The Modell Center at the Lyric is barely half sold, and demonstrators plan to protest comic's appearance
The Ticketmaster website advertising Bill Cosby's comedy show Friday at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric is a vast field of little blue dots, each representing an unsold seat.
Barely 24 hours before performance time, just 59 percent of the 2,564 tickets available for the 8 p.m. concert had been bought. Chances are that comedy fans who either don't know about or don't believe the sexual assault accusations against the performer will be able to walk up to the box office five minutes before the opening curtain and sit more or less wherever they please.
To add insult to injury, of the roughly 1,500 tickets that had been sold, about 100 were being offered on the resale market. Some of the most desirable seats in the house had an asking price of less than $30 — or about a third of their face value.
Such a scenario would have been unthinkable a few years ago. As recently as 2011, the entertainer known as "America's Dad" drew a near-full house at the much larger Pier Six Pavilion, which holds roughly 4,200, according to Armiah Jan, the box office manager for the organization running Pier Six.
But the tepid turnout is one indication that Marylanders are voting with their wallets.
Michael Hawkins is a huge comedy fan. One of the 28-year-old Baltimorean's life goals is to see all the stand-up greats perform in person, so when tickets for the Cosby show went on sale Oct. 17 — right as the current firestorm broke — he quickly snapped up two.
But then Hawkins began reading accounts by the more than two dozen women who have come forward with claims of inappropriate sexual behavior ranging from fondling to rape. He reluctantly decided not to attend the concert.
"I didn't really feel comfortable going to the show anymore," said Hawkins, adding that he'd been hoping "there would be some more information that would come out to show that he didn't do the things he'd been accused of."
Cosby, 77, has denied the accusations; the attacks allegedly occurred between 1965 and 2008. No criminal charges have been filed against him. He declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article.
Some celebrities, including "Cosby Show" co-star Phylicia Rashad, have spoken out publicly against what she perceives to be an "orchestrated" attack designed to destroy her friend's legacy.
Among Cosby's most vociferous detractors is the actor and writer Judd Apatow.
"He's still up there doing stand-up comedy, which is very offensive," Apatow told The Baltimore Sun. "I'm pretty shocked that people are willing to pay money to see him perform."
In addition, NBC pulled the plug on a proposed series starring the comedian, Netflix nixed a planned comedy special with Cosby; and TV Land dropped plans to air reruns of "The Cosby Show."
As the demand for tickets dropped and protests grew, venues around the country that had booked Cosby's "Far From Finished" tour began posting cancellation notices. Since the scandal broke, Cosby's appearances have been scrapped in more than half of the 30-plus cities where he'd been scheduled to perform.
Among them, the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in Worcester, Mass., abandoned plans to host the comedian on Feb. 6. "Ticket sales stopped dead," according to the venue's president, Troy Siebels.
Early box office business was brisk, as fans quickly bought up 1,100 of the 2,300 available seats. But as women came forward and claimed that they'd been first drugged by Cosby and then molested, 400 fans requested — and received — refunds, leaving the hall just 30 percent filled.
"We decided that the show wasn't going to be the experience that we wanted it to be and wouldn't represent who we are as an organization, so we asked the promoter to let us out of our contract," Siebels said.
It's not known whether similar negotiations occurred in Baltimore.
Officials for the Modell Center released a one-sentence statement saying, "The Lyric is honoring its contract with the promoter who booked Bill Cosby at the theater well over a year ago," and did not return several phone calls and emails requesting additional information.
In addition, the show's Annapolis-based promoter, Carlos Larraz of the National Artists Corp., wrote in an email:
"I am the promoter of the Baltimore show and the decision to play the show and not cancel it was between Dr. Cosby and myself and The Modell really never had a say in that decision, and they still do not."
It appears clear, however, that Baltimore customers seeking full refunds went away unhappy. When Hawkins asked the Lyric for his money back, he said he got an email from the venue's box office saying, "Sorry, unfortunately unless the performance is canceled, at this time we cannot issue a refund."
He eventually received most of his money back from Ticketmaster.
Perhaps the show must go on. But Larraz and the Lyric seem to be hoping it will go on as quietly as possible.
Publicity for the Cosby concert has been muted. The comedy tour isn't among the half-dozen upcoming performances trumpeted in oversized promotions on the center's home page. Nor is it among the posters outside the hall advertising future shows.
Perhaps that's because Cosby's appearances in other cities from Denver to Ontario have drawn protesters outside the hall and hecklers within.
Rachel Perry-Crook, the director of the sexual assault advocacy group SlutWalk Baltimore, is organizing a protest outside the Modell before Friday's performance. She expects a few dozen demonstrators to picket outside the theater and hand out literature to concert attendees and passers-by.
Sara Wilkinson, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women, had a pointed piece of advice for the comic:
"I don't know what kind of jokes he's going to tell," Wilkinson said, "but he'd better be careful."
The push-back that Cosby is experiencing in Baltimore is all the more notable because it's happening in a city with which he has enjoyed a close relationship.
Baltimore is near both Philadelphia, where Cosby was born, and the Washington area, where his wife, Camille, grew up.
He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Baltimore in 2013, dedicated a school community center in 2012, and in 2011 campaigned on behalf of mayoral candidate Otis Rolley.
The university declined through a spokesman to comment for this article, and Rolley, who has relocated to New Jersey, didn't respond to a request for an interview.
In contrast, Sister John Francis Schilling, president of St. Frances Academy, cited example after example of Bill and Camille Cosby's generosity to the school, which educates some of Baltimore's lowest-income pupils.
In 2012, the school's community center was named in honor of the couple, who had contributed $2 million to the academy's scholarship program — the largest individual gift the school had then received.
After the sexual assault allegations became public, the school stood firm and declined suggestions that the facility should be rechristened.
In a letter dated Jan. 20, 2015, Camille Cosby wrote to the principal, "My husband and I are deeply grateful for your strong letter of support and for not allowing our enemies to convince you of the removal of our name from the community center."
Though she is a fierce feminist, the nun couldn't live with herself if she were to turn her back on her longtime friends.
"I don't know if the things that these women are saying is true," Schilling said. "I'm not going to judge him."
Local comedian Marc Unger felt deeply disoriented when the allegations emerged about the man he would put on "the Mount Rushmore of comedy," an entertainer known for his generosity toward struggling stand-up humorists.
Now, Unger said, "I couldn't bring myself to go watch Bill Cosby. I can't listen to Bill Cosby. Unless he's going to talk about the rape allegations, there's nothing that he could say."
As Unger implies, the anger directed against the comic might be so intense partly because his fans feel betrayed. The allegations against Cosby couldn't contrast more starkly with his family-friendly image.
Nsenga Burton, an associate professor of media studies at Goucher College, said that American men identified not just with Cosby's perfect father sitcom persona, but also with his real-life struggles as a parent of five children.
"He spoke very publicly about losing a son who was shot to death during an attempted robbery and about having a daughter who battled addiction," Burton said. "He appeared to be a good father and a very decent human being."
She admits to being torn. As a feminist, she's appalled by the allegations and wants nothing to do with Cosby. But she also can't help suspecting that racism is contributing to the backlash against the African-American icon. White male celebrities accused of predatory behavior, she said, have gone on to have second and even third acts in their careers.
As she put it: "The same people who are critiquing Bill Cosby will fly out to Europe the next week to make a movie with Woody Allen or Roman Polanski."
Shows have been canceled in some 20 cities, including Houston, Boston and Pittsburgh. Besides Baltimore, shows are still set for Charleston, W.Va., Atlanta and Providence, R.I.
If you go
Bill Cosby is scheduled to perform onstage at the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $36-$66. Information: lyricoperahouse.com.