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December 21, 2014

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Legendary Bill Cosby talks about early days in Vegas

(because he doesn’t need to be censored)

IF YOU GO

Who: Bill Cosby

When: 7:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday

Where: Treasure Island

Tickets: $79; 894-7722, treasureisland.com

Beyond the Sun

When you interview Bill Cosby, you serve as the catalyst for a comedy routine involving long anecdotes that go off on tangents.

William Cosby Jr., 72, really needs no introduction.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, he already was a successful comedian when he became the first black star on TV in the hit series “I Spy” in 1965. “The Cosby Show” dominated the airwaves in the 1980s.

He and his wife of 45 years, Camille, have five children — like the Huxtables. Cosby also created such landmark children’s shows as “The Electric Company” and “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.”

He earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. His doctoral dissertation was titled “An Integration of the Visual Media Via ‘Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids’ into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning.”

During a telephone interview from his home in Shelburne Falls, Mass., he seemed surprised at the size of the newer venues, such as the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

“Man, you’ve got to really sell tickets to fill 4,000 seats. I don’t know. For me I’d have to go door to door. ‘Hi, I’m Bill and I’m playing tonight and was just wondering if you guys want to come by.’ ‘Well I don’t know, Bill, but we’ll think about it.’ ‘Please, come by because I’ve got 3,982 seats left.’

“Man to do that every night?”

Then Cosby took off on a tangent.

When did you first perform in Las Vegas?

I came to Vegas for the first time in the late ’60s — came in with a fellow by the name of Trini Lopez. We opened at the Flamingo. The funny thing was that if you moved and lived in Las Vegas, the penalty was your friends coming to visit you and you had to turn into a tour guide and take them to things you didn’t go to. Things they were excited about. The locals just said, “Yeah, OK.” I imagine there were even some sad stories about friends who came and lost money and you had to loan them money and then they went out and lost that also and you don’t talk to them anymore.

In those days the lounge acts were finished by daybreak. Your coffee shops, you could go to the Sands and see Frank Sinatra sitting in the star booth with Don Rickles and Joey Bishop and they’re having breakfast and you’re getting ready to go out and play golf. To me it was a city that, I don’t know about the sin part and the glitz but I do know that you could come in and you could eat a ton of food for very little money. There were attitudes — cabdrivers, people doing bell service, people giving service, some could have an attitude of “Look, you’re going to lose it anyway so you might as well give it to me.”

For me there was the UNLV track. I loved going out there. And the tennis courts over where they had the “Lido (de Paris)” — what was that hotel?

The Stardust?

Anyway, they had indoor tennis courts there and that was where I went to play when I was working the International. There’s an interesting story about the Hilton when it was the International. They had all these guys standing in a booth outside, dressed like guards — similar to the ones that stand outside the palace in England.

They stood in a box. As you can imagine this did not last too long because the guys started passing out. With those fur hats and all that equipment and standing in the box for show to welcome the people, and then the guy wound up being the first of those bumps to slow down the speeding traffic.

Did you perform here a lot in those days?

I did. My longest non-stopper was at least 2 1/2 months at the International Hilton. Two shows a day, no days off. I do have a couple of Las Vegas stories that I experienced. The first one was when I was working with Trini Lopez. I was coming to work, you go through the kitchen of the showroom, which I guess there is no longer any call for it. I saw the showrooms go from dinner shows to no food to these little sealed packages of pretzels and peanuts, kind of pitiful man.

But I was going to my dressing room and a pit boss was coming through in his yellow jacket, or red. I don’t know what color they had. So I said, “How’s everything going?” He said, “Just fine, Bill. You keep drawing them in and we’ll keep robbing them.”

And the other great line was at the Hilton, where Johnny Cash had taken his show — all Christian singing. I came in a day early and went in to see Jimmy Newman. He was the casino boss. I went into his office to say hello. I said “How’s everything going?” He said, “Bill, Cash is selling out to standing-room-only every show, two shows a night.” I said, “Fantastic.” He said, “And the people who come to see him bring two things with them, a $10 bill and the Ten Commandments, and they don’t break either one of them.”

You haven’t performed in Vegas lately. Why not?

I get booked outside of Vegas (in Laughlin or Primm). Or I do those special shows — the dentist convention. Shoe repair convention. Cosmetics. Those conventions. They’ll book their own entertainment to play at the convention center or something. A lot of guys do that. So this is the first time in a while that I’ll be working a room.

How have you managed to remain a “clean” comedian and avoid the vulgarity?

I did it once. And I thought it was appropriate because there was a character I was doing and later I got a card. It was at the Hilton. I received a card from six nuns telling me how disappointed they were — they didn’t use the word “upset” — that they had come to see a man that they knew and they found that they didn’t know him. And they were disappointed. That really hurt. I didn’t do the routine again.

What has getting your doctorate meant to you?

It’s a fulfillment of a dream. I was born again. I don’t mean through the Lord Jesus Christ as my savior. I mean born again academically.

I gave up studying and seeing the value of it in the fifth grade. I quit high school at age 19 with no diploma. I entered the Navy. I was born again in the Navy when the next morning that we had to get up and go to chow, the man woke us up at oh-four-thirty. I was so used to my mother playing the game with me, coming in three times. “Are you going to get out of that bed?” “Sure, mom.” This man came in and turned those lights on and began banging on things and scaring us. He came to me because I was still laying there. Then I jumped up. He put his face close to mine. He had a cigarette in his mouth and smoke was going up his right nostril and into his eye, and he said as he was blowing smoke in my face, “I am not your mother.” I wanted to punch him but I knew that I now belonged to Uncle Sam and Uncle Sam could put me away for the rest of my life. That’s the day when I said, “You know what? Everything those old people told me about myself, I understand clearly. I would like to see the base commander. I want to go to college.”

Once I entered Temple University I thought this United States of America was the greatest place on the face of the earth. I knew what I wanted to become. I wanted to become a schoolteacher and give the message to junior high school boys who were wasting their brains and not realizing what the road was going to look like without an education.

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  1. Good stuff Billy!