In 1966, a young student from Wilmington College (before it become UNCW), D. Anthony Rivenbark—known locally as Tony—took the stage at Thalian Hall to perform in “Good News.” It was his first taste of North Carolina’s oldest operating theater and city hall complex, Thalian Hall. Though he moved to New York City after graduation, he returned to Wilmington a few years later to be hired by the Thalian Hall Commission (known today as Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts) to oversee the complex’s cultural arts scheduling and outreach.
“Even though it was very shabby at the time and painted pink, I was very impressed with it,” Rivenbark says. Thirty-five years later, he is executive director and has overseen two renovations (one in 1990 and one in 2010) of architect John Montague Trimble’s famed theater. He’s also directed, starred, and produced more shows than he can count—over 200 easily. With his ties and extensive knowledge tied to Thalian, Rivenbark helped oversee a new book published by Arcadia Press, which focuses on iconic people, structures and places across our nation from bygone eras. “Images of America: Thalian Hall” was released at the beginning of August and is currently on sale for $21.99.
“Since the 2010 renovation, we have been focused on the future of the Thalian Hall Art and Archives Collection,” Rivenbark tells. He utilized photographs from the collection, along with ones contributed by Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, the Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear, New Hanover Public Library, and families and organizations, to show the collective history of Thalian’s impact on our city.
“The board had been talking about the need for a small publication for the general public that would give them a feel for the history of the theater,” Rivenbark continues. “A few historic theaters had created a book through the Arcadia Press. We generated a proposal to them and they accepted it.”
Primarily a picture book, “Images of America: Thalian Hall” gives readers a visual understanding of the numerous happenings and events that have taken place inside and outside of the hall. Some are photographs never released before to the public. From speakers—like abolitionist, author, and women’s rights avocate Frederick Douglass who spoke in the late 1800s—to pageants put on by volunteer groups to numerous theatre performances and concerts from local companies and traveling artists, to protests and celebrations on its front steps, Thalian Hall has hosted a little bit of everything throughout its century-plus lifetime. As an attachment to our city’s governement and administration complexes, the Italiante Revival building saw a new courthouse built on the southeast corner of Third and Princess streets in 1892. It also housed the first public library in town, erected in 1906 by the NC Sorosis (today used for town meetings), as shown in the book. Even Rivenbark learned new snippets of information while doing research.
“An image turned up for The Kermess, which was a large community event held in 1896,” Rivenbark says, which was held by the ladies of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. “A photograph of one of the numbers is the earliest image of local amateur performers.”
More a performer and behind-the-scenes mover and shaker on the local theater scene, Rivenbark only penned a few essays and articles on Thalian previous to the book’s undertaking. Aside from writing about Wilmington theatre for “Time, Talent and Tradition,” as published by the Cape Fear Museum in 1990, and an article for Wrightsville Beach Magazine on Oscar Wilde’s visit to Wilmington, “Images” is his first whole publication.
“The most difficult part is scaling the information down to the formula that has been developed by Arcadia Press, which means you can’t always share everything that you want to say,” Rivenbark notes. “It was a learning experience, working the photographs in our collection, as well as learning what the other local collections have.”
Thalian Hall will benefit from the monies collected on the book as long as they are purchased at local signings or directly through Thalian Hall’s website. Proceeds help operation and outreach needs. More so, it stands as a reminder of the many memories Rivenbark and our city officials and citizens have had with this iconic structure. “The reopening of the expanded facility in 1990 was certainly significant,” Rivenbark recently remembers, as was presenting Hal Halbrook as Mark Twain just last fall.
“The annual Pied Piper production, where we bring in 5,000 elementary school, never fails to please mem” Rivenabrk adds. “We have been doing this program for over 25 years and to see the delight on the audience of the future is always wonderful.”
Presented by the Junior League of Wilmington and Thalian, New Hanover County first and second graders travel to Thalian by bus and enjoy an original comedic performance annually. At the beginning of each school year, the children are taught songs and get a synopsis of the play, so when they arrive for the show in January, it becomes an interactive event.
While other memories stand tall—like performing in Thalian Hall on opening night after the restoration from the 1975 fire or producing the125th anniversary musical “Remembered Nights,” which brought Lou Criscuolo to Wilmington—Rivenbark treasures the past but remains focused on what’s to come. “I just hope I can continue to contribute to the field and the community,” he says.
Rivenbark will be doing a reading and siging of “Images of America: Thalian Hall” on Tuesday, September 8th. The talk will focus on some of the images that didn’t make it into the book as well.
Images of America: Thalian Hall Book Signing and Lecture with Tony Rivenbark
Northeast Branch of NHC Public Library, David Paynter Room
1241 Military Cutoff Rd.
Books available at thalianhall.org