Standing Tall at 84 Years Old, Theatre by the Sea Brings Broadway to the Beach

By Marilyn Busch

No conversation about summer theater in New England would be complete without mentioning the trials, tribulations, and absolute triumphs of Theatre By The Sea. Nestled by Matunuck Beach and well under an hour’s drive from Smithfield, the 500-seat professional summer theatre boasts a full spectrum of Broadway shows and a full restaurant, the Bistro on the Sea.

While the theatre stands tall, and air-conditioned today, it surely has seen more than a few dramatic scenarios and incarnations in its impressive 84 years. From simple roots as a private farm property turned girl’s summer camp, the barn was first converted into a 300-seat theatre during the Great Depression. From 1933 on, the theatre was a success, weathering hurricanes, being sawed in half (literally) to create more seating, being used as target practice by military pilots during World War II, and occasionally quietly moonlighting as a movie theatre. Post-war years ushered in the “Golden Era” for the barn theatre, hosting such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Carol Channing, Groucho Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, Mae West and more on the well-trodden boards.

The venue continued until 1967, when bankrupt and barren, racked by another hurricane, the theatre was set to be demolished. In what has become true Rhode Island Theatre lore, Tommy Brent, former press agent, and producer swept in to purchase the venue, successfully saving the theater from demolition by mere hours. Under Brent’s management, Theatre by the Sea saw enormous success for the next 22 years, produced over 100 musicals and plays. Many Rhode Islanders and summer tourists flocked to the barn by the beaches to see famous name musicals and family shows.

The next owners of the property invested millions in needed renovations and continued producing large scale musicals until the fall of 2003 when the theatre went dark once again. In proper dramatic fashion, former owner Brent once again “saved” the theatre by bringing in Massachusetts businessman and movie theatre owner, Bill Hanney who successfully re-launched the landmark in 2007.

In announcing the 2017 summer season at the theater – now dubbed Bill Hanney’s Theatre By The Sea – the producer enthuses “Each summer I grow more and more excited to produce these shows for the amazing audiences at Theatre By The Sea.”

Through July 15, the theatre is presenting The Music Man, hailed as a “delicious slice of Americana.” Celebrate the 60th anniversary of the tale of the fast-talking salesman Harold Hill, Marion the librarian and the good folks of River City.

The season continues with a brand-new production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast from July 19 – August 12. This live stage version of the award-winning animated film promises “unforgettable characters, imaginative sets and costumes, and breathtaking production numbers.”

Close out your summer plans with tickets to Mel Brooks’, The Producers, August 16 – September 10. A smash hit with critics and audiences alike, the musical based on Brook’s 1968 is the laugh-out-loud story of an unlikely duo’s scheme to get quick by producing a sure-fire flop.

Hanney for one is looking forward to another successful season by the sea, saying “I am confident that this summer’s lineup has what it takes to top last summer’s record-breaking, sold-out audiences.”

Full calendar and show information are online at Theatre By The Sea is located at
364 Cards Pond Road, Wakefield, Rhode Island 02879.