Bill Cosby drew gales of laughter and warm applause from those who paid to see him perform in Kitchener, Ont., on Wednesday night, while just a short distance away a number of others voiced their opposition against the embattled comedian.
The show was Cosby’s first since November — and the first of three in Ontario — and went ahead despite multiple calls from local residents for the performance to be cancelled amid mounting allegations of sexual abuse by the 77-year-old.
Cosby walked on stage wearing a grey sweatshirt with the phrase “hello friend” as a picture of him with Nelson Mandela was broadcast on two large screens overhead.
The comedian opened with a simple line.
“First of all, thank you,” he said emphatically.
Cosby then launched into a series of jokes about the cold Canadian weather, religion and sibling rivalry, among other topics.
The comedian appeared to strike all the right notes with the crowd, which included a mix of older men, women and even a few children. The audience laughed at Cosby’s dramatic pauses, giggled at his stage antics and clapped at his punch lines.
And they gave him a standing ovation and the end of the show.
There were many empty seats on the large theatre, however, which was under constant surveillance by police officers and private security guards posted at multiple junctures.
The ticket holders who streamed into Kitchener’s Centre In The Square had walked past a handful of protesters hoisting signs that read “rape is not a joke” and “I support the victims.”
At one point three protesters temporarily blocked the main doors into the venue while one woman heckled ticket holders, saying they should be “ashamed” of going to see Cosby.
Stella Goertzen, who was among those who withstood bone-chilling temperatures to protest the comedian, said Cosby shouldn’t have come to the city.
“I think they should have closed down the venue and just said you know what, this is not good for our city,” she said. “I’m against violence against women.”
The activity didn’t seem to deter many heading into the venue though, with many saying they believed Cosby was innocent until proven guilty.
“We just felt like we still wanted to see the entertainment we paid for. It’s up to the law to decide if there’s a problem,” said Tammy Kehn. “If there’s an issue it will be addressed that way. I’m here to enjoy the show.”
Kehn added that she had no problem with those who opposed Cosby voicing their opposition.
“They’ve made their decisions and they’ve formed their opinions too and everybody’s entitled to that,” she said. “We’re all here for our own reasons.”
Sam Smith, who grew up watching Cosby on television, felt the same way.
“If you want to oppose somebody that’s your opinion. I’m here to see a humorous guy, that’s all,” she said.
In recent weeks, at least 18 women — including three who came forward in Los Angeles on Wednesday — have accused Cosby of sexually assaulting them, with some allegations dating back decades.
Cosby — who starred as the congenial Dr. Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” from 1984 to 1992 — has denied the allegations through his lawyer and has never been criminally charged in connection with any of the claims.
But the slew of allegations alone were enough to prompt a group of Kitchener residents to organize their own alternative event — set to run at the same time as Cosby’s show — which would raise funds for women’s centres that support victims of sexual assault.
“We chose to go the community route, raise some money, raise awareness, get conversations going,” said Melanie Baker, a co-organizer for the event which has been called Voices Carry.
“To Cosby, the message is we’ve heard, we see, this isn’t going away.”
Baker said those who’ve purchased tickets to Cosby’s show can gain free admission to the alternative event and noted that she expects a number of former fans of the comedian to come by. The city’s mayor has also said he would attend.
Cosby has had to cancel or postpone at least 10 shows on his current world tour because of the growing number of women who claim he drugged and sexually assaulted them.
His agents, however, said his Canadian appearances were going ahead as planned.
In an ironic way, Baker said, Cosby’s determination to perform despite local opposition has helped shine the spotlight on the issue of sexual assault.
“As much as we would have loved it if his event got cancelled, having it go ahead, the story has got more and more attention….and thus it keeps getting into the broader conversations about sexual assault, about domestic abuse and all of those important issues,” she said.
Shirley Lichti, a longtime volunteer with the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo region, which will benefit from the event, said the community’s response is sending a positive signal to survivors of abuse.
“We’re not so much trying to send a message to Cosby as we are to our community that says women who’ve been sexually violated are not alone, we believe them, we’re here to help them,” she said.
“If you look at the media in 2014 sexual violence was in the news again and again and again…and for the first time the conversation got elevated to a point where people said it’s safe for me to tell someone that I’ve been abused.”
Cosby is also scheduled to perform in London on Thursday and Hamilton on Friday, and protests are planned in both cities.