Bill Cosby does Florida: Standing ovation, little protest

Comedian Bill Cosby performs during a show at the Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne, Florida.
Comedian Bill Cosby performs during a show at the Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne, Florida. AP

Embattled comedian Bill Cosby, his reputation in tatters with everyone, it seems, except his audience, wowed a devoted crowd of nearly 2,000 at Eastern Florida State College Friday night in what might be his last performance in a while.

Though rumors of protests and disruptions swept the airwaves and the Internet in the hours leading up to his show, the only things Cosby heard from the audience was laughter, sustained applause — a standing ovation the moment he took the stage — and a shout of “We love you, Bill Cosby!” near the end of his 90-minute performance.

Cosby raised a fist in response, and the crowd went nuts with adulation.

Cosby didn’t utter a word about the repeated public accusations over the past month that he drugged and raped women. And that was fine with the audience.

“I pretty much think it’s history,” said Tom Field, 63, of Satellite Beach. “That was all a long time ago.”

“You’re innocent until you’re proven guilty,” said Heather Joyce, 42, of Melbourne. “We’ve grown up watching him, and I’m still just as excited to see him tonight.”

After the host of an Orlando radio show called The News Junkie reportedly offered a $200 gift card to anybody who disrupted Cosby’s appearance, expectations of trouble were high.

College administrators deployed extra police around the King Center for the Performing Arts, where the show took place, and put in place a complicated parking plan that managed to turn their little campus into something resembling the approach to legendarily chaotic Woodstock, with lines of cars snaking through the parking lot for half an hour to reach a space.

They also repeatedly played a tape inside the theater, warning the audience to “remain calm” if a protest developed.

But it didn’t. Only half a dozen or so desultory protesters turned up, one silently holding up a sign reading, “Rape Is No Joke.” The peaceful atmosphere unfolded to the mild disappointment of lookie-loos without tickets who thought the show outside the theater would be better than inside.

“There’s more reporters than protesters,” said — quite accurately — Samantha Harvey, 25, who walked over from her apartment a mile away.

TV satellite trucks stretched for about a block outside the theater, and a number of the seats in the not-quite-sold-out theater were filled by journalists, scribbling away in their notebooks.

Cosby, wearing a baggy gray sweater bearing the greeting “Hello Friend,” walked on stage without fanfare, right in the middle of the taped warning about protests. He got an immediate standing ovation, then went about a show that avoided cultural and political flashpoints in favor of avuncular tales of his childhood, including his terror of hellfire preachers (“I had issues”) and his frequent clashes with his brother Russell (“I understood Cain”).

As successful as his show was, it might be his last for a long time. Five upcoming appearances — in Nevada, Illinois, Arizona, South Carolina and Washington — were canceled Friday, on top of early announcements scuttling a new TV series on NBC, a Thanksgiving special on Netflix, and even reruns of his 1980s sitcom on the cable network TV Land.

Cosby performed last week in Erie, Pa., and on Thursday night in the Bahamas, to packed theaters of enthusiastic fans. But the rapid escalation of the controversy, with two more women announcing publicly Friday morning that he had molested them, has many theater managers running scared.

“We made the call because we felt with increasing allegations, for our constituents it was inappropriate to move forward with the show,” an executive at the Champaign, Ill., theater that dropped Cosby told USA Today.

His caution is understandable. Venues showing anything remotely connected to Cosby are coming under withering media fire. “Why Is the Smithsonian Standing Behind Bill Cosby?” demanded a headline in The Atlantic magazine Friday. The Smithsonian is exhibiting about 60 works of African and African-American art from Cosby’s private collection, one of the world’s largest.

The accusations against Cosby first surfaced 10 years ago, when a young college staffer at his alma mater, Temple University, accused him of drugging and raping her. Her subsequent lawsuit — which included legal paperwork promising that 13 other women would testify that Cosby had sexually molested them — was subsequently settled out of court.

The accusations surged again last month, and this time they’re being made publicly. At least 11 women have come forward with sexual allegations against Cosby, many saying he drugged them first.

Cosby, for his part, has maintained a stony silence — literally, when he was questioned by a National Public Radio reporter and let the broadcast lapse into dead air. But this week his lawyers have started firing back at some of the accusers.

“Janice Dickinson is fabricating and lying about Bill Cosby,” Cosby attorney Marty Singer said after the former super-model broke into tears in front of Entertainment Tonight cameras as she described being drugged and raped by the comedian.

He was even more acid Friday about the claim by former actress Louisa Moritz that Cosby raped her backstage when she was waiting to appear on The Tonight Show in 1971.

“We've reached a point of absurdity,” Singer told NBC News.

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