“The curtain is 150 years old,” said
Tony Rivenbark, executive director of
Thalian Hall in 2016. “It was never
meant carry out this kind of lifespan, but
it has survived over the years one way or
another.” The curtain is considered the
oldest of its kind in America, painted by
noted scenic artist Russell Smith in 1858,
the same year that Thalian Hall opened.
ARCHIVE HALL THALIAN Thalian hall’s original hand-painted drop curtain has
survived more than 164 years of wear and tear, and being
lost and found a couple of times. In July 2016 after get-ting
a makeover from a conservator at the Cameron Art
Museum, the restored and revived curtain went on display
in Thalian’s ground-floor lobby for all of Wilmington’s
theatergoers and art lovers to appreciate. 42 september 2022
JOINED AT THE HIP
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thalian
Hall is that it’s still standing more than one-and-a-half
centuries after it was built. In all that time, “the city
never wanted to be in the theater business, as minutes of
the 19th and early 20th century City Council meetings
show,” Rivenbark noted in 2010.
In 1900, City Alderman C. W. Worth told the
council, “The Opera House is scarcely more than a mass
of rotten timbers … it would be feasible, economical
and desirable to tear away the Opera House ...” From
present to past, Mr. Worth would turn out to be wrong
on several counts.
As for “a mass of rotten timbers,” that claim was
definitively proven to be incorrect in the Hall’s 2009-
2010 renovation, during which the floors of both the
main floor (Parquet Level) and first balcony (Dress
Circle) were taken up. Everything in the renovation of
the first balcony has been built on top of that original
Downstairs, on the Parquet Level, the original floor
joists were rough-cut heart pine, two and a half inches
thick by 13 inches wide. These timbers had an unsup-ported
span of more than 40 feet in some cases. Aston-ishingly,
the boards were totally clear — no warping,
sagging, splitting or evidence of insect infestation.
Unfortunately, they were taken out because they did not
comply with modern codes. Instead, a series of support
walls was built to carry the modern, engineered lumber
that now serves as floor joists.
When they uncovered the structure, work crews found
that the cast iron columns supporting the balconies had
no nails, bolts or any mechanical attachments holding
them to the piers on which they stand or the beams they
supported — just gravity.
Thalian was threatened by fire in 1973, but Rivenbark
said he didn’t believe that incident carried a threat of
demolition. “Obviously, if the fire had been bigger ...”
Rivenbark said, voice fading at the dread of what might
have been. The morning of the fire, “word spread that
Thalian Hall was burning. And Doug Swink came down.
Doug is the one who got the fire curtain down and in
place. He probably saved the building.” Swink was a
theater professor at UNCW.
The closest Thalian Hall has really come to being
demolished was during the renovation of 1938, under the
Works Progress Administration (WPA). One of the goals
of the renovation was to create better access to the public
library, which was then located on the second floor of the
Hall. With only steep stairs in place, the city decided to
install an elevator, and excavation for the shaft was done
on the north wall of the building.