Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Tent is Getting Great Press!


Larry Bonoff, whose family operated the Warwick Musical Theatre for more than four decades.

Filmmakers, Celebrities and Years of Memorabilia Bring Back ‘The Tent’

01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, August 16, 2009
By Michael Janusonis
Journal Arts Writer

Barbara Bonoff never threw anything away.

And not just stuff from the 45 seasons that she and her husband ran the Warwick Musical Theatre. She saved mementos and historical records and playbills and costumes from a family show business line going back to 1919, when her mother was the lead dancer in a vaudeville act’s chorus line that toured “the entire country, as far west as Pennsylvania.”

Larry Bonoff, the 60-year-old son of Barbara and Burton “Buster” Bonoff and a leading concert promoter in his own right, is sitting in the star dressing room backstage at the Providence Performing Arts Center, recalling fondly that “Mother was a pack rat. Anytime anybody died in our family she would take everything that no one else wanted and put it in her cellar. She had a cedar closet built to store the most valuable stuff. A lot of it she kept at her home in Arizona where the dry heat preserved it.”

When his mother died in 2003, Bonoff became heir to more than 10,000 items relating to four generations of showbiz. A good portion of it came from what most Rhode Islanders called “The Tent,” even after his father put up a permanent theater building in 1967 to replace the green-and-yellow-striped circus tent where the likes of Danny Kaye, Jane Russell, John Raitt and Ginger Rogers had performed on a revolving circular stage in a season that ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Bonoff says his sister, Betsy Menders, “wanted nothing of the archives. But I wanted it all.”

The treasure trove included tour jackets, ticket stubs, family photos of the stars with the Bonoff family, theater programs from Warwick and from the shows Buster promoted in Phoenix from 1964 to 1988. There are the original manuscripts from the Broadway shows that once played there, including written instructions by Johnny DeSantis, who later became the vice president of production at Walt Disney Studios, on how to light the shows and run them in the round. There are notes from Jimmy Hammerstein, son of fabled Broadway composer Oscar Hammerstein II, who once was the theater’s musical director.

Happily, all that material is not sitting in some basement getting moldy. Bonoff has donated the historical collection to the University of Rhode Island, where he is in the midst of cataloguing it for an online site that he expects won’t be completed for another two years.

But Saturday night the public will get a peek at some of the Warwick Musical Theatre portion of the collection when it takes the starring role in THE TENT: Life in the Round, a feature-length documentary that will have its world premiere at the Providence Performing Arts Center. (It will be followed by a screening the next night at Woonsocket’s Stadium Theatre and then a one-week run at the Showcase Warwick Cinemas, just up the road from where the WMT once stood, beginning Aug. 28.)

Included will be footage from local TV stations going back to the early days, footage from the Rhode Island Historical Society, archival photos from nearly a half-century of summers with the stars under The Tent.

Some of the stars who once performed there were eager to give interviews for the film, says Bonoff, including Mel Tillis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Wynonna Judd, Bobby Vinton, Howie Mandel and Vince Gill, who was The Tent’s last musical act on the Saturday before Labor Day 1999.

“Vince Gill was thrilled to do it,” says Bonoff, “and Wynonna gave me a personal phone call and said, ‘Anything I can do.’ A lot of the stars said they wanted to be in the film because ‘You gave us our breaks, our inspiration.’ This is history told by the people who were there, as they saw it then, as they see it now.”

The idea was hatched, says Bonoff, when Thomas Zorabedian, professor of film studies at URI, was sifting through Bonoff’s donated collection and said, “Let’s do a film.” Zorabedian was no stranger to the Warwick Musical Theatre, having appeared on stage at the age of 5 in a production of The King and I. Bonoff had said the idea of doing a film had been kicked around earlier — a broader idea that looked at summer theaters in general and their imprint on the American theatrical landscape — though nothing had come of it.

The ball started rolling again when Brian Jones, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who once had been a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote a script outline for a documentary about summer theaters in the round. Jones, who grew up in East Greenwich, had started as an usher at The Tent at age 14 and worked his way up to be Larry Bonoff’s assistant “to the end.” So his idea for a film struck a chord with Bonoff.

Jones is sitting in the editing room/office of documentary filmmaker Jim Karpeichik’s house in suburban Cranston where the two are putting the final touches on THE TENT. Karpeichik is at a computer monitor, editing down what had turned out to be 42 hours of footage and more than 2,500 archival photos. Channel 10 anchor Patrice Wood is expected within the hour to record the film’s narration.

Karpeichik was Channel 10’s chief cameraman when he left in 1999, the same year the Warwick Musical Theatre closed and was torn down to make way for a Lowe’s home improvement store. Since then he has made several award-winning documentaries, including one about Rhode Island’s lighthouses and one that followed some of the state’s World War II veterans back to Normandy where they had landed on D-Day. Some of his 14 Emmys sit on a shelf.

Occasionally Karpeichik pulls up a piece of footage on the monitor — Larry Bonoff at age 10 in the mid-1950s lifting chairs off a pickup truck for theater seating; Channel 10 reporter Jay Kroll in the late 1950s interviewing entertainer Victor Borge at the swimming pool of the Yankee Motor Inn on Post Road where Bonoff remembers spending summers when the theater rented half the place for actors and crew members; color footage of Buster and Barbara Bonoff on their wedding day.

There’s even footage of The Tent being raised, film that not even Larry Bonoff remembers seeing — “stuff that has been buried for 50 years,” says Jones, who had written a book about the theater — Under the Green and Yellow Tent.

Jones, who wrote the film’s script and is its director and co-producer with Bonoff, had been working long-distance with film editor Karpeichik, sending clips back and forth via e-mail. But for this final push, Jones has come up from Washington for firsthand guidance. Bonoff, working on putting together the details of the film’s premiere, has yet to see a completed cut.

Back at PPAC, Bonoff has wonderful memories of The Tent, some of which may make it onto the screen. There are stories about how his father sometimes waited for the day’s box office receipts so he would have enough money when he drove to the Providence train depot to pay the freight for the costumes that had arrived for that night’s show. About how singer Gisele MacKenzie once arrived for a show in a helicopter that landed in the theater’s parking lot. About how the theater used to rent an entire hotel in Narragansett for the summer for the actors, who would rehearse in the basement.

Story follows story: how his father bought the AT&T pavilion from the New York World’s Fair, turning it into the permanent structure that replaced the tent. How in the early years the theater’s permanent company of supporting players would do one Broadway show a night on stage for a week while rehearsing another one by day. How the headline star would play in a show in Warwick for a week with one cast, then go down to the Oakdale Musical Theatre in Wallingford, Conn., to do the same show, but with the Oakdale’s permanent company — a cast he or she had never seen before. (Not such a good idea, says Bonoff.)

Bonoff has memorialized those years in a drawing of his father, beaming over The Tent like the Wizard of Oz, which he had tattooed on his thigh a week after his father died in 2000. “At the age of 30 he started the theater. Age 75 he closed it and he died. Was that the American Dream or what?” asks Bonoff. And now with THE TENT: Life in the Round, he has memorialized those years for all to see.

THE TENT: Life in the Round will have its world premiere at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $10 and are on sale at the PPAC box office, by phone at (401) 421-ARTS and online at ppacri/org. A limited number of VIP tickets ($35) include a post-show party and donation that will be split between a breast cancer charity and the URI-Bonoff Theatre Fund. The film will be shown at 7 p.m. Aug. 23 at Woonsocket’s Stadium Theatre. Tickets are $12.50 at the box office, by phone at (401) 762-4545 or online at VIP tickets for $30, including dinner at Chan’s and a charity donation, are also available. The film begins a limited run Aug. 28 at the Showcase Warwick Cinemas.