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Cosby performs for appreciative crowd in Turlock

Wearing a white hoodie with the words “Hello Friend,” Bill Cosby performs Sunday at the Turlock Community Theatre.
Wearing a white hoodie with the words “Hello Friend,” Bill Cosby performs Sunday at the Turlock Community Theatre. dnoda@modbee.com

Turlock welcomed beleaguered comic Bill Cosby like an old friend Sunday evening.

The 77-year-old former star of “The Cosby Show” was greeted warmly and left with a standing ovation at the Turlock Community Theatre, his first appearance in California since allegations of past sexual assault made national headlines. Only one protester showed up to protest, while many more news crews waited outside the 1,000-seat theater to report on what has become a nationwide story.

The comic returned to the stage in the United States this weekend for the first time since a break from the road for the holidays. He has shows in Colorado earlier in the weekend, which were both met by protesters. The night before his Turlock stop, more than 100 protesters chanted and held signs outside his Denver performances.

Cosby came to Turlock two months after the allegations derailed his attempts at a TV comeback and tarnished his legacy. So far 24 women have come forward to publicly accuse the man formerly known as “America’s dad.” He has denied the allegations and has not been charged with a crime.

The sole Turlock protester said she was surprised by the lack of support for the women who have accused the comic of sexual assault, some from decades-old encounters.

“It’s sad. I am very disappointed there aren’t more people. But someone has to stand up so I came,” said 51-year-old longtime Turlock resident Suzette Sims, who came with a homemade sign that read “I Believe The Women.” “I’ve done my research. I watched all of their interviews. I believe they can’t all be lying. Anytime a woman comes forward they are vilified by the world. So I want to say to them, ‘I believe you.’”

Still the show, which had been sold out for months, attracted hundred of Cosby fans who said they did not want to pass premature judgment on the star. The crowd skewed older for the event, with audience members mostly ranging from their 40s to 70s.

“He hasn’t been found guilty of anything and this is still America,” said Hilmar resident Wayne Stanfield, 45. “If he did it he has to pay for it. But until they find him guilty I am not going to say he is.”

Inside, the theater was speckled with empty chairs. Before the show a handful of ticket holders had tried to sell their seats. Many more it seemed chose to just stay home instead of courting controversy.

The comic spent most of his show talking about his family and his childhood. Many of his stories centered on his longtime wife and others began “when I was a kid.” He made reference to his commencement address at California State University, Stanislaus in 1999, as well as the “manure” smell in the area.

At one point he assured the crowd the drink he was pouring, which he pretended was alcoholic for a bit, was indeed just tea with some peach and local almonds.

Cosby’s stand-up tour and Turlock stops were booked in the summer long before the controversy began swirling around the comic. Since then close to a dozen venues have canceled or postponed performances and others refunded tickets. Turlock Community Theatre Managing Director Kit Casey has maintained that the non-profit performance center was “"not in a position to cancel the show.”

The show had been sold out since October, about a month before both NBC and Netflix pulled the plug a new sitcom and comedy special from Cosby, respectively, because of the mounting allegations. The comic has played packed shows in the Central Valley in the past, most recently at Stockton’s Bob Hope Theatre in 2013.

Cosby's been a popular draw in the Modesto region over the years, having performed at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto; California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock; and the Bob Hope Theatre in Stockton. He also gave the commencement address at Stanislaus State in 1999.

Cosby next has a series of weekend dates in the Midwest and East Coast. He won’t return to California until Feb. 12 when he is set to perform at The Fox Theater in Bakersfield. His schedule then won’t take him back to Northern California until early June when there are shows booked in Santa Rosa and Cupertino.

The last large-scale protest in Turlock came in 2006 when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin came to speak at a fundraiser for Stanislaus State.

Cosby was on stage for close to two hours and was thanked with a standing ovation.

Most who came to the show like Merced resident Steve Mulvihill, 56, shared the same sentiment. His tickets were a birthday gift for his wife bought months ago.

“I just want to have an enjoyable evening,” he said.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on Twitter @marijkerowland.

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