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Bonoff Family Papers

Historical note

The Bonoff Family Papers document the work of several generations of a family of theater owners, producers, and promoters, spanning the entire twentieth century. The bulk of the collection deals with the operation of the Warwick Musical Theatre (WMT), in Warwick, R.I., founded in 1955 by Burton "Buster" Bonoff.

The Bonoff family had been involved in show business for many years prior to Buster opening the WMT. Charlie Bonoff, Buster's grandfather, opened the Saybrook Theater in Old Saybrook, CT in 1938. Later, Charlie's son Leo Bonoff and his wife Sally (Goldberg) opened another movie theater, the Bonoff Theater, in Madison, CT. The Bonoff Theater, now owned and operated by Hoyts Theatres, is known as the Madison Art Cinema. The Old Saybrook Theater was closed in 2001.

Buster Bonoff grew up working in his parents' movie theater, but ended up forging a career in live theater. In the early 1950s, Buster began working with Ben Segal of the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, CT, one of the early tent theaters that began appearing around that time offering musicals and other theater productions. After a year at the Oakdale Theater, Buster decided to open his own tent theater and found a location on Route 2 in Warwick. He began attracting investors and formed a board of directors for the new theater. Saul Friedman helped Buster with this aspect of the business. Friedman continued on the Board, serving as Chairman until the closing of the theater 1999.

In 1947, Buster Bonoff married Barbara Wasserman, whose family also had a background in show business. Her father, Samuel Wasserman, had worked in the production end of touring theater during the vaudeville period. He married Rose Berman, his star chorine. The Great Depression and the increasing popularity of movies in the 1930s curtailed the demand for touring theater companies. The entrepanurial Wasserman began working the trade and home demonstration show circuit.

In 1955 the Warwick Musical Tent opened for its first season (the theater was an actual tent until a permanent 3,300 seat structure salvaged from the 1964 World’s Fair replaced it in 1967). The Tent (and later the Phoenix Star Theatre, which Buster opened in 1964 in Phoenix, Arizona), was a theater-in-the-round, with a circular stage and seating that allowed the audience a 360-degree view of the production. 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. Touring casts and crews, mainly performing Broadway shows, and generally serving as star vehicles for performers worked these circuits for ten weeks, spending a week at each theater in the circuit. Programs printed during the first years Warwick Musical Theatre operated sometimes listed the all three theaters for a single production.

The Warwick Musical Theatre's productions changed over time with the demands of the business. From its beginning through the early-1960s the WMT primarily presented Broadway shows in touring productions. In the 1970s Broadway productions fell out of style, and star bookings became the standard format for the Northeast tent circuit. By the 1980s bookings increasingly reflected the growing popular taste of adult ticket buyers for the rock, pop and country bands heard on mainstream FM radio. Most major rock and pop acts performed in large stadiums, however, and the Warwick Musical Theatre wasn't able to compete with the larger venues. Additionally, nearby casinos began to present free shows with many of the same acts which the theater previously booked. In 1999, the family and the board of directors decided to close the theater.

Buster and Barbara Bonoff operated the Theatre for most of its history, until their son, Larry, and daughter, Betsy, took over for their parents in 1975. However, Buster and Barbara remained central figures in the identity and operation of the theater. Neither Barbara nor Buster lived much beyond the theater's closing. In May 1999, Buster Bonoff was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame for his contributions to the cultual heritage of Rhode Island. Buster Bonoff died in 2000 and Barbara in August 2003.

In June 2002, the theater was demolished. Both the Bonoff's children continued working in the theater business. Betsy Menders continued doing production work at the Providence Performing Arts Center, and Larry continued promoting and presenting shows at various locations. Larry Bonoff created the Bonoff Foundation in 2006 to collect, preserve, and display the records of the Warwick Musical Theatre and the history of the Bonoff family for generations to come.