Forty-five years of performances, memories and laughter will now be available for all to see from the comfort of their own homes. Larry Bonoff, the former general manager of the Warwick Musical Theatre, teamed up with Brian Jones, Michael Corrente, the University of Rhode Island, the Providence Performing Arts Center and various local supporters to create the documentary, “The Tent: Life in the Round.”
The DVD is available for $20 at all Benny’s locations, ALC Sports Memorabilia in the Warwick Mall and online at bonoff.net.
The video was developed by the Bonoff Foundation, which works in conjunction with the University of Rhode Island to provide scholarships and financial support for university theatre productions.
“The Bonoff theatre fund enables the dean of the theatre department to access this money directly,” said Larry Bonoff.
The film spans the 45-year history of the Warwick landmark as told through the eyes of employees, performers, and the Bonoff family.
Buster and Barbara Bonoff opened the Tent, as it came to be known, for its first season in the summer of 1955. Since there were no venues between New York, Hartford and Boston, Warwick became a convenient location for shows.
“The beginning times were tough. My father used to have to wait for people to buy tickets to the shows so that he could send someone to the train station to pay for that night’s costumes,” said Larry Bonoff.
The venue was presented in the round, which was a nod to the traditional circus structure. In 1967 the Bonoffs purchased the AT&T building from the World’s Fair and relocated it to Warwick. The stage now rotated as the performances went on so that everyone in the audience would be able to see.
Over the course of the next 45 years, performers including Dean Martin, Billy Ray Cyrus, Howie Mandell and Liberace performed at the Tent. It was called a live version of the Ed Sullivan Show for the vast diversity in performances.
“Buster was a cool laid back PT Barnum,” said Stan Moress, a business partner of Bonoff.
Promoters and performers alike said that there was no room for hiding talent at the Tent. There was no video screen, no special effects and no fancy show tactics. It was simply performers and the audience together, thick as thieves.
“The best thing about a place like that is that it truly is a musical event,” said Huey Lewis.
In 1999, as the small venue was battling casinos and larger arenas for bookings, the Bonoffs decided it was time to close the Tent once and for all.
“It got harder and harder to get shows,” said daughter Betsy Banoff-Menders.
Vince Gill performed on the Tent’s final night and said he was honored to do so. That same year Buster was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame for his contributions to the state throughout the years.
“As sad as it was to see it go, it would have been worse to watch it deteriorate,” said David McNamara, a former security worker for the Tent.
The documentary premiered at the Providence Performing Arts Center on Aug. 22 and then ran at the Warwick Showcase Cinemas for two weeks. On Saturday, WJAR Channel 10 will be airing the documentary at 7 p.m. The television version in narrated by NBC10’s Patrice Wood.
“People are better people for having known my mother and father and having worked for my mother and father,” said Larry Bonoff.
A collection of more than 10,000 pieces of memorabilia and artifacts - from tickets to photos to financial records and more - will be housed at the URI library.