Little League has a lot to do with the Toys for Tots Telethon to be held Dec. 5 from 5 to 9 p.m. at Warwick Mall Food Court.
Bob Venturini, host of the cable television shows “An Hour With Bob” and “Bob’s Big Adventures,” started the telethon 24 years ago as a memorial to his late father, Victor J. Venturini. The holiday drive has become a tradition with some major sponsors, including Cardi’s Furniture & Mattresses, Chelo’s, Iggy’s and numerous places of business that collect new unwrapped toys for the program. Over the years, thousands of toys have been delivered to the telethon that are then turned over to the Marine Corps Reserves and the Salvation Army for distribution to agencies assisting needy families.
This year’s telethon promises to be different. It will be Bob’s last.
Because of knee surgery that was complicated by an infection that kept him hospitalized for 86 days, followed by yet another surgery and extended rehabilitation, Bob had qualms about doing the show last year. He went ahead anyway, discovering after standing for nearly half the telethon he’s not infallible.
This time, he says, is the last of his telethons for real.
The story of the telethons goes back to the days when Bob coached Little League and worked in public relations for the mayor of Pawtucket.
“Little League exposed me to what these kids were dealing with,” said Bob.
He learned that both parents of many families worked to make ends meet while others came from single-parent homes. He knew families were struggling and, having come from a family where his mother often pulled things together, he could relate to what they faced. His father was a tinsmith and fabricated aluminum housing for rooftop heating and air-conditioning units. He had just descended from a ladder on a job when stricken by a heart attack. He was 36 years old and left his wife with eight children between the ages of six weeks and 13 years old.
Bob’s connections between Little League, his job at City Hall and the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce and his love to tell peoples’ stories made him a natural to run a telethon. One of his early experiences in television shows came while working in Pawtucket. Bob set up a roundtable discussion featuring the mayor that ran regularly on cable television.
“It bored me to death doing a political show,” Bob confided.
But it provided for valuable knowledge and connections. At the same time, Bob’s gregarious nature made him a natural to play Santa, although he needed three pillows to fill out his 165-pound frame, for chamber holiday events. His role as Santa grew and he recalls one year where he was lifted from the roof of Hospital Trust National Bank in Providence by helicopter to a waiting throng of kids and parents where he was seated on a throne to greet his admirers. The event was extensively covered by local television stations and that evening he was in a lounge when the news clip was shown.
“That’s me,” he told those watching the newscast.
They refused to believe him. Bob proceeded to tell his skeptics what would happen next in the segment, but they thought he was kidding. Finally, they were convinced when he displayed a small cut on his finger matching Santa’s.
With access to a Santa suit and knowing the family situations of many kids he coached, as well as what they hoped to get for Christmas, Bob played Santa for real. He spread the word and, using money he had earned playing Santa and donations of toys from those he confided in, Bob made some surprise Christmas deliveries. It was not much of a leap from there to the first Toys for Tots Telethon at the cable television studio in Pawtucket. The show, which is unrehearsed and live, was an instant success.
Bob said people tuned in and realized they could be a part of it. They dropped what they were doing and drove down to the studio with a gift. By the second year, the telethon had outgrown the studio and Bob needed someplace far bigger. It was former state senator John Celona who suggested Warwick Mall.
Bob had his doubts, but agreed to meet with Aram Garabedian, the mall’s managing partner. Garabedian’s enthusiasm convinced him and, after a couple of shows at the mall, a Tuesday night in early December became the day.
As has been the practice, Bob has a lineup of invited guests and entertainers for the Dec. 5 telethon including, naturally, Santa, Miss Rhode Island and, as promoted, “the magic of Matt Roberts.” The real magic of the telethon is the scores of people who show up with toys and then spend a moment on stage talking in front of the cameras with Bob.
Bob makes no money from the telethon.
“I have never been motivated by money,” he says.
Work on the telethon begins long before it is aired. Bob gets out toy collection boxes, dropping them off at businesses in October. It’s then up to the businesses to deliver the donated toys to the telethon. Chelo’s has been with the telethon since the start. And, as Bob notes, some businesses like Iggy’s offer incentives for their customers to give. The Gravinos at Iggy’s thank donors with chowder and clamcakes.
Over the years the telethon has evolved from a memorial for Bob’s father to one for his father and brother. Bob’s brother, who shared his father’s name, served as a Marine Corps sergeant in the Vietnam War. He died years after the war from his exposure to Agent Orange that had been used as a defoliant in Vietnam.
Bob has made a career out of photography and videos. He does his shows out of his love of meeting people, going places and telling their story. And, like a newsman, Bob relishes getting to places where others wouldn’t have access. One of his most memorable shows is a behind-the-scene eight-part series on the Marine Corps recruit training depot at Parris Island. For whatever reason, Bob said he was chosen from the media invited for an intimate view of Marine training from the moment recruits boarded the bus to the camp.
Bob makes a point of always having the Marines at the telethon; after all, Toys for Tots is their drive. As much as the telethon is about toys for kids who might otherwise not get a gift at Christmas, Bob has made it a display of giving, joy and a caring community. It’s no wonder people don’t want to believe him when he says this is his last telethon.
Bob is hopeful his son or nephew will carry on the telethon tradition, but so far there are no commitments.