About five hours before ABC television was to go on the air at the Capital Centre for the Muhammad Ali fight last Monday, Howard Cosell and his flock of technicians got hungry.Cosell was very much in need of a lox and bagel lunch. The technicians demanded fried chicken and Virginia baked ham.
There was only one man in the building who could get the food for them when and how they wanted it - John E. Gentry, director of productions at the Centre.
He hopped in a van and was back in 22 minutes with the orders. "A little Giant . . . a little Roy Rogers," explained Gentry, when asked how the mission was accomplished. "I know how to handle these things." And who paid for the impromptu buffet? "I did," he said.
"But when I get back there's a hand or two in my shirt pocket. Take care of people and they take care of you."
Three hours before the show was to begin, ABC producer Chuck Forte got mad. Forte had spent most of the week darting around the Capital Centre preparing for his prime-time production. Now he discovered that someone fouled up the ringside seating arrangement so there was no room for a hand-held camera to pan close-ups of Cosell.
He turned to John E. Gentry. "Come with me," Forte yelled. "Someone really screwed it up. This is a terrible problem."
Forte and Gentry moved from backstage to ringside at a motor-scooter pace. "A real screw up." Forte kept saying. Gentry stayed quiet until the two men approached the ring, where, with one flash of his hand, he showed that the space for the camera was still there. "I apologize," Forte said curtly.
Gentry could only smile. "You're dealing off the top of the deck with these guys," he said. "We're OK. We won that one."
Gentry, 53, with his cowboy string ties, pink face and Kansas twang, comes out on top of just about every argument or problem he runs across at the Captial Centre arena in Largo.
His job there bears the official title of Director of Productions. But that says as little about what he does as his legal name says about who he is.
What he does and who he is can be explained by the one word that echoes through the building from morning to midnight every day of the week: "Chief."
That is John E. Gentry: "Chief" of the Capital Centre. He doesn't own one share of stock in the corporation - unless one counts the five shares he holds in "Myrtle," the perenially pregnant cat who lives under the bleachers - but he knows more about the place than anyone, including Abe Pollin, owner of both the building and its permanent occupants, the Washington Bullets.
Chief, a retired master chief in the Navy, has been with Pollin since the Bullets basketball team came to Baltimore. He made a name for himself several years ago up in Baltimore by taking his pet dog, "Tiny BB," to home games and having him run out on the court during times-out to play with the ball.
"Tiny BB," aside from becoming a celebrity of sorts, has helped Chief move up the economic ladder during his career in arena operations. The dog, for instance, is the owner of a sleek, red-white-and blue econoline van that Chief uses for work and pleasure.
"We had a recreation vehicle show here a few years ago," Chief explained, "and the dog just keep jumping up to sit in this van. The people from the van company liked it so much they decided to officially register the van in the dog's name. A $9,300 van we're talking about. That's one of the benefits of knowing you're way around in this sort of life."
Some of the 50 employees who work under Chief say he has his hands and ears in everything so much that the operation would fall apart without him. His wife, who was called in to help out with the Ali fight, was even stronger about her husband's busybody approach. "They can call him Chief," she said dryly. "But when I see him working 18-hour days I just call him 'Flunky.'"
As Chief or Flunky, this man seems to relish his various tasks. He answers queries with the style of a well-prepared schoolboy being quizzed on the multiplication tables.
5:40 p.m.: "Hey, Chief," said the television technician. "We have some lights in the storage room and we can't get them."
"OK," said Chief. "I'm ready for that one. The key is up in the TV room hanging on a nail on the right side of the door."
6:20 P.M.: "Chief! Chief!" It was Forte again. "There isn't an extra fuse in the house. If those lights above the ring below, we're in one hell of a mess."
"I can take care of that," said Chief. "We can get them right away."
8 P.M.: "Chief." It was one of the ABC technicians. "We need more coffee cups."
Without answering, Chief moved out in search of more coffee cups. He was stopped in his tracks by one of boxing promoter Don King's aides. "You're Chief, right? Listen, we need some tape for the cards our girls are gonna carry between the rounds."
Forte appeared on the scene once more. "That's not important," he snapped. "We've got a real problem Chief, where is the damn ring cover? We're supposed to have a bright blue ring cover or it'll look awful on television."
"Easter Airlines. That cover is coming in on Eastern. It was supposed to be here from New York yesterday," said Chief. "I got a whole pocketfull of Eastern numbers right here. Call the airport, then . . ."
"Meester Chief, Meester Chief, Remember me?"
"Yeah, I remember you. You're the fellow from Uruguay radio."
"Good. We need help. We aren't carrying, Meester Chief."