In “The Tent: Life in the Round,” a documentary of the late, lamented Warwick Musical Theatre, one scene shows comedian Howie Mandel engaged in a battle of wits with a moth. The moth chases Mandel around the revolving stage before settling on his crotch, prompting an inspired sequence of physical comedy and more than one hysterically improvised one-liner. Then the moth, aglow in applause, takes its act to the audience and alights on the bare thigh of a woman in the front row. Mandel calls security over for help and together the comedian and the teenage staff member plot the best way to disarm the insect.
It’s a great Rhody moment, the summertime moth stealing the show from the headliner as if to remind everyone in the room not to get too full of themselves. Even better, Mandel played along enthusiastically, losing himself completely in the moment, recognizing the rich potential for comedy in the absurdity as the audience roared.
That was the thing about the Tent. Just like the summer musicals at the old barn in Matunuck, where moths join the antics on stage, lightning bugs illuminate the parking lot and coyotes sometimes howl in harmony to the score, the rough-and-ready venue carved out of a former Warwick cow pasture brought celebrities down to earth. Following up on last year’s hit exhibition featuring Rocky Point Amusement Park, the Warwick Museum of Art is presenting “Life in the Round,” a look back at the legacy of the Tent, which operated from the 1950s to the 1990s, bringing Broadway shows, pop crooners, country musicians, TV stars, Vegas acts, wrestlers and comedians to the only place in Rhode Island you’d ever see them.
The show, which runs through July 29, will have an opening reception on Friday, June 24 from 7 to 9 p.m. Comprising memorabilia from the personal collection of promoter Larry Bonoff, whose parents, Barbara and Buster, founded the place, the show positively drips with nostalgia. Ephemera includes playbills, posters, schedules and photographs of the big stars, including publicity stills with autographs and handwritten sentiments and backstage snapshots of Bonoff and the likes of George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Barbara Mandrell, the Smothers Brothers and Huey Lewis & The News. The old color seating chart and some of the original chairs are on display along with signs and T-shirts. The DVD documentary plays several times daily. Like last year’s Rocky Point show, the exhibition’s value lies mostly in its carefree ride down memory lane. For Rhode Islanders of a certain vintage whose summers always included a taste of Broadway, Vegas or Hollywood between chowders and clam cakes, the Tent – and its uncomfortable seats, stifling heat and scene-stealing moths – will be forever missed.
What is your favorite memory of the Tent?