MELBOURNE, Fla. — The protesters didn’t show, the would-be hecklers didn’t take the bait, the weeks of headlines about sexual assaults disappeared and Bill Cosby, for 90 minutes at least, regained the revered status he long enjoyed.
The show Friday night in Melbourne, Florida, might have seemed destined for disaster for the comedian, enveloped in growing accusations of rape and sexual assault that have derailed his career comeback and crumbled his tour schedule. What he got, though, was an adoring audience that laughed so hard they slapped their knees, shouted love at the stage and rose to their feet as he came and went.
“I think people went in there with him as Bill Cosby from the TV show,” said Travis Weberling, 40, of Melbourne, “not the guy they heard about on the news.”
The 2,000-seat theater beefed up security and announcements before Cosby took the stage warned a disturbance was possible — radio hosts had even offered cash and prizes to anyone who made it happen. Reporters swarmed the venue. But, in the end, just one protester stood outside, holding a sign that read, “Rape is no joke.”
What remained to be seen was whether the evening marked a turning point for a beloved television father, or simply a momentary reprieve. It did nothing to immediately change the fact that Cosby’s projects have been nixed and stalled, performances have been canceled across the country and women continue to come forward accusing him of serious crimes.
Cosby has never been charged in connection with any of the allegations.
“I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos,” Cosby told the Florida Today newspaper before the show. “People should fact check.”
Cosby’s lawyer, Martin Singer, said the accusations had “escalated far past the point of absurdity,” dismissing them as “fantastical,” ”unsubstantiated” and “uncorroborated.”
“When will it end?” he asked. “It is long past time for this media vilification of Mr. Cosby to stop.”
And, throughout the audience, his fans agreed.
They talked of watching him on TV as a child, and of his albums becoming familiar friends when the moved to unfamiliar, faraway towns. They brushed off the accusations, howling at everything he uttered.
When he took the stage at the Maxwell C. King Center For The Performing Arts, they stood and hollered, and he returned a thumbs-up. Only a smattering of empty seats were seen. Cosby wore cargo pants and a shirt that said “Hello Friend” and never once ventured in the realm of controversy. His 90-minute set wandered from a childhood fear of God to the loss of freedom in marriage to the rocket-speed Spanish of a pinata-store worker.
He sat for much at the start of the show, then grew increasingly physical, impersonating jujitsu and gymnastics poses, laying on the floor in stocking feet and thrusting a fist upward in a gesture of battling the everyday oppression of living with a wife. And when it was over, he said “good night,” walking off as the audience again stood.
The most impassioned of his fans breathed a sigh of relief. Judith Stone traveled from Madison, West Virginia, for the show, deeming it “absolutely fantastic” and grateful no one interrupted.
“I think he will leave with a very positive attitude,” she said.
Elsewhere, audiences will not have the chance to see Cosby. Performances in Oklahoma, Nevada, Illinois, Arizona, South Carolina and Washington were called off. David Fischer, director of The Broadway Center in Tacoma, Washington, said an April appearance was called off because it conflicts with the organization’s mission strengthen the community “building empathy, furthering education and sharing joy.”
Projects on NBC and Netflix have been canceled, and TV Land decided not to air reruns of “The Cosby Show.” Cosby’s producers said at least 28 other shows remain on his schedule through May 2015.
Tom Werner, who co-founded the Carsey-Werner Company which produced “The Cosby Show,” defended Cosby in a statement to the Boston Globe.
“The Bill we knew was a brilliant and wonderful collaborator on a show that changed the landscape of television,” Werner and partner Marcy Carsey said in the statement. “These recent news reports are beyond our knowledge or comprehension.”
And, even in a crowd of Cosby faithful, there was some worry there was more to come.
“This very well may be Bill Cosby’s last show,” said Marcus Utt, 25, of Melbourne.
Some of the women accusing Cosby are going public again after initially coming forward around 2005, when Andrea Constand filed a lawsuit alleging that she was sexually assaulted by him.
Tamara Green, a California attorney, also said Cosby tried to sexually assault her in her Los Angeles apartment around 1970, when she was a model and an aspiring actress. She said Cosby gave her two pills that made her almost lose consciousness, took her to her apartment, undressed her and then took his clothes off as she fought off his advances.
Another woman, Joan Tarshis, said Cosby gave her drug-laced drinks twice in 1969, forcing her to perform a sex act the first time and raping her the second time. She said she told no one about this for decades, and only decided to go public when she read a Nov. 13 column in The Washington Post by Barbara Bowman, who alleges she was drugged and raped by Cosby when she was 17.
And, offering a familiar narrative, another woman, Therese Serignese, said she was drugged and raped by Cosby in 1976.