By Barbara Liston, Piya Sinha-Roy and Eric Kelsey
MELBOURNE Fla./LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Bill Cosby played a sold-out comedy show on Friday in Florida, despite a wave of sexual assault allegations this week that prompted the cancellation of several upcoming shows and two major studios to halt projects involving the comedian.
Cosby, 77, took the stage to a standing ovation and gave the audience a thumbs up at the King Center in Melbourne. The 90-minute show concluded without incident.
Police patrolled the venue ahead of the show, while a handful of protesters joined some attendees outside the center.
"I don't want it reported that nobody cared, said Julie LeMaitre, 47, who carried a sign that said, "Rape is no joke."
Although the show was sold out, there were patches of empty seats, including eight in the center of the orchestra section.
The show went ahead despite the cancellation of Cosby's Las Vegas performance next week and four other shows in Arizona, Illinois, South Carolina and Washington state next year. With NBC and Netflix also dropping projects with the comedian this week, the allegations have threatened Cosby's wholesome public image and future viability in show business.
Still, many ticketholders said they had no qualms about attending the comedian's performance.
"It's his personal life, and I don't really care," said Melbourne resident Russ McDonald, 62, a retired teacher.
Cosby has more than 30 performances, including a Nov. 29 show in Yakima, Washington, scheduled through May. He performed without incident on Thursday in the Bahamas.
He has refused to address questions about the allegations as more women have come forward, saying he forced himself on them sexually, with some accusing him of drugging them first.
The comedian has never been charged and his lawyers have said the assault claims were discredited and defamatory.
"The new, never-before-heard claims from women who have come forward in the past two weeks with unsubstantiated, fantastical stories about things they say occurred 30, 40, or even 50 years ago have escalated far past the point of absurdity," Cosby's attorney, Martin Singer, said in a statement on Friday.
The allegations against Cosby have jolted generations of Americans who knew him as an actor who broke race barriers on TV over the last 50 years, most notably as the admired father Dr. Cliff Huxtable on NBC comedy "The Cosby Show."
This week, Therese Serignese, a Florida woman, said Cosby assaulted her in 1976. Model Janice Dickinson, the most high-profile accuser, also told the "Entertainment Tonight" TV program that she believes Cosby sexually assaulted her in 1982.
(Reporting by Barbara Liston in Florida and Eric Kelsey and Piya Sinha-Roy in Los Angeles; Edited by Mary Milliken, Chris Reese, Alan Crosby, Ken Wills and Clarence Fernandez)