New England Fan Fest 7 brought legends to Warwick, RI
June 18, 2019
The BIGGEST show in the smallest state!
November 8, 2019
Exclusive: Larry Bonoff
The man behind the Warwick Musical Theater
Joseph Bruen: What was it like growing up in the Bonoff household as a kid?
Larry Bonoff: As a young child I guess I really didn’t understand it all, it was normal for me to meet stars and show business people . They were just people and that was their job. I knew the had nice houses and cars but that is how it was. Time with my parents was between seasons, summer theatre in RI and winter in AZ. There were times my childhood was very different than most, moving lots, new schools, new friends. What is cool on east coast was different than west coast, it was fun but different.
Joseph Bruen: What interests/hobbies did you have as a child?
Larry Bonoff: Sports, I loved sports, the team feeling. I was inducted into my high school athletic hall of fame for football, soccer and tennis. I loved games also that had to deal with math, mainly card games. Could ride my bike anywhere for hours.
Joseph Bruen: The Warwick Musical Theater opened its doors for the first time in 1955. What are your earliest memories of the Warwick Musical Theater?
Larry Bonoff: I think seeing the tent, all the people showing up to see a show dressed up. Throwing a ball onto the tent and trying to catch it as it came down.
Joseph Bruen: Eventually in the late 60`s there would be a newer theater built in the same spot. Same location but new theater. Tell us about that story and why it had changed a bit?
Larry Bonoff: The tent had to be replaced every three years as sailors would understand, with the summer storms rip and safety became a concern. Dad had the opportunity to buy the AT&T building from the world's fair, it was dismantled and the major part was flown by helicopter to RI. The building opened in 1967, theater in the round with two levels. Sound was the hardest thing to work out, delays and bounce from metal ceiling.
Joseph Bruen: Where did the inspiration come from for your family to start the theater in the first place?
Larry Bonoff: I am a 4th generation promoter, my father worked for his father and then my mother’s father. Finally he worked for Ben Segal who had a theatre in Connecticut. There was one in New York and two in Massachusetts but none in Rhode Islane so...
Joseph Bruen: Was it expected to be as big of a success as it had become?
Larry Bonoff: No, dad said at the hall of fame induction he expected 10 years. We made it 45, plus got big stars. When it started to work in the 60’s is when dad opened the Arizona theatre.
Joseph Bruen: At what point did you take the reigns and start running the theater?
Larry Bonoff: Well, there is no real time it is just as my connections got older and more powerful dad’s became fewer. I started with country in the 70’s in Arizona, we then added country shows to RI. I love the up and coming comics so we started doing them, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno. Dad still had the Rickles and Newhart, but new faces were good for business, example George Carlin. I also started working for the WWF in 1983 and we added wrestling events. It was good partnership between me and dad, together we had great seasons.
Joseph Bruen: Take us behind the scenes and talk about the marketing side of things. What did it take to produce one single event from the initial announcement of the talent coming soon to the day of the event? Walk us through that entire process to get a single show off the ground.
Larry Bonoff: Wow, that is something few understand how much work. First of all a good team effort is needed, production manager, sound engineers, light people, maintanence, hospitality, security, parking. Marketing was my area, I bought ads in print, traded or a contest when possible, bought radio, cut my own spots, visited all the stations. I was a country DJ or guest. I was a sub for talk radio. The hardest part was 5 different types of shows each week, Vegas, comedy, country, rock, kid show, oldies, etc.
Joseph Bruen: The warwick musical theater got the nickname "The tent" for obvious reasons but share some logistics of why it was actually referred to as the tent.
Larry Bonoff: It was a tent from 1954 to 1966, two big poles in the middle and an oval stage. Like a kid growing up with the name junior, even after older people call him junior. When people called us the tent it was a sign of respect. Remember the past and cherish it.
Joseph Bruen: In your opinion which year from top to bottom, was the most successful year at the warwick musical theater?
Larry Bonoff: Success is spelled two different ways. The 80’s had more people but in the 90’s we charged more per ticket. The 70’s is when Vegas stars came a lot, Sammy Davis JR, Nat King Cole , Liberace, Andy Williams. That transition from broadway shows to vegas was a great decade, the 60’s you got to see the TV stars in summer off broadway, William Bendix in life of Riley, Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt. Bat Masterson (Gene Barry?) was in Destiny Rides Again, James Garner and more. So best was??? Depends on criteria.
Joseph Bruen: I'm going to mention several names who have performed at the warwick musical theater. Try to give us some behind the scenes stories about each one that you have experienced or heard about.
Larry Bonoff: Billy Crystal, gentleman, was an opening act then became a headliner. Really didn’t know him but a good show and was pleasant to work with.
Bill cosby, funny and smart, spent a day with him once. If you said something you better back it up because he will ask questions, was always nice to backstage guests and his shows sold out for years. He had so much comedy in his head no two shows the same.
Dana Carvey, Saturday Night Live and the church lady were big when he played. He liked his privacy so only saw him after a show, he was a pro both on and off stage.
Jerry Seinfeld, great guy. Played for us early in career, once real famous gave us a great week with four shows , he said dad helped him and he wanted to pay him back. Saturday night 2nd show he was hard to get on stage, he was in dressing room watching OJ chase on TV.
Jay Leno, pure class. Always was a people person. I remember one guy yelling at him when he arrived to go into star trailer, Jay said what do you want, man said I have something to show you. Jay invited him in, a regular guy and big business.
George carlin, first time we played him he was an opening act for John Davidson show. He did hippy dippy weatherman, each decade his act would change with the world issues. He was very special in a comedy format, truth made you laugh but also question. His last HBO special when he was 70 made fun of death, he died soon after. Everyone said when they saw our pictures that George and I could be brothers.
Joan Rivers, what you saw is what you got . Mom loved her, she was always funny and sarcastic, she played Warwick many times. I liked her.
Regis and Kathie Lee, The most money we ever made in one night was Regis and Kathie Lee . They did 2 shows and sold out to the walls. We got a good deal on the package, dad and Regis were friends from the past, great show, big money!
Joseph Bruen: How many people did the theater seat on a sold out night?
Larry Bonoff: 3,335, includes 800 upstairs in the mezzanine.
Joseph Bruen: Talk about the talent booking process. How did you decide who came each year? Did it come down to availability or was your mind set on booking certain people?
Larry Bonoff: Meeting with other theatre owners, meetings with agents, cost factors, praying. It's like buying and selling a home, price issues. Once that was done the season work would fall in line.
Joseph Bruen: Was there a name that stood out that you knew would be a complete sell out each time with no hesitation?
Larry Bonoff: Liberace in the early days, Vince Gill later years plus superstars like Liza, Diana Ross and family favorites like wrestling. Neil Diamond was an easy sell. Most superstars did well so costs were the main issue not selling tickets
Joseph Bruen: I'm going to mention some more names who have performed at the theater. Once again try to give us some behind the scenes stories on each of them with your experiences.