Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our First Review is In!


Liberace, right, played The Tent for 16 straight years, from 1964 to 1980. He’s shown here on the Warwick Music Theatre stage in 1979 with Alexander Tomasso III of Providence. (Providence Journal files)

THE TENT: Life in the Round Is An Ovation to Warwick Musical Theatre

01:00 AM EDT on Friday, August 21, 2009

By Michael Janusonis
Journal Arts Writer

If you lived in Rhode Island at any point in the second half of the 20th century, The Tent was more than likely a part of your summertime life.

The Warwick Musical Theatre, which was known to most Rhode Islanders as “The Tent” even long after it was replaced by an actual building in 1967, was where from 1955 to 1999 you had the chance to sit in uncomfortable canvas seats, swelter in the un-air-conditioned sultry heat and be entertained by the likes of Mitzi Gaynor, Paul Anka, Bobby Vinton, Mel Tillis, The Beach Boys, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Buddy Hackett, Joan Rivers, Victor Borge, George Burns and too many more to mention. And all for a ticket price that now seems like peanuts compared with what’s charged today.

The Tent itself has been gone for an entire decade, the victim of performers fleeing to bigger amphitheaters and better-paying casino venues. But the memories linger and come alive again in THE TENT: Life in the Round, which will have its world premiere at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Providence Performing Arts Center. It’s a feature-length documentary tribute to the theater, the Bonoff family that ran it for all those years, the many artists who played there and the crew that worked tirelessly behind the scenes, more for love than money, to make sure the show did go on.

You may not realize just how many memories you have stored about the place until you sit through THE TENT, which was directed, written and co-produced by Washington, D.C., filmmaker Brian Jones. He used a treasure trove of archival footage from local TV stations, the Rhode Island Historical Society and memorabilia and photos from the collection of Larry Bonoff, son of the theater’s founders, all flawlessly edited by Emmy-winning filmmaker Jim Karpeichik and narrated by Patrice Wood. It’s a warm-hearted, endearing portrait of a place where everyone who worked there came together every summer, year after year, as one big happy family to present the kind of performers one could only see at the time on television or in the movies.

There are shots of the crew putting up the tent and of the two-poled tent itself surrounded by what were then cow pastures on Route 2 in Warwick. There are memories of the early summer stock shows, which went big-time in August 1963 when the theater finally brought in a real star — Anna Maria Alberghetti — to perform in West Side Story. There’s singer Gisele MacKenzie arriving at the theater in a helicopter. Betsy Menders, daughter of Buster and Barbara Bonoff, recalls that on rainy days they’d go over the canvas seats (“The most uncomfortable seats in the world”) with hair dryers to get out the dampness. There are shots of after-show parties at the nearby Golden Lantern restaurant with the likes of Tony Bennett, Bob Newhart, George Burns and Liberace, who became a houseguest of owner Rose Farina and built her a piano-shaped swimming pool. Huey Lewis talks about trying to get used to the revolving circular stage and eventually loving it. Engelbert Humperdinck talks of playing the revolving stage and hating it. Wynonna Judd speaks about the intimacy of the place that allowed her to connect with the audience.

Audience members fondly recall how they could get up close to the stars who would sign autographs before the show and later run up and down the long aisles to make their entrances and exits. Betsy Palmer recalls running up those aisles in hoop skirts on a steamy night during a performance of The King and I and wondering in frustration, “What am I doing here?”

In one of the film’s funniest moments, Howie Mandel is seen on stage realizing that he’s suddenly co-starring with a large moth that has landed on his pants leg. Amusingly, local comedian Charlie Hall recalls getting a phone call at 6 o’clock one evening during his birthday party from a frantic Larry Bonoff, who pleaded with him to come be the last-minute replacement for Jerry Seinfeld’s opening act who didn’t show. Bonoff promised to buy Hall and his friends dinner afterward. The kicker to this story turns out to be even more amusing.

There’s the flap over Willie Nelson’s appearance when he was picketed by local police protesting his support for a cop killer and the flap Patti LaBelle caused when she felt she was shortchanged by the theater staff, leaving the stage in a huff.

THE TENT is brought to life in interviews with many of the people who worked there, many of the performers who played there, and many of the Rhode Islanders who were in the audience — including Buddy Cianci; Gov. and Mrs. Donald Carcieri, who talk about their first dates at The Tent, and Arlene Violet, who remembers when she was a nun digging in her habit for coins to buy a ticket for another sister when owner Burton “Buster” Bonoff came by and gave her freebies.

The documentary is a charmer that brims with nostalgia and fond memories. When it’s over, one will only probably wish there were more.

THE TENT: Life in the Round will be shown at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $10. It will be shown Sunday at the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket where tickets are $12.50. It will open Aug. 28 for a limited run at the Showcase Warwick Cinemas, just down the road from where The Tent once stood.

*****THE TENT: Life in the Round
Featuring: Larry Bonoff, Betsy Menders, Bobby Vinton, Carrot Top, Engelbert Humperdinck, Howie Mandel, Huey Lewis, Louis Anderson, Mel Tillis, Vince Gill, Wynonna Judd.
Rated: Not rated.