Cosby ready for a spin at Cape Cod Melody Tent

Jay N. Miller

Bill Cosby is fairly certain it happened at one of the eastern Massachusetts tent venues, most likely the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis, where Cosby returns for two shows Saturday.

On that night, Cosby, already a bit hesitant about the whole revolving stage idea, noticed his audience was jumping to their feet, section by section.

“It was the first time I ever saw the ‘wave’ outside of a sports stadium,” Cosby said from his home in western Massachusetts.

“I noticed it and thought, ‘Well, I guess they like me, and maybe it’s a local, Hyannis thing.’ But it kept going on, right around the theater, and the people seemed very upset, standing up and talking right in the middle of my set. By the fifth time it happened I was doing a fly-check to see if that was the problem. I finally stopped and asked someone down front what the deal was, and he just said ‘skunk.’ There’s woodsy grounds around that tent, and apparently a skunk had slipped into the theater and was running under the people’s seats. I’ll never forget that show – I never had skunk problems onstage before that.”

Although the summer tent circuit has become a staple for Cosby, he’s never warmed to the idea of a revolving stage.

“First, we pick the venues that are right around that 2,500-capacity size, and we can put two shows,” Cosby said. “I don’t really want to do a 5,000-seat hall because I’d rather have the intimacy of a smaller venue, and so much of my show is just storytelling, where you want that personal connection – the ability to look into people’s faces as you talk. When these theaters-in-the-round first came out, like 40 years ago, I was coming up to do one and they were very proud that the whole thing would spin. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t know how I’m going to concentrate on telling my stories, and focusing on people, if I’m spinning.’ When I’m spinning I don’t have control of who I am and who I’m looking at. So a half-hour before the show they were still trying to get me to agree, and came in and told me, ‘Don Rickles likes to spin.’ I said ‘OK, but Bill Cosby doesn’t want to.’ So I just take the hand mike and walk around the (stationary) stage, and they’ve told me the way I do it, it works.”

Cosby was a longtime friend of the late George Carlin, and said his old pal was both inspiration, and a source, for at least one Cosby routine.

“George and I met in the early 1960s,” Cosby recalled. “George was one of the great minds of our time, not just as far as comedy – whatever he chose to do, he’d have been successful. I took one of his routines and expanded it into my own, about the football player doing a TV commercial.”

Cosby said Carlin was the comedian who could beat his record for the fastest theater exit.

“I like to rush out right after the show. I do not take encores, or fake bows. I like to say, ‘Thank you and goodnight’ and go right to the car. So we began to measure the time it took from my last bow, to meeting the man in the dark offstage, who leads me up the hallway, down the ramp, whatever, to my car.

“And I was playing this place in California one week, and they told me the only one faster getting off was Carlin. So I said how much faster? And we began trying to beat that time. I’d have my driver in the car with the key started – so he wouldn’t lose time opening the door for me – and we’d be ready to go.

“At that time I always ended with the dentist story, so I told everybody, ‘When I start the dentist story get the car ready.’ That way we’re in the car and out of the parking lot before the crowd breaks and there’s no traffic, and we’re off the property – which is what we agreed was the end point for our timing. So we did all that one night and I was certain we had done the best time ever – and the stage crew tells me later Carlin’s record was seven seconds better.”

One fateful night in San Francisco, Cosby’s usual hasty exit was disrupted.

“I was playing a club in the San Francisco area for a whole week, back in 1965-67,” Cosby remembered. “And I had also become good friends with Bill Harrah, who owned the casino at Lake Tahoe, not far away. Bill also had an auto dealership, selling Ferraris, and I loved fast cars. I hit on this idea, and called Bill’s dealership and offered to drive one of their cars for the week, and also mention it in every show, so they’d get plenty of exposure and my endorsement and so on.

“They loaned me a top-of-the-line Ferrari sport coupe, which went for about $17,000 in those days. I was staying at the Fairmount Hotel, and driving to the club in Half Moon Bay for two shows a day, and every time I pulled into the parking lot it was all ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs.’ Then I got to go out on stage and tell everyone I was driving a Ferrari. The audiences were enjoying hearing about how my first car cost me $75, and now, four years later, I’m driving a GT2+2 or whatever it was, and Harrah’s got a good plug in every show.

“So this Saturday night I’m rushing offstage as usual, up the ramp to the exit, into the Ferrari and off I go,” Cosby went on. “I get through the parking lot, the crowd hasn’t broken yet, and I had to stop at the entrance to wait for a break in the traffic on the street. I’m ready to bolt, when the whole electrical system in the Ferrari goes kaput. And I’m sitting there as my audience filters out around me and gets in their old American cars to go home, seeing me in my $17,000 Ferrari (a lot of money in those days) with no lights and no power. Do you know, not one person stopped to help? I had to get a ride home from one of the stagehands, in his ’55 Chevy, laughing and busting on me the whole time.”

There’s barely time to ask him about the rap CD being released under his imprimatur this summer, “State of Emergency,” with young hip-hop artists writing and performing under his imperatives: no curses, no misogyny, and no glorifying guns and violence. It’s an especially sensitive subject for Cosby, whose son Ennis was killed in a freeway robbery in Los Angeles in 1997.

The rap album is a companion piece to his 2006 book with Dr. Alvin Poussaint, “Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors,” which stresses education and empowerment as focal points for young people, particularly minorities.

“The CD is coming out soon, as soon as my wife decides to push the red button,” Cosby said. “She handles the business side. Right now I’ve got to go get the grandchildren from their class – they’re learning arithmetic. I’m having a good time with the grandkids, and I’ve got some routines about being grandpa that I think the people will enjoy.”

The Patriot Ledger