GENEVA — Sam’s Bar & Grill on Tillman Street is gone, demolished many years ago to make way for a new office building.
Now, its iconic owner and proprietor is no longer with us.
Cosmo Fospero died Aug. 4. The man known to so many as “Cosie” was 98.
His legion of friends and customers, while mourning his loss, were happy to share memories of the man and his unusual little bar, a Cheers-like fixture for 57 years.
Cosie’s son, Carl, lives in England these days, but he has never forgotten how his mom and his siblings grew up with the bar part of their family fabric.
“He loved the business and loved his customers, many of whom had remained loyal until the end,” Carl said. “His stories were endless, and his natural instincts as a raconteur and guitarist allowed him to keep his clientele entertained and smiling.”
Carl noted that his father was an avid tennis player and bicyclist who loved Geneva dearly, especially Seneca Lake State Park.
“He spent nearly every day of his older adult life biking, walking, jogging and exercising, regardless of the weather,” Carl said.
Pepperoni, pickles, pretzels, hot peppers, tasty Columbus Bakery bread from Syracuse, singing, guitar playing, lively discussions on every conceivable topic, people told to get their own beers out of the cooler and pay up when they left the concept of being thrown out of the bar as an honor — those were many of the common themes shared by Cosie’s former patrons turned friends.
Paul Blumenfeld met Cosie at the bar in 1982, and quickly became a regular.
“As I got to know Cos, he became a surrogate father to me during my time in Geneva,” Blumenfeld said. “I leaned on him for advice on women, politics, and he even coached me through abject fear when circumstances led me into playing the role of being the key witness for the prosecution at a trial. Cos had a wisdom about him on what to prioritize, what to give a st about and what to let roll off your back. He lived it daily with his customers and could quickly diffuse the situation. It usually ended with someone leaving the bar, but not being too angry about it.”
“I’m sure everyone who spent time at Cosie’s cherishes their memories of going to the beer fridge, helping yourself to a bottle and paying Cos at the end of the night based on a rough estimate of which bottles on the bar were yours. The bar was his living room, and we were all his guests. And there wasn’t a better host.”
Bill Whitwell, while saddened by Cosie’s death, called him a living legend back in the day. He recalls that every Wednesday he, Chuck Agonito and Paul Estro would bring guitars and everyone would sing songs.
Cosie was known for playing a ukulele and singing a wide variety of songs.
“Women loved Cosie. They would walk behind the bar to get a hug every chance they got,” Whitwell said. “Cosie was also famous for throwing people out of the bar. Sometimes it was for foul language and sometimes he made up an excuse so he could. We used to say you know you’re not a true Genevan unless you’ve been thrown out of Cosie’s.”
Mike McHale, a Hobart College graduate, described the bar was a surreal and magical place where guys who worked at the Geneva Foundry could sit next to Nobel Laureate poet Seamus Heaney, who was in town for a reading at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The eclectic crowd included scientists from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (now Cornell AgriTech), factory workers, local professionals, small-business owners, college students “and anyone from the low to the high were welcome and often showed up for story telling, music and good times.” McHale said the only rule was “don’t make trouble.”
“Conversations flowed and the topics covered were limitless,” McHale said. “Cosie was the master of ceremonies and the usual center of attention for the night’s festivities. He lived a very interesting life himself, and he merged his experiences and ideas with those of his patrons, who came from all over the world as well as from the neighborhood.”
McHale recalled his first visit to the bar, prior to his junior year at Hobart, when he learned about retrieving his own beer and paying for it.
“I asked Cosie how much I owed. He said, ‘Old friend, what do you feel like paying today?’ ” McHale remembered. “I think I suggested $6, which he agreed was reasonable for four beers. He then had me walk to the cash register, ring up the sale myself and put the cash in the drawer. I knew that I was going to like this place and this man.”
McHale recalled that if it was your birthday, Cosie would shoot a little homemade rocket fashioned out of a matchbook cover and a cocktail stirrer in your honor, launched from an empty liquor bottle. The rockets would stick in the ceiling and remain there as a memento.
“He created a space where everybody was welcome and most wanted come back again and again,” McHale said. “As saddened as I am to learn of his passing, I find myself smiling and thinking about the nights I spent in his company in that very special place known as Cosie’s.”
Barb Ryan and her parents lived above the bar in the early 1960s.
“He was the ultimate host,” she said. “Whether he had a full house or just a few of his regular customers, Cosie entertained for hours. Lots of stories told. Drinks made. Then there were those pretzel rods and ‘peanuts for pretty girls.’ People loved Cosie for his sense of humor and his ability to remember names and faces.
“In a side room at the bar, he had a whole wall dedicated to pictures of friends and customers. He had a great big smile and a heart to match. He will be missed and long remembered.”
Like many others in Geneva, David Locke enjoyed his first beer at Cosie’s despite being underage at 16. Around 1990, he was attending Syracuse University and volunteered to get the Columbus Bakery bread for Cosie.
“It got to the point where I was getting 15 loaves at a time,” Locke said. “I also played harmonica in the back room with guitar players that came in regularly to play.”
HWS associate professor Chip Capraro, who also served on City Council, called the bar “one of the last authentic, great good places.” Cosie was charismatic, passionate and engaging, “the center of the experience,” he noted.
Tom Ninestine and Craig Fox are former Times reporters and Sam’s regulars.
“I call it a bar, but it was more like being invited into Cosie’s basement for an evening of beer, music, conversations and beer,” Ninestine said, who started going to the bar in 1979, fresh out of high school. “My parents would stop on rare occasions to talk politics and neighborhood gossip. They would see him on his bicycle many mornings on East North Street and elsewhere. It became a treasured hangout for the next 30 or more years, even after I left Geneva.”
During vacations and visits, a trip to Cosie’s was a must.
“He treated me as if I had never left,” Ninestine said.
Fox recounted watching the Berlin Wall come down on Cosie’s black-and-white TV.
“But we all came because of Cosie. He was so entertaining,” Fox said, vowing to drain a cold one in Cosie’s memory. “Those nights were the best times that I had in all of my years in Geneva. There’s no other place like it on the planet, and there won’t be again.”
Cosie’s love of tennis was equally legendary. Ray Tills said he played with his father, Alden Tills, and together they founded the Geneva Tennis Club.
“Cosie and my dad would play in tournaments around Syracuse and Rochester and locally at the Hobart courts on Sundays,’’ he said.
Rick Lopez grew up with the Fospero children. Cosie taught him to play tennis and gave him his first wooden racket, helping him earn a spot on the Geneva High tennis team for three years.
“I remember Carl and I would play 2-on-1 against him and never beat him,’’ Lopez said, calling Cosie a very kind man who seemed to always be smiling.
Carl Fospero said his dad was “an original” who was a kind, good-listening father with sage advice when asked for help. Cosie was married for 61 years.
Carl’s dad taught him to play tennis, and they often played against each other.
“To this day, I have yet to see another tennis player serve with a lit Camel dangling from is lip,” Carl said.
“I started bartending with him when i was 11,” Carl continued. “He was stubborn and did things his way, and that sometimes meant someone’s feelings were likely to get hurt. The bar was like a small, rundown church where he preached his own gospel every night, except Tuesdays. That was his pinochle night.”
Debbie Combs called Cosie “salt of the earth” who said it like he saw it.
“I’m sure heaven has a bar where Cosie is plucking a tune on his guitar,” she said.