Lovers of theater and Warwick history now have the opportunity to look through hundreds of pieces of memorabilia of the former Warwick Musical Theater, which have been donated to City Archives by former owner Larry Bonoff.
In preparation to move to a smaller home, Bonoff needed to find a place to put thousands of items such as programs, photographs, stage pieces, posters, all-access passes, parking passes, newspaper articles and more from the theater his parents opened and operated with their children for nearly 45 years.
“My house over the years has almost become a museum,” said Bonoff of his collection of memorabilia.
But, at 64 years old, Bonoff, who lives in Exeter, has decided the time has come to downsize, but so have his cousins and sister. With no children of his own to pass the memorabilia down to, Bonoff came up with a different idea to ensure his collection would not just get trashed.
“It’s about the archives. It’s about keeping things alive,” said Bonoff.
Bonoff donated boxes of memorabilia to the city, which Mayor Scott Avedisian put in the archives for people to access any time.
“It’s neat for us to think that we now have it,” said Avedisian.
Bonoff comes from a long line of theater folks. His grandfather on his mother’s side worked on the production end of touring theaters, before joining the trade show circuit promoting appliances. His great-grandparents and grandparents on his father’s side owned and operated movie theaters in Connecticut.
Bonoff’s father, Burton “Buster” Bonoff, worked in his father’s theater until striking out on his own and entering the theater world. After working for a year at Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, Conn., Buster and his wife Barbara opened their own theater in an open field on Route 2 (where Lowe’s is today).
The theater, which was in an actual tent, opened in summer 1955 with shows such as “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Kiss Me Kate” and “Carousel.” Tickets ranged from $1.20 to $3.60.
In 1967, a permanent 3,300-seat theater was built. Shows changed from musicals to performers such as Liberace, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, The Beach Boys, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. Eventually comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Don Rickles took the stage; wrestling even found its place there with World Wrestling Federation (WWF) shows.
Bonoff began working at the Warwick Musical Theater officially when he was 13, in the box office. But his parents opened the theater when he was only 6 years old, and Bonoff remembers always being around as “the owner’s kid.”
He worked with the theater, eventually running the place with his sister Betsy, until its final season in 1999.
Now he has countless items from every era of his family history.
“I was just the last, and I had all the stuff,” said Bonoff.
He and his family members have their mementos to keep, but Bonoff was always worried about where the rest would go.
“Where the memories should go: That has always been something I was concerned about,” said Bonoff.
So he put a call into Avedisian’s office.
“I know the mayor’s been preserving things so I wanted him to have some,” said Bonoff.
The mayor happily accepted, and the City Archives is now home to boxes of items, including photographs, programs, copies of the Emmy-nominated documentary “The Tent,” schedules, and more.
“They [people] can come in and look at it anytime they want,” said Avedisian.
The city will need time to catalog every item; they plan to create a system broken down by year in regards to items from the theater’s history, as well as performer for items such as photographs or programs.
“We want to make sure it’s categorized before we let people go through it,” said Avedisian. He was not sure exactly when the process would be completed.
Some of the most interesting items the city has include the stage book for a performance of “South Pacific” in the 1950s, copies of season schedules, and a listing of all first season subscribers, or “season ticket holders.”
“We went through it to see how many people we knew, how many families, so that was great,” said Avedisian.
Avedisian even remembers the shows he attended over the years, including Huey Lewis and The News, George Carlin and Howie Mendel.
The mayor added that he was glad the Bonoff family had the forethought to save these items so they could be enjoyed today. He is also glad Bonoff decided to donate them.
“They could have just boxed all this up and kept it in their basement, but Larry wanted people to see it,” said Avedisian. “His goal was to make sure the people don’t forget the history of The Tent.”
In addition to donating items to the city, Bonoff donated nearly 5,000 items to the University of Rhode Island archives to showcase the history of theater since the 1920s; that process began in 2006.
It took longer than Bonoff expected because he learned special permission would be needed to take the items out of the archives; he knew he wanted something different. Together with the university’s IT department, Bonoff scanned and categorized every item, and made it accessible online.
Also, Bonoff is a large supporter and fan of Ocean State Theater but felt that walking into the theater didn’t feel like walking into a theater. So he loaned the theater 50 special items, including season schedules, aerial photos and the original theater floor plan for the Warwick Musical Theater.
“They have 50 items, which I actually think are really precious,” said Bonoff. He loaned the items so they could be displayed in the theater’s lobby. “As people walked in, they would feel it. It would remind them of the old theater things”
According to Bonoff, the university received items highlighting the history of theater and performance since the 1920s, the city received items highlighting Warwick history in the second half of the 1900s, and Ocean State Theater received “memories of what theater used to be.”
“Who better to leave it to than the university, the city, and the theater trying to keep alive the tradition my father started?” said Bonoff.
Of course, Bonoff has not gotten rid of everything, and he doesn’t plan to. He will keep a number of key mementos when he moves, but also still has many boxes he hopes to donate to organizations.
“I’m basically still in the downsizing mode,” said Bonoff. “I think there’s still a lot of cool stuff.”
Bonoff admits many of the “coolest items” have been loaned to Ocean State Theater, including the original floor plan, the schedule of every season between 1955 and 1999, and aerial shots of the theater’s location in 1955.
“Basically, no matter how old you are, if you were born before 1990, there will be something that will remind you of something from your childhood,” said Bonoff.
Over the years, Bonoff has loved hearing stories from people about their time at the Warwick Musical Theater, including first dates, family trips, work with Special Olympics and Make A Wish, and memorable meetings with stars.
“You hear the stories and you realize how much the theater affected people’s lives,” he said. “I can’t believe how many lives I affected.”
To see the URI items online, search Bonoff Family Collection in their archives. Bonoff also has his own website of family history dating back to the 1700s, which can be found on www.bonoff.net.