Music in the Round

Douglas TowneMay 1, 2023
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Promoter Buster Bonoff riffing on his trademark clean-shaven head in promoting the inaugural season of the Phoenix Star Theatre, 1964; Photo courtesy Larry Bonoff
Promoter Buster Bonoff riffing on his trademark clean-shaven head in promoting the inaugural season of the Phoenix Star Theatre, 1964; Photo courtesy Larry Bonoff

In 1964, Buster Bonoff brought star-studded musicals to Phoenix by adaptively reusing a futuristic building to launch what would become the Celebrity Theatre.

The term “backstage” assumes a whole different meaning at the Celebrity Theatre, with its rotating performance platform surrounded by concertgoers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not every entertainer who’s performed at the venue has been enthralled by its intimate, 360-degree seating. “I don’t like the audience staring at my ass,” British pop heartthrob Engelbert Humperdinck told Larry Bonoff, son of the theater’s founder, Buster Bonoff. “And I have a cute ass.” 

Larry Bonoff believes the Celebrity concert experience, with its Lazy Susan stage, is unmatched. “At other places, even if you’re in the front row, there’s a pit and security between you and the performers,” he says. This cozy ambiance has been vital to the staying power of the facility, which is approaching its 60th anniversary. That’s an impressive milestone, especially since the 2,650-seat performance hall was built for another purpose.

“‘Great weather; no theater.’ That’s how my father, Buster Bonoff, characterized Phoenix when he got off the airplane at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 1 in 1963,” Larry Bonoff says. A third-generation event promoter from Warwick, Rhode Island, Bonoff sought to expand his business beyond upscale summer stock productions on the East Coast. He assessed that Phoenix could be a winter performance nexus for television stars who headlined shows in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but the city appeared to lack a suitable venue.

John Raitt stars in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, 1965; Photo courtesy Larry Bonoff
John Raitt stars in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, 1965; Photo courtesy Larry Bonoff

At the time, Van Buren Street, east of Downtown Phoenix, was a vibrant tourist strip that featured a new motor hotel called the Hiway House, which conveyed guests from the lobby to their rooms in a miniature train. The complex included a convention center near the northwest corner of Van Buren and 32nd Street. The distinctive spaceship-like concrete building had copper siding and a roof supported by compression rings, providing unhindered sight lines.

“My dad approached the hotel and offered to use the place for shows by adding temporary seating on the off days in the winter when they weren’t hosting conventions,” Larry Bonoff says. “But I don’t think the hotel ever hosted any conventions in the facility; it was built for a demand that didn’t exist yet.”

Bonoff had a revolving stage constructed in the convention hall’s center and brought in big-name productions. On January 13, 1964, the Phoenix Star Theatre debuted with the musical South Pacific starring Betsy Palmer. The first season also included Nat King Cole, John Raitt in Carousel, and Gordon and Sheila MacRae in Guys and Dolls.

“My dad had a second-story office with one-way glass where we watched shows from this private booth,” Larry Bonoff says.

Entertainers often came to town early to play golf at the Phoenix Country Club with Bonoff, who was quite the showman. The promoter cut a distinctive figure around town with his trademark chrome dome.

“My father shaved his head as a joke when visiting the West Coast with theater owners, and people kept asking him if he was Telly Savalas,” Larry Bonoff says. “So, as a joke, he handed out Telly’s autograph and maintained the look.”

the theater’s second season of Broadway musicals, 1965; Photo courtesy Larry Bonoff
the theater’s second season of Broadway musicals, 1965; Photo courtesy Larry Bonoff

Larry Bonoff, 74, recalls elegantly dressed theater patrons attending affordable and abstract performances – a far cry from formal, highly stylized Broadway shows. “In the round, there were minimal sets, so you’d have to use your imagination and ‘see’ a doorframe rather than having everything plunked in front of you,” he says. “People seemed to enjoy it more. Family friends such as Sandra Day O’Connor and Barry Goldwater Jr. were big supporters.”

The theater attracted crowds, and Bye Bye Birdie, starring Jack Jones, was a hot show with season ticket holders its first week, but sales lagged for its second week in 1966. The play satirized the drafting of rock star Conrad Birdie (i.e., Elvis Presley) into the U.S. Army. “My dad had the script rewritten, adding a backup band, Conrad and the Birdies, which emulated the rock groups that were topping the charts at the time,” Larry Bonoff says. “He hired a local band, the Spiders, whose lead singer was Alice Cooper, to perform in the show in an effort to attract younger adults.”

As the ’60s got into full swing, Bonoff pivoted from plays to cheaper-to-produce musical and comic acts such as Al Hirt, Alan King, Liberace, Wayne Newton and Dinah Shore. Meanwhile, other promoters introduced counterculture acts to the theater, including Frank Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention, in 1968.

“I picked up the group at the airport, but my old hearse stalled with a vapor lock on the way to the hotel,” says photo historian Jeremy Rowe. “Just as we got the engine restarted, some young women in a Ford convertible stopped, and the band hopped in their car. I did get backstage passes, and we had a lot of laughs about the car trouble.”

In 1972, the performance hall was renamed Celebrity Theatre, but the new owners sold the building’s beautiful copper siding. Although it closed for a few years in the mid-1990s, the venue still thrives today, unlike its once-associated motor hotel, which suffered an ignoble fate in becoming a women’s prison in 1979 before being demolished in 2006.

The Celebrity Theatre was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019, which gratifies Larry Bonoff.

“It was a blessing for my family to build its sound, lights and rotating stage and bring the first professional theater to Arizona,” he says. “It was a great ride, and I know in my heart that if Dad didn’t turn the convention hall into a theater, that beautiful building would not be there today.”

Celebrity Memories

Promoter Larry Bonoff’s favorite Phoenix offstage interactions with stars.

“These guys were wonderful, and we decided to give them a Northeastern clambake after the show. Afterward, I asked them about the meal, and they said, ‘Those were the worst hush puppies!’ So, I learned after that to put signs in the front of all the food – they were crab cakes.”
Jack Benny

“I loved his television show, and when I was 12, my family took him out for dinner after a show, and Jack picked up the tab. Later, I told my dad, ‘I thought he was supposed to be a cheapskate.’ He responded, ‘No, on stage, he’s cheap; this is the real guy.’”
Sammy Davis Jr.

“After a performance, my dad was dropping off Sammy at a local five-star resort, and the entertainer told him to go around to the back door, where he was allowed to enter. Being Jewish, my dad had experienced such treatment and walked Sammy right in the front door.”
The Mills Brothers

“They were my dad’s favorite act and would come to the office to get paid in cash before they went on stage. But unfortunately, they had learned that routine the hard way after being ripped off so many times in their career.”