In Westchester, N.Y., a theater manager pleads for mercy with angry patrons on Facebook as he tries to avoid losing $100,000 by canceling Bill Cosby. In Denver, celebrity attack lawyer Gloria Allred blasts ticket-holders as they arrive for the comedian’s gigs. In Pittsburgh, Des Moines and Las Vegas, shows are called off. In Florida, West Virginia and Georgia, performances go off without a hitch.
This is life on Cosby’s “Far From Finished” tour, an exercise that has industry veterans shaking their heads. They are shocked that Cosby continues his road show in the face of more than two dozen women accusing him of sexual assault.
“If it were me, I’d be in Iceland,” said Shelly Schultz, the legendary booking agent who signed Cosby for his first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1963. “This is ego. When there’s that kind of adoration for that many years, there’s nothing you can do to diminish that ego.”
On Friday night, Cosby’s tour arrives in Baltimore, where he’s set to play the Modell Performing Arts Center before a Saturday show in Charleston, W. Va. Modell representatives and promoter Carlos Larraz have not responded to multiple interview requests. If the Baltimore show is like others on the tour, officials may be in private negotiations to find a way to cancel the show without busting the nonprofit venue’s budget.
The tour has created a bizarre dynamic, even by entertainment world standards. Venue bosses and promoters have been under pressure from petitions, protests and the potential financial fallout of breaking a guaranteed contract. Even those who have resisted calls to cancel say they’re thrilled to no longer be linked to the comedian.
“This was emotionally wrenching and the most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with in my career,” said Adam Epstein, a Chicago-based promoter who handled six of Cosby’s recent shows. “I was accused of supporting a rapist for nothing more than honoring a contract.”
Director Judd Apatow, a particularly outspoken critic of Cosby in recent months, told The Washington Post he has sympathy for theater managers. He knows many of them can’t afford to cancel Cosby.
“Never has somebody in his position felt so arrogant to continue running around the country acting as if it’s not happening,” said Apatow, who has directed, among other films, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “This is 40.” “It’s a way for him to victimize these theaters. I know they have contracts which make it impossible to cancel him in certain locations. ”
Apatow is most disturbed about the message Cosby touring sends to women. Since November, Apatow has followed closely as women have given their accounts of what they say was a pattern of sexual abuse by Cosby. The comedian’s attorneys have denied the new charges, calling them “increasingly ridiculous” and “completely illogical” without addressing them in detail.
Former Playboy Playmate Victoria Valentino, one of five women to make claims against Cosby in a Washington Post article in November, said the fact that he continues to perform is infuriating, particularly when she hears of fans giving standing ovations at performances. She takes comfort in the string of cancellations.
“He is being tried in the court of public opinion,” Valentino said. “It’s clear his career is waning and done.”
The “Far From Finished” tour may be making headlines now because of the accusations, but it began with typical promise. Epstein, the Chicago promoter, said “we were celebrating” last March after signing a deal.
Cosby has long been a big draw, selling out concert halls around the country. Typically, he gets a $50,000 guarantee from a promoter, according to multiple sources who have been involved in making deals with Cosby. The promoter, in turn, signs a contract to rent a theater and share proceeds of ticket sales. In a small venue such as the 2,300-seat Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Mass., that has meant $25,000 in profits, which includes concessions, for each show Cosby performs. The comedian sold out two performances in 2010 and one in 2012.
“That’s a huge date for us,” said Troy Siebels, the theater’s president. “That’s what pays the bills.”
But this winter, venues began to encounter something once rare at Cosby shows: empty seats.
For Cosby, the trouble began in October when comedian Hannibal Buress called him out for past allegations during a club gig. The routine went viral and that, in turn, inspired an essay published in The Washington Post on Nov. 13 by onetime actress Barbara Bowman, who said she had been raped by Cosby in the 1980s. From there, other women emerged with their own accounts, and venues began fielding calls from patrons and members of the public demanding shows be canceled. Fans also complained that Cosby should be allowed to perform. Though he has been accused, he has not been charged, they said.
“It’s kind of been like a slow-motion car wreck,” said Brian Kitts, the marketing director for Denver Arts & Venues, where Cosby performed in the city-owned Buell Theatre in January. “You wonder if it’s going to hit you or slide on by.”
Some expected Cosby, as public pressure mounted and TV projects were nixed, to retreat. But just before Thanksgiving, he performed in Melbourne, Fla., without mentioning the swirl of accusations during his routine. Before he went on stage, he did telephone a freelance reporter he knew, Mike Nunez, and summoned him to the venue, where he made one of his only public statements on the matter.
“I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos,” said Cosby in an interview published in Florida Today.
Up in Massachusetts, Siebels followed the Florida gig and others that proceeded relatively smoothly.
“We had been hoping Cosby would cancel,” Siebels said. “Then he had several shows that went okay, and we lost that.”
It is not clear how flexible Cosby is with his contracts. Some theater managers and promoters declined to comment about the details of the arrangements to cancel, citing confidentiality agreements that were part of contracts. But in some cases, Cosby has clearly been willing to work with local venues.
That has been key for theater managers.
“If you cancel the show without his approval, you’ve got a contact signed and he’s due the money,” said Jim Martin, the co-owner of the American Music Theatre in Lancaster, Pa., where Cosby played two sold-out gigs in September, before the furor.
As pressure mounted in Worcester, Siebels and promoter Bill Blumenreich asked for relief. Cosby agreed to cancel.
That also happened in Westchester. Bjorn Olsson, the executive director of the Tarrytown Music Hall in New York, took to the organization’s Facebook page at one point to answer complaints about a pair of shows planned for Dec. 6.
“We’d be looking at a potential contract liability of around $100,000, not accounting for potential claims for damages beyond that,” he wrote to one protester. “We are a rather small non-profit organization and we would certainly not be able to take that kind of loss in stride.”
In the end, Cosby, Olsson and promoter AM Productions were able to reach an agreement to “share the financial burden,” the executive director said at the time. He declined to say how much money the theater lost.
Not everyone is surprised to see Cosby’s tour continuing.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner, known for playing Theo Huxtable on the “The Cosby Show,” remembers his sitcom dad being committed to the road. The cast would be filming a TV show intensely Monday through Thursday and Cosby would fly off Thursday night for a weekend packed with gigs.
“Touring is what the guy does,” Warner said. “It’s kind of like, if Michael Jordan could still play basketball, do you think he still would?”
Many believe this is probably Cosby’s last trip around the concert circuit. They note that it’s likely none of the performances on the “Far From Finished” tour were booked after his public image collapsed.
“If there’s a career yet to mine, you could create a strategy,” said Schultz, the talent scout who booked Cosby on “The Tonight Show.” “But there’s not.”
Another promoter, who was able to cancel Cosby but spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of litigation, said, “I’m done with him.”
Cosby, who declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this article, has avoided addressing the accusations on stage. He has also appeared almost defiantly tone deaf when they have come up. In London, Ontario, in January, Cosby broke his act to ask a woman in the audience leaving the theater where she was going. To get a soda, she told him.
“You have to be careful about drinking around me,” Cosby said.
A member of the audience then called Cosby a rapist and was kicked out of the theater.
Before his performances, Cosby has addressed the controversy privately. He has told organizations not to worry.
If there is a disturbance, he told Epstein on the phone, just ask people to stay calm. We don’t want to react to it.
In Wheeling, W.Va., Cosby met Denis Magruder, who manages the Capitol Theatre and other venues.
If somebody wants to heckle, Magruder remembers Cosby telling him, I’ll take care of that.
The West Virginia show, though, went smoothly March 14. Cosby didn’t sell out the 2,300-seat arena, but Magruder suspects that’s because Larraz, the promoter, told him he didn’t advertise to avoid attention. There is no reason the theater won’t have Cosby back, he added.
“We can’t play judge and jury,” Magruder said. “He hasn’t broken the law.”
That was also the sentiment in Denver, where Cosby came for two shows on Jan. 17. The atmosphere was tense. More than 1,000 people turned in their tickets for the two performances, leaving the 2,300-seat theater only about 60 percent full. Lawyer Allred came to town and held a “teach-in” at a local hotel before heading to the Buell Theatre with protesters.
Trouble is, the Buell is inside the Denver Performing Arts Center, which has multiple venues. As Kitts, the marketing director, looked on in horror, protesters with bullhorns shouted “rape supporters” as patrons walked through the shared space. Some of those ticket-holders were going to hear the Colorado Symphony Orchestra perform Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.
“It was brutal, a career low for me, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Kitts said.
That echoes Adam Epstein, the Chicago promoter. Epstein said he does not regret sticking to the deal he signed with Cosby. His professional reputation depends on his word. But he can’t imagine he would ever get involved in promoting Cosby again.
“Charlie Sheen notwithstanding, our business does not like trouble,” he said. “Unless there’s a determination one way or the other about his guilt or innocence, we’re not going to get involved.”