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.
Larry Bonoff: The Beach Boys, one of my personal favorites. I grew up with the and as a teenager they were my heroes in song. I am very pleased that my final concert was at PPAC on a saturday night before Christmas in 2005 and sold out. We spent a few minutes going over the last 4-5 decades, wow what a ride.
Alabama, special country group. They changed the face of country music, saw them in 1979 at the country music buyers showcase in nashville. Everybody was traditional country, George Jones, Loretta Lynn etc.
They were different, booked them in 1981. They stayed loyal to my family and the theatre until we closed in 1999. They played the last season for us & they gave me a multi platinum record in a case of 41 #1 hits, great memory.
Tom jones, Tom was Mr. Cool. I got to work on the road with him in 1973 as a roadie. Exciting and very different. Tom was a great guy and he had many people with him so he was a loner.
Kenny rogers, first heard of him when I was in college and he was with the first edition, he became a superstar and played for us at WMT many times. He was a gentleman and superstar. You could talk to him like a buddy. His troop came in and set up perfectly, show was always great. It was like having family come for a visit.
Willie nelson, Willie dates were always fun. Willie was a regular guy, enjoyed hanging out on his bus, no explanation needed. One year the FOP protested Willie and the Indians came and supported him. Totally political. Willie show was always 3 hours and you heard Willie sing them all. Always a smile and always good business.
John Denver, I think John was a hero to me in many ways. Went to college in Denver and he was a legend there. Always happy and always did whatever to make show better. When he died a little piece of my generation died also. John represented hippy peace and love, he really was just a good man with extreme talent and personality. Everybody loved him, Rocky Mountain High.
Olivia Newton John, the Newtron Bomb, beautiful and class.
Wayne Newton, Wayne was a family friend for many years. Saw him on a local tv show in Phoenix, booked him as an opening act for Jack Benny, what talent. Played many instruments, became a headliner for many years. Had the opportunity to work for him on his Vegas ranch helping with his horses. More family than most.
Gallagher, loved working with him. His manager was great also. Made the audience laugh and always did big business. The last time we had him someone stole his mallet. End of show he smashed watermelon but was pissed off.
Don Rickles, family friend. Mom and dad went out with Don and his wife many times. Visited during the off season, always busting balls . I got a zinger in once and for the rest of the night I took a verbal beating, loved him.
Joseph Bruen: The warwick musical theater wasn't just a place to go. It had become a staple in rhode island and a special place to say the least. Tell us about the preparation of it all. When was it open each year and during the off season, what filled your personal time? How long did it take you to get a schedule of events together each season?
Larry Bonoff: Life was one season after another. While working shows in Phoenix in the winter we were booking WMT, by the end of march or early april the schedule was 90% done. Then started the marketing and season ticket sales, worked and did shows all summer, took a few weeks off in september. Then started booking Phoenix, the cycle continued every year. For those behind the scene we worked 11+ months a year. What the public saw was the finished product, personal time was different than most. It always seemed a combination of business with pleasure. Went to Mel Tillis house and had fun, also booked him for both venues while having fun. Mom and dad would go to Johnny Mathis house or Tottie Fields and do the same.
Joseph Bruen: The WWF (World Wrestling Federation) had become a regular show at the theater for quite some time. When did the WWF first come to the tent and how many times total did they end up coming?
Larry Bonoff: The WWF started in 1983 at WMT, they came every year. It was a special night, more fun than work for me, made friends like Mick Foley.
Joseph Bruen: The WWF ended up being the very last event that would grace the stage of the tent in 1999. Did it just work out that way or was that by choice? Tell us what the WWF meant to you and share some fond WWF-tent memories.
Larry Bonoff: The WWF date was in the middle of the season, Vince Gill was to close the theatre, WWF had issues and had to move the date. The only date open was day after Vince, irony? We ended it all with WWF. I went in the ring and the fink did a nice tribute to me, memories are so many. Hanging with Andre, Dusty, Macho Man. Dinner with HHH and Chyna. Doing remotes with the wrestlers, being a manager for one event . Mick Foley would stay on my boat, hog and piggy and Vince Gill’s group ate at harbourside and watching that was fun. Nobody can eat like those guys. Setting up meet and greets were so special for the WWF, the kids smiled a lot. I remember Bam Bam asking about a kid in a wheelchair. Bam Bam said bring him backstage. I want to meet him and watch his face. Seeing many stars on their way up was special. Then when they became big superstars I was so happy for them.
Joseph Bruen: When it comes to tent shows, there are other tent/theaters around New England. Did they work with you when it came to bringing in talent or was it more cut throat? Did different theaters support each other back then or were they in it for themselves? Did you ever see it as a competition to see who could get the best talent?
Larry Bonoff: Back then we all worked together, one in long island, one in Conn, one in RI, two in Mass , Boston and Cape Cod, one in Albany and one in Buffalo. It was great, we each had our own territory, so no issue. Then corporations started building theatres in between us and the problems started. Then the casinos, then closed.
Joseph Bruen: I am going to mention some other names who have performed at the theater. Any behind the scenes stories involving any of these stars?
Larry Bonoff: Chicago, chicago was like family. Played every other year for 20-30 years. I love those guys. Went from rock to classic rock to easy listening, are we getting old?
Natalie Cole, not like her dad. Did a good show but I really did not know her, not real friendly.
Andrew "Dice" Clay, one of my favorites. He was so cool and gracious backstage. His show was an act but off stage, my friend. One show he rode on the back of my chopper to the stage.
Kris Kross, paranoid kids. Had a box built so they could be wheeled inside to the stage. Unable to walk down star aisle. I don’t get rap anyway.
The Four Tops & the Temptations, pure class. Did both many times together and each with other stars. One time did Tops with Valli, great show, motown legends.
Howie Mandel, Howie was very special. He was like a cousin, he performed for us when he was a star. When he took a downturn and then when he was a superstar. He always had a date at WMT if he wanted. His comedy was different, he let the audience guide him and he just had fun. He did his showtime special at WMT. He stated that coming to WMT was his summer vacation, he would bring the family and if you saw the movie the tent he was a big part of it. One of my top 10 people in the business.
Tony Bennett, pure class. He and dad were friends, always did a great show . I liked him but he hung out with dad.
Luther Vandross, Luther did big business, never got to know him. One funny story was he would never sit on a toilet that someone had used. He had my head of maintenance go buy a new toilet seat and watched him install it. No big deal just kind of funny.
Ringo Star, we were very proud to have him at the theatre with his all star band. Never met him but a great show, he wanted privacy.
Mickey Rooney, he never made it. Either show was cancelled or another star came in his place. I can't remember.
Joseph Bruen: What was your favorite type of act? Comedy, music, wrestling?
Larry Bonoff: Really hard to pin it down, each had its own special feel. Vegas stars were cool. They were the biggest and the best and far as $’s for tickets. TV stars who did shows were great because we saw them in our living room. Comics were a real favorite because I liked to laugh. Country stars were great because I grew up ½ the year in Arizona and I got to bring them to New England. For that I was inducted into RI Country Music Hall of Fame. Wrestlers were a joy because I am a big kid.I got to know the superstars and I was able to get wrestling into upper scale venues. Rock was great because I was a child of the 60’s, oldies were special and remind me of when I was young, aka pre teen. And kid shows were great because we got expose the kids to live theatre.
Joseph Bruen: When it came to advertising, what was your way of getting the info to the public? What form of advertising seemed to work the best?
Larry Bonoff: Depends on the type of show, this is where I felt I had a special gift. Different types of shows worked different as far as marketing. Today it would not work. We used to put up posters! haha. I would always use a combination but one type more than another depending on type of show.
Joseph Bruen: Outside of the tent, you actually worked with the wwf to some capacity for many years. Tell us about your experiences working with the WWF and what your duties were there.
Larry Bonoff: I was blessed and got to work 20 years with the WWF/WWE. I got to know the superstars. I was part management and part one of them. I really believed they enjoyed working for me more than most. I made sure they got food, drink and treatment like stars. PPV's and NY dates they were treated good but outside of that it was just a show. I made them feel appreciated and special, dinner with them, took them on my boat, hung out and talked.
Joseph Bruen: What led to the end of the theater? Did you see it coming? Bring us through that entire time in your life.
Larry Bonoff: Dad said the day the theatre died was the day Foxwoods opened. I just didn’t know it. I lasted at WMT for 7 more years. It was sad to know the end was coming but we went out with a bang. All the stars came back for one more visit. End of an era. Foxwoods net profit in one day was more than my gross revenue for one year.
Joseph Bruen: How did it feel to create the final Warwick Musical Theater schedule for the season of 1999?
Larry Bonoff: Felt special, many friends wanted to be part of it, easiest season to book, went out on a high note.
Joseph Bruen: How many people were employed at the theater? Were there a lot of employees who were there forever like a big family or was it different staff each season?
Larry Bonoff: During the season about 100 people. Many worked there for decades. It was there summer vacation and kids grew up there into adults. Many went on to theatre careers, very proud of that. Most of these were people dad hired, he had an ability to hire the right person for the job and leave them alone to do it.
Joseph Bruen: In that final season of 1999, explain to us the feeling among the staff and that feeling of closing those doors one last time.
Larry Bonoff: Sad, proud, happy about what we did. Knew you would not see most people again, crying, watching the theatre die was like watching a family member pass in many ways. Lives need to start a new chapter. Some did better than others. Personally I never got over it, I still live in the past. It was more fun than reality!