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Theatre By the Sea: Rhode Island's Historic Playhouse

If relocating to Rhode Island is on your mind, you're likely looking for a slower pace of life, especially when considering towns on the state’s south coast.

You’re probably already aware that this is one of the country’s most scenic locations, with its beaches and woodlands, but it’s also full of historic venues that are sure to help you appreciate the United States as it was a century ago.

One such venue is Theatre By the Sea, a one-time barn that over the years became one of the area’s most popular, and unquestionably most notable, playhouses. In 1980, the theater became part of the National Register of Historic Places and with good reason, as we’ll cover shortly.

Theatre By the SeaThe real location of Theatre By the Sea can be confusing. The building sits on Cards Pond Road and although its official address says it’s in the village of Wakefield, which is part of the town of South Kingstown, it actually sits just outside the village of Matunuck and closer to Charlestown than South Kingstown.

The playhouse, as its name suggests, is a short distance from the ocean and has a nearby beach, providing a relaxing atmosphere for watching some of Broadway’s most renowned productions.

The theater's history hasn't always been rosy, and some might even call it turbulent, but Theatre By the Sea is an institution in southern Rhode Island that you'll quickly learn all about once you decide to put down roots here.

The Origins of the Theater

The barn that would later become this iconic performing arts venue was first constructed in about 1840, although it wasn't used in its current role until 1933. In the years between 1928 and 1932, however, Alice Jaynes Tyler, the building's owner, used it as a girls' camp and in 1933, turned it into a theater when demand for camps withered during the Great Depression.

Tyler teamed up with an actor, a producer, and a lighting specialist to create a 300-seat theater that was not only meant to provide entertainment for the people in the area, but also provide jobs for those struggling during this difficult point in history.

Undergoing an Expansion

Following its beginnings in the early 1930s, the theater ran into several rough patches. One of the most notable issues was caused by the New England Hurricane, which struck in 1938, killing 682 people and doing the modern-day equivalent of $4.7 billion in damage to the country's east coast. The hurricane also nearly flattened the old barn, leading to some significant alterations.

The renovations required are now somewhat legendary. You see, things were much different in the 1930s, including the construction methods of the time. In the late 1930s, the building was cut in half with a hand saw, before being pulled apart by a large truck with a rope. With the barn in two pieces, a brand new section with a balcony was added to the theater, and the box office was moved forward, about 25 feet closer to Cards Pond Road.

The problems didn’t stop there, as the local economy suffered during the Second World War and the theater was mostly dark, although it played the odd movie for people in the area. It wasn't until 1947 that the building was bustling once again, attracting performances by legendary Hollywood stars like Shelley Winters, Mae West, Marlon Brando, and Groucho Marx.

Saved From Demolition

Unfortunately, Alice Tyler passed away in 1951, and another hurricane hit the area in 1954, threatening the theater permanently. In 1963, with no one to handle its day-to-day operations, the building once again went dark, and it stayed in this state for years.

The building was about to be torn down in 1967 until Tommy Brent, a former producer, heard about the building's scheduled demise and stepped in, purchasing the old barn and thoroughly renovating it.

Brent's version of the playhouse was a success, and he would hold onto the building until 1988 when it was sold to a company called FourQuest. FourQuest put a lot of money into renovating Theatre By the Sea and held a summer performance series every year until 2003 when, for the third time, the theater shut down.

Once again, the theater was saved, this time by William Hanney, a local movie theater owner and businessman who bought the venue with the promise of returning it to its past glory. Hanney still runs the building to this day and has done an excellent job upholding its traditions.

Go and See a Show

Of course, all this history is great, but you probably want to know what the venue has going on today. In short, it has some of Broadway’s biggest hits being performed on its stage every summer, bringing the big city to this small, rural venue. Who says you have to visit Providence to enjoy the amenities of the capital, anyway?

In the summer of 2018 theatre season, for example, patrons will have the chance to see Chicago, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Mama Mia!, and Ain’t Misbehavin’ up close and personal. The Children's Festival will also bring Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty and other favorites to town in 2018.

The 2017 season was also epic, as the theater hosted The Producers and Disney's Beauty and the Beast, while 2016 brought West Side Story and The Wizard of Oz to the old barn.

As you can see, Theatre By the Sea attracts some of the hottest acts in June, July, August, and September, and is positively worth experiencing when you make the move to Rhode Island’s south coast.

For the hungry, there is an on-site restaurant at the theater called Bistro By the Sea. This restaurant opens before events and specializes in seafood dishes, although you can also get a burger or a sandwich if you wish.

A Rhode Island Summer Institution

This theater’s small size, now with about 500 seats, and the fact that the first round of ticket sales are reserved for season’s subscribers means that locals have an excellent chance of seeing every play they wish to this summer while experiencing the arts, culture, and history of the region.

If you’re looking at real estate in Charlestown, South Kingstown, or anywhere else in the surrounding area, make it a priority to grab your season’s pass, so you don’t miss out on a second of the action at Theatre By the Sea.

Published April 4, 2018 in Local Information, Exploring South County