“It was a different chief,” she said. “He’s a great fan of Monday Night Football and was disappointed you weren’t here to autograph his helmet for his son.”
And that’s how, long before the city banned smoking in office buildings, SportsBeat pioneered a no-smoking policy in its offices.
And, as Howard might have said, “That’s telling it like it is.”
Ed Silverman, winner of 11 Emmys, is a former radio and TV correspondent and analyst for ABC News, and a former Director of News for Channel 7.
Riverdale reminiscence is an occasional feature open to all readers.