I haven't been looking forward to seeing Bill Cosby perform at Pueblo Memorial Hall.
Though I'm here for work, and none of my money went to buy the $73 ticket, I still feel weird about driving to Pueblo for this. My instinct is to stand in solidarity with other women, particularly when they're doing something as brave and thankless as accusing a beloved celebrity of committing rape, as so many have lately accused Cosby.
Yet here I am. After locating a parking spot, I head for the protesters outside the theater. There are about 20 of them crowded around the front doors with signs. A few cops stand by. The occasional car honks in support. Laurie Ann Riddock holds a sign that reads, "No means no." She's here with her 13-year-old daughter, hoping to set an example.
"I am a survivor," she says. "I'm a rape victim, and I didn't report it, and this was a chance to become empowered."
I'm thinking about her when I finally walk through the theater's doors. Then I hand over my ticket, and look for a bathroom. There's one on the first floor with a huge line. I ask around, hoping to find another restroom. A few ladies direct me upstairs. One man jokingly suggests, "You could go outside where the protesters are."
It comes off slightly more lighthearted than malicious. But still. Ouch.
By the time I navigate the crowd and get to my seat, I'm ready to get on with it. But it will be about 10 minutes before Cosby takes the stage. In the meantime, there isn't much to look at other than the beautiful historic theater and two screens above the stage that show a photo of Cosby smiling next to Nelson Mandela.
Over the loudspeakers, the audience is notified three times that the show may be interrupted by protesters. Audience members are instructed to sit tight if that happens, and wait for rabble-rousers to be removed. Upon the first announcement, I hear an older woman sigh and say, "That's a sad thing."
But by the time Cosby appears on stage in a gray sweatsuit with "Hello Friends" emblazoned on the front, the controversy is forgotten. Coming in, he gets a standing ovation. The biggest interruption comes from a few ringing cell phones. It's as though this theater is a time machine and we're all back to the good old days.
I grew up with Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. The Cosby Show aired from 1984 to 1992, from the time I was 4 until I was 12, roughly the age of the youngest Huxtable child, Rudy. I loved that show. I remember snuggling up with my mom and singing along with the theme.
There was a building near my school painted with a Cosby Show ad. When the show ended, it was covered with one for The Simpsons, and a part of me was sad every time I looked at it, even though I loved The Simpsons.
Over the years, I came to see Cosby in other ways: as the Jell-O guy, the host of Kids Say the Darndest Things, the guy whose name is forever attached to a bad fashion choice, as in, "Dude, that's a Cosby sweater." Later, I'd hear he was also the man behind the "pound cake speech," which blamed the black community for its problems.
I remember feeling terrible when Cosby's only son, Ennis, an aspiring teacher, was fatally shot in an attempted robbery in 1997. He was just trying to change his tire. Theo Huxtable, one of my Cosby Show favorites, was based on Ennis. (The Jan. 16 date of the Pueblo show, incidentally, is the anniversary of Ennis' death. Cosby told NBC that he hoped the performance would cheer his wife.)
I haven't seen any Cosby Show re-runs lately, and I imagine if I did they'd lack the magic they once had for me. Sitcoms don't usually age well. Yet The Cosby Show, with its all-black cast, opened a lot of doors in race relations. Many credit it with leading to other programs with mostly-black casts, like In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Growing up in a diverse neighborhood, I remember how my black friends felt about The Cosby Show — they were proud that the most popular show in America featured people who looked like them. And while some have debated whether it was the right call to make the Huxtables an upper-middle-class family, in my low-income neighborhood it was refreshing to see a black family that had made it. I remember black kids in my class saying that they wanted to be a doctor like Cliff Huxtable, or a lawyer like Cliff's wife, Clair.
If some of those kids grew up to be doctors and lawyers, Cosby may be due some credit.
So, let's talk about these rape allegations. More than 20 women have accused Cosby of assaulting them, in incidents that span decades. The stories seem to line up with each other: He slipped them drugs, and they woke up violated, "America's Dad" hovering over them. Some claim the incidents happened when they were underage.
Some of these accusations were publicized years ago, but they never got much traction until comedian Hannibal Buress started calling out Cosby onstage last year.
Mark Ebner, a Los Angeles-based author and journalist, recently had a story on The Daily Beast, "I Warned You About Bill Cosby in 2007" — most of which is actually a reprint of an article he wrote in 2007.
Speaking by phone, Ebner says that in 2006 he decided to follow up on rumors that Cosby was a rapist. He found an old case that had been settled and two alleged victims on opposite sides of the country who didn't know each other. Their accounts lined up and Ebner wrote the story, only to have it turned down by 32 media outlets, and by his own agency — which, as it turns out, also represented Cosby. He ended up publishing it on his own site, hollywoodinterrupted.com, where it fell flat. No one wanted to touch a legend like Cosby.
"It just spoke volumes," Ebner says now.
Ebner has continued his research into Cosby and says he's been disgusted by the strategy of Cosby's legal team, led by attorney Martin Singer. They've sought to discredit a growing list of accusers, often by digging through their pasts in an attempt to show that they're serial liars. Their latest target is former model Beverly Johnson, the one who called Cosby "a motherfucker."
Ebner says he doesn't care about the pasts of Cosby's alleged victims. The pattern of the allegations, paired with the one-on-one conversations he's had with two of the victims, is enough to convince him Cosby's guilty.
Despite the legal maneuvering, all is not well in Cosby's camp.
In the wake of Burress' verbal spankings, people got to talking, more women came out and many of Cosby's performances and TV projects were canceled. NBC recently formally cut ties with the comedian.
Still, Cosby has continued to perform his stand-up routine, patiently waiting for hecklers and protesters to be removed from the audience, and even cracking a joke about the allegations at a show in Canada. ("You have to be careful about drinking around me," he reportedly said to a woman from the audience who offered him a drink.)
Meanwhile, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler skewered him at the Golden Globes; a woman who claimed Cosby drugged and sexually molested her at the Playboy Mansion in 2008 took her case to the police (in what could be the first to fall within the statute of limitations and actually make it to criminal court); and cancellations of his performances kept rolling in.
The local show went on, though Pueblo Memorial Hall, which is managed by Global Spectrum, a part of Comcast-Spectacor, beefed up security. Despite the threat of protests, promoter AEG Live also declined to cancel two shows in Denver the next night — the Denver Post reported that company president Chuck Morris said contracts had been signed and those who had bought tickets should be able to attend. However, Ticketmaster agreed to refund tickets to those shows.
According to the Associated Press, the Denver shows were not interrupted by protests, though about 100 people gathered outside the theater "chanting 'rape is not a joke' and 'no means no.'" Attorney Gloria Allred, representing eight of the alleged victims, also held a "Teach In and Speak Out" event in Denver ahead of the shows. Allred brought along Beth Ferrier, a former model who accused Cosby of drugging and raping her in 1986.
I spoke with Allred ahead of the event. She said she's pushed Cosby's attorneys to allow the cases to go to criminal court — that would be possible if Cosby said he would not use the statute of limitations as a defense. The attorneys have refused.
That's part of the reason that Allred held her event in Denver, though she also hoped to explain the perspective of the victims, where the cases stood and what people could do to help.
"[Cosby] apparently doesn't want this decided in a court of law; he wants this decided in a court of public opinion," she says. "And that's what we're going to do."
Which brings me back to this moment, sitting in the mostly sold-out Pueblo Memorial Hall.
I was wondering who would come. Tickets cost from $54.50 to $65, plus fees. That's a pretty ritzy night out for most local folks, and a vote of confidence for a man accused of rape by so many women.
Onstage, Cosby, as he almost always has in his performances, plays it safe. He jokes about the weather, his decades-long marriage, kids, grumpy relatives, and the woes of an aging body. At 77, he's family-friendly, goofy — and funny.
It's difficult to quickly reproduce his comedy. The bits work largely because of the way they build and connect as he's telling them. But he's got a great story about trying to use his limited Spanish to impress a woman at a store, only to be met with a barrage of Spanish he doesn't understand.
"I'm calling on my brain — please give me something to say in Spanish, because she thinks I understand what she's saying," he tells the crowd, which is already laughing so hard it's difficult to hear. "And I said to the people in my brain, 'When I open my mouth, you will let something come out.' And she said [gibberish]. And I said, 'Feliz Navidad.'"
It's an example of what Cosby recently told NBC was his "gift," which he needed to "share."
At times I have to admire his talent. Who but Cosby could make me laugh about sofa cushions? And there's something endearing about his delivery. He's so self-effacing. He's so eager to share the private details of his daily life. He seems so ... real.
The crowd remains enamored. They giggle and elbow-jab their partners knowingly throughout the show. At the end, they give Cosby another standing ovation.
I can't see into the hearts and minds of these people, but I watch and listen to them. They're polite and friendly. They're teachers, retirees, parents. Others will view their presence as unforgivable, but they don't strike me as raging misogynists.
So why are they here? Can they really believe Cosby is innocent?
I feel like I'm on a teeter-totter. One moment, I'm envisioning the Bill Cosby I've always known. The next, I'm straining to see him as some sort of monster.
We tend to make up our minds about someone over a period of years, and those who have followed Cosby's career have had many years to form an opinion of him. Once it's formed, it can be difficult to shake. And, as Allred points out, it may not be based in reality.
"Many mistook [Cosby's] television character for who he really is in his private life," she says. "That's a common mistake, confusing an individual with their character as played on a scripted television show."
There's an illogical tendency to believe that people, celebrities in particular, are package deals. You either love them and everything they've ever done, or you don't. I've known people who would shame a regular guy for drug addiction but defend Elvis Presley with the ferocity of a honey badger. Others will tell you that the Cold War was a huge mistake but that John F. Kennedy was a saint. And then there's Woody Allen.
It's difficult to say Bill Cosby is funny, or that he may have done some good in the world, while also saying there's a good chance he's a serial rapist. And even if we can separate a person from his art or her achievements, even if we can say that Michael Jackson probably molested children but we also love "Billy Jean," or that Roman Polanski is a perv but Rosemary's Baby is brilliant, we're presented with a sticky question. Do we support this person? Do we go to Woody Allen movies? Do we vote for politicians with prostitutes in their closets?
Do we attend Bill Cosby's show?
It's certainly easier to look the other way.
Just ask this crowd.