The history of the Warwick Musical Theatre is inseparable from the history of the Bonoff and Wasserman families. This version of those families’ histories, and of the theater, is as remembered by Larry Bonoff, who with his sister Betsy are the fourth generation of their family to be involved in theater production and promotion. Their father, Burton “Buster” Bonoff and their mother, Barbara Bonoff, nee Wasserman, both come from families with deep roots in American theater and movies. Some of the most unusual items in the Bonoff Archives come from Barbara’s father Samuel Wasserman, who worked in the production end of touring theater, during the vaudeville period. The production cast and crew traveled by train, presenting across the Northeast in cities and townships with existing theaters.1
Martha LoMonaco describes this kind of touring in her recent work on the history of American summer stock theater:
“Train travel provided a cost-effective means of moving whole production companies from one town to the next for engagements at the local theatre. Hence, a new kind of entertainment, known as the combination company, was developed quickly by business-minded producers who were principally interested in making money rather than art. Extensive tours of these combination companies- theatrical passages which features one or more stars, a supporting cast, and often all the technical and scenic elements to maintain a consistent a consistent quality of production- heralded the beginning of ‘the road’ and the end of resident stock."2
Samuel married Rose Berman, his star chorine, and they continued in touring theater until the end of combination theater’s heyday, when both the Great Depression and movies put an end to the demand for his productions. After Sam and Rose left theater, Samuel went on to work the trade show circuit, primarily promoting appliances.
On Buster’s side of the family, his grandfather, Charlie Bonoff built a movie theater in 1938 in Old Saybrook, CT, which he owned and managed an early movie theater. Buster’s parents Leo and Sally (nee Goldberg) opened a movie theater in Madison, CT, and Buster grew up working in his parents’ theater. Both continue to operate as movie theaters today. At some point, Buster decided to strike out on his own, and he left the business of movie theaters to work in theater.
Larry Bonoff thinks it was approximately 1953 when Buster worked for a year at the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, CT, now the Chevrolet Theater. The now defunct website for the Oakdale encapsulated that theater’s history: “In the winter of 1953, Ben Segal left Broadway and returned to his native Connecticut to pursue a dream. He leased an alfalfa field in the middle of nowhere and announced a plan for a new theatre - in the center of the state in a town few had heard of. Ben would create a "people's theatre," where Broadway would come to Connecticut in a friendly setting at prices people could afford."3 While working with Ben, Buster learned enough about production and promotion of “tent circuit”, or touring summer stock theater, to decide to open his own theater. Much like Ben, he found an open field, on Route 2, now the site of the Warwick, RI Lowe’s. Buster went about the business of attracting a group of investors and forming a board of directors. Saul Friedman, who helped Buster with this initial phase, was still chairman of the board of directors in 1999 when the theater presented the last show.
In 1955 the Warwick Musical Tent opened for its first season. The theater truly was a tent, presenting theater in the round with a nod to the traditional circus structure. However, the phrase “tent circuit,” which is how Buster and Ben referred to the extended touring regional theater they presented, originates with the Chautauquas of the late 19th and early 2oth centuries.
As part of the Northeast tent circuit, the Warwick Musical Theatre, the Oakdale, and the Carousel Theatre in Framingham, MA were closely allied, functioning as sister theaters although under separate ownership. Programs printed during the first years Warwick Musical Theatre operated bear the names of both the Oakdale and Warwick theaters, or of all three. According to Larry Bonoff, at that time the larger tent (or summer) circuit included: the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis, MA; the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, NJ; theaters in Buffalo and Albany NY; the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island; Valley Forge Music Fair in Pennsylvania; the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA; and the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA. Touring summer casts and crews, performing primarily shows made famous on Broadway, and generally serving as star vehicles for performers such as John Raitt, Betsy Palmer, and Ginger Roger worked these circuits for ten weeks, spending a week at each theater in the circuit.
Martha LoMonaco's "Summer Stock! An American Musical Phenomenon"4 describes this type of touring theater as reaching its height of popularity during the 1950s and 1960s. Wendy Smith, in reviewing LoMonaco’s work, described what this meant initially for theater promoters:
“Star package tours, which included the supporting actors, were more professional, but paying their high fees was difficult for theaters seating a few hundred people. Summer stock turned into ‘summer theater’: bigger, much more expensive and very far from its roots” in Chatauqua and theaters which had been produced in former barns, mainly resident stock theater. Pioneers like the such Cape Playhouse, established in 1927, and St. John Terrell's "tent theaters," vastly expanded audience size and (potential) profits in the 1950s."5 Buster and Barbara opened their theater at precisely this time, when larger venues presenting major artists began to predominate over the less forma, regional repertory presentations.
The Bonoffs timing was excellent, Broadway shows on the road drew big crowds and the Bonoffs excelled in presenting these star vehicles, alternating with “an evening with,” or showcases for solo performers. They also presented comedy. The Bonoffs wanted to present family entertainment- Buster wanted performers he would have felt comfortable inviting to his home. Schedules for the 1950s and 1960s are dominated by Broadway shows in touring productions. The theater’s opening schedule follows in order: Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Kiss Me Kate, Wish You Were Here, Song of Norway, Wonderful Town, Finian’s Rainbow, Call Me Madam, and Carousel. The season ran from June 24 to September 3, 1955; ticket prices ranged from $1.20 to $3.60.
Many of these shows went on to be revived on Broadway in the 1980s and 1990s: at the time, many of them were fresh to these audiences. But favorites were in demand as well; My Fair Lady alone toured in differing productions for 4 separate seasons. Archives photographs for these decades show audiences of women in gowns and men in suits or tuxedos. The programs are fairly glossy affairs, sometimes including extensive photo shoots of the star players, or “behind-the-scenes” documentation.
Richard Lewis, who still operates a Sacramento, CA theater which grew from his father Russell Lewis’ tent-style theater-in the round, founded in 1951, describes this period of summer stock- summer theater with no air conditioning and hard metal folding chairs:
"There would be this lovely breeze that would come through the doors of the tent -- about four nights a summer. The rest of the time could be pretty rough." Yet his family’s theater thrived: “There was a time when Van Johnson could be counted on to show up to do Harold Hill in The Music Man one year and Applegate in Damn Yankees the next."6
This was to remain the pattern for the Warwick Musical Theatre as well until the 1970s, when Broadway productions fell out of style, and star bookings, or “evening withs”, musical and comedy, became the standard format for the Northeast tent circuit. Larry remembers the 1970s as the heyday for the Warwick Musical Theatre. The theater said goodbye to the tent, and built a permanent 3,300+ seat theater-in-the-round in 1967, using a structure salvaged from the 1966 World’s Fair in New York. As with Russell Lewis, who built his Sacramento theater-in-the-round 1969, the impetus to move from a tent to a permanent structure came from stars such as Liberace, who could pack a house solid every night for up to a week. This was the 70s as Las Vegas had it: Liberace, becaped and bejeweled; Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck; men still in tuxedos or suits and women in evening gowns and high hair. Large opening night parties were held at the Golden Lantern Restaurant nearby on Route 2, parties with lavish buffets, cocktails and posing or clowning for the camera. The 70s were also the soundtrack for Betsy and Larry Bonoff’s coming of age, and archives photographs document the children’s emergence into adulthood involvement with the business of the theatre. In 1975, Larry took over for his father in partnership with his sister Betsy, though Buster and Barbara were still central to the identity of the theater.
But eventually the glamour of the 1970s gave way to another era; in the mid 1980s the bookings for the Warwick Musical Theatre increasingly reflected the growing popular taste of adult ticket buyers for the rock, pop and country bands heard on mainstream FM radio (as well as children's shows and wrestling events). Audiences no longer came in evening gowns and tuxedos- later photographs show audiences in shorts and jeans. The summer touring theater business had changed again, and the Theatre necessarily changed with it. Up to and through 1999, the last season for Warwick Musical Theatre, this trend dominated the theater’s schedules. Top country acts such as Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, and Loretta Lynn are intermingled on the theater schedules of these decades with rock and pop acts- the Beach Boys, Ray Charles and Little Richard - and comedians- Jerry Seinfeld, Don Rickles, Judy Tenuta, Paula Poundstone. Sumo wrestling makes an appearance on the 1991 schedule, (WWF started at WMT in 1983) an unmistakable sign that audiences and popular culture have changed forever. The stars of the earlier decades are still represented - Bobby Vinton, Engelbert Humperdinck, Steve and Eydie, and others- but they now seemed like the lingering glimpse of another time, one that belonged to the theater’s primary audience’s parents.
The theater was too small in an era of stadium concerts to compete for most major rock and pop acts. The final curtain came as the larger venues took audience dollars, and nearby casinos began to present many of the same acts which the theater formerly had- but free of charge. It became clear to the Bonoff family that they no longer wanted to compete with these larger forces. As Buster and Barbara both aged, Larry and Betsy had taken over an increasing amount of responsibility for theater operations, and with the board of directors, the family decided that the time had come to close the theater.
In May of 2000, the Journal of the Rhode Island Senate contains the following acknowledgement of the importance of the Warwick Musical Theater to the culture and history of the state in the following resolution: “Senator Revens presents (00-S 2982) Senate Resolution respectfully requesting the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to prohibit direct access to Cowesett Road from the former Warwick Musical Theater Property and preserve Bonoff Park.”7
Neither Barbara nor Buster lived much beyond the closing of the theater. And in June of 2002, the theater was demolished. Buster died in 2000, but Barbara was alive until August of 2003. Both are remembered with throughout Rhode Island with genuine fondness. Betsy now works in production at the Providence performing Arts Center, and Larry Continued in promoting and presenting as well (Larry's last concert - I am now retired - Beach Boys Holiday Show @ PPAC December, 2006). What remains are the materials in the Bonoff Foundation Archives and many memories. As Larry has said, “The history of entertainment passed through the theater.”
1For readers interested in pursuing the history of vaudeville and early film in America, the following links are recommended:
2LoMonaco, Martha; Seldes, Marion. “Summerstock: an American musical phenomenon.” 2004: Palgrove MacMillan, 320 p.
4 LoMonaco; Seldes, p. 16.
6 Filicia, Peter. http://www.theatermania.com/content/news.cfm/story/6743, September 26, 2005.
7 State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Journal of the Senate. January session of the General Assembly begun and held at the State House in the City of Providence on Tuesday, the fourth day of January in the year of Our Lord two thousand. Volume 127, No. 47. Thursday, May 18, 2000. Forty-seventh Day.