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Tuesday, 07 June 2011 16:10

Legendary Summer Stock Producer Tommy Brent Passes Away at 88

Legendary Summer Theatre Producer

Tommy Brent

Passes Away At 88

Former Theatre-by-the-Sea Producer presented hundreds
of high quality shows and helped scores of talented get their start

A legendary producer on the New England straw hat circuit, most notably for over two decades at Rhode Island’s historic Theatre-by-the-Sea theatre, Tommy Brent, the man who single-handedly saved one of the nation’s iconic summer stock theater twice –passed away on June 4th, 2011, Even at 88 years old, Brent a non-stop ambassador of theatre was expected to join the theater’s opening-night party at the theater Friday (6/3), but did not attend. On Saturday, June 4, Tommy Brent passed away peacefully at his home in Matunuck, Rhode Island. 

A savvy theatre impresario and theatrical press agent, Thomas Brent (known as Tommy) credited himself with saving the theater twice – once from demolition in 1966 and the second time in 2007.  First introduced to Theatre-by-the-Sea in the late 1940s, when he was involved with a documentary film about theaters in New England, he returned in 1958 for a one year stint as its press agent. By 1966, the Theatre-by-the-Sea owners had decided to demolish the theatre and with only hours to spare before the demolition began, Brent stopped the destruction and invested his own funds to once again re-open the theatre. When he arrived at the site, in March of 1967, he saw that damage to the buildings from vandals and neglect was too severe to fix alone, so he placed an advertisement in the local paper for volunteers workers to make the necessary repairs. In only two short months, he and his band of volunteers made all the repairs in time to open the summer season on June 18, 1967. In 2007, when he was very concerned that the theater might not ever reopen – fearing it would be demolished in favor of building single family homes on the nearly six acres the theater occupies, he took it upon himself for identify possible purchasers and producers---and helped broker the sale of the place between FourQuest Entertainment and current owner and longtime friend Bill Hanney. “Without my dear friend Tommy Brent, I would not have had the opportunity to purchase such a magical place,” Hanney said in a statement. “I remain committed to continuing his legacy.”

Brent acted as producer and manager of the Theatre from 1967 to 1988, producing over 100 musicals and plays overseeing the hiring of actors, technical crew, and stage managers. He fought hard to be the first summer theatre to receive the producing rights of Broadway shows which created a special opportunity for new actors to try their hands at popular roles as well as audiences to see recent New York hit shows.  He also created a brand new tradition and future for the fabled theatre, by producing very elaborate shows—all on site – sets, costumes, everything. During Brent's time as producer and manager, then-Governor John Chafee proclaimed Theatre-By-The-Sea Week from July 28-August 3, 1968, and the Theatre was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Born in Washington, D.C., Thomas Brent Cheseldine got his start at a barn theater in Arlington, Virginia and headed for New York in 1941 when he was 18 to “go on stage, become a star and make a million dollars.” But he landed an usher’s job at the New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd St., where for six days of work a week he was paid $12. He began producing when he was 20, when he learned that he “couldn’t count the house and act at the same time and remember my lines. I wanted to make some money, so I became a producer.” He traveled the country following his dreams aspiring to be an actor.  His passion for the theatre led him to various jobs, i.e. press agent, asst. director, director , producer and to the seaside village of Matunuck, Rhode Island, he has called home since the late 1960's. Over the years, he discovered many talents who moved on to some fame and success in various areas of the entertainment world, including Cherry Jones, Tovah Feldshuh, Frances Sternhagen, and Michael McGrath, and countless others.

Mr. Brent was preceded in death by his parents Mary Lewis Cheseldine and William Dent Cheseline, also 5 sisters and brothers, Evelyn Cheseldine, Joe Cheseldine, Madeline Florence, Edna Sesso and Theresa Saylor.  He is survived by over 45 nieces and nephews. He will be buried at Cedar Hill Cemetery, Maryland in his family plot.  Condolences may be sent to the family at Debra at 10495 West Drive, Fairfax, VA  22030, or an online guest book available at Memorials may be made to Theatre-by-the-Sea  at in his memory.

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