BALTIMORE – Not 15 minutes into his show, Bill Cosby found himself being jeered by several protesters in the balcony of the Modell Performing Arts Center. They demanded he respond to the more than two dozen women who have accused him of sexually assaulting them.
Cosby’s fans were quick to shout back. “Shut up!”
Cosby, himself, motioned for quiet by slowly waving his hands toward the stage floor.
“Just remain calm,” he said. “We are here to enjoy my gift. We are not here to argue. Let those people speak. We will find them and ask them to leave.”
Before long, the hecklers were gone and Cosby returned to a routine that’s changed little over time, a masterfully-spun-if-aging monologue on the trials and tribulations of childhood and marriage. He wore what has become his standard concert uniform, the baggy sweat-suit adorned by “HELLO FRIEND.”
The crowd seemed dulled momentarily by the jeers, but warmed as the 77-year-old comedy icon reached for old standbys. Hating his younger brother. Watching the four scoops of his ice cream cone tumble to the street. And drawing scolding looks from his wife, Camille, for such violations as not putting his socks in the hamper.
Despite the material, the evening was anything but routine.
You couldn’t buy a water bottle at the theater. Security worried one might be thrown at the performer. Also, early in the day, two more women held a press conference to accuse Cosby of drugging and sexual assaulting them. The many accounts, which date back years but have been gathering attention since last October, have hampered Cosby’s “Far From Finished” tour. Many dates have been canceled. Other concerts have been a hard sell for a comedian who, until recently, could easily fill two theaters a day.
Officials at the 2,500-seat Modell would not release sales figures Friday, but rows of empty seats lined the balcony. Outside the theater, about 35 protesters gathered with signs before the 8 p.m. show.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Sonja Kinzer, a 46-year-old freelance photographer, shouted at ticket-holders as they entered the theater.
“I’m upset with the Lyric and disappointed with people going in,” said Kinzer. “There are a million of other things they could be doing tonight.”
Even patrons admitted this was no normal show.
Adrian Nicholson, a contractor, got the tickets from a friend for free after that friend’s wife got angry about her husband buying a pair of tickets.
“I’m not really a fan,” said Nicholson. “I came more for the notoriety and to see the hoopla. I wanted to see if there was going to be more support or more negativity.”
And then there was Russell Hawkins. The 44-year-old plumber got the tickets for Christmas from his wife, Jessica. She had purchased them earlier in the year, before this wave of accusations.
“I was like, oh s—,” he said, first thinking he’d never want to go.
Then, over the next month, he thought more about Cosby and the entertainment world.
“They all do it,” said Hawkins. “It doesn’t make it right, but it’s the nature of the beast.”
Cosby’s routine varied little from his show last November in Melbourne, Fla., not long after women began to speak out about what they said was a pattern of sexual assault. Those hoping for some revelatory, public response to the new charges would have been disappointed.
About 35 minutes in, Cosby was somewhere in the early 1940s, a small boy listening to his older, hard-drinking and spare-talking uncle. He got to tales of love and marriage — about childhood birthday parties, about making children do their homework — sometime after 9 p.m. And by 10:12 p.m., he was done, the crowd loose and laughing.
“That was better than I thought it would be,” said Miles Wagner, a 47-year-old plumber who spent much of the show doubled-over or shouting “that’s right” during the tales of domestic life. “No cursing. The storylines are excellent and I can relate to them all.”
Wagner was a rare example of a fan who bought his tickets because of the controversy surrounding Cosby. He had no idea the comedian was coming to town — until he heard about planned protests on the news. He clicked through Ticketmaster Thursday night.
What about the accusations? Wagner doesn’t believe the women. He also didn’t appreciate the protesters disrupting the show.
“I paid my money to go and hear Bill Cosby,” he said. “That was just tacky.”