The History and Construction of Thalian Hall – Part II

BY Dorothy Rankin and Lee Lowrimore

For 152 years Thalian Hall has been the cultural center of our city. Her story is our story. On the occasion of her glorious renovation we wanted to celebrate her remarkable renewal with a two-part series told from two perspectives: historical and construction. So many marvelous players have performed on her stage for so many generations that its easy to overlook the fact that the Hall itself the very building tells her own fascinating tale of our times. She is the grande dame of the Port City and after her most recent multi-million dollar restoration we think shes never been better.

Thalian Hall History
Part Two
By Dorothy Rankin

In the mid 19th century most cities the size of Wilmington had an Opera House. In the ensuing years many of those buildings have been lost and yet Thalian Hall still stands proudly in downtown Wilmington 152 years after its opening. What makes it different?

What makes a theater endure through changes in styles interests tastes and popular culture? Executive Director Tony Rivenbark speaking with the perspective of an experienced theater manager defines the question. “Its all about making money. How can you make it go?”

Flexibility is essential. In fact the Halls longevity may be due at least in part to its ability to capitalize on popular trends in entertainment. For instance in the middle of the Reconstruction Period Rivenbark explains “things werent going so great. [They] put in a new floor downstairs remodeled it and turned it into a dance hall. It didnt last too long but it was a fad.” Indeed the Hall has always responded to the desires of its audience. In 1871 the Star newspaper noted that it was possible for a skating contest to draw an audience away from a theatrical performance so in the next decade during a lull in professional engagements Thalian installed a skating rink.

From the beginning Thalian Hall has been on the cusp of change. In 1897 before it even had electricity it embraced the future of entertainment. When Edisons Projectoscope (also called a projecting kinetoscope) was booked for an engagement at the Hall the Wilmington Electric Company spent all one day wiring the theater so crowds could see the wonders of moving pictures projected across a canvas screen.

Rivenbark says that films “were pretty much a novelty” at the Hall perhaps because there was more money in bringing in plays or because the theater was too big for showing movies to be economically viable. But Thalian refused to be left out of the nations growing fascination with the silver screen. Birth of a Nation was shown accompanied by a full orchestra and during the 1930s Shirley Temple movies were popular. Now Thalian hosts the Cinematique film series.

The history of movies at Thalian illustrates a surprising fact. While outward forms may change the essence of theatrical entertainments often remains remarkably the same. Lecturers for example attracted large crowds during the Halls early years. One of the most popular was Oscar Wilde who spoke on aesthetics and his theory of beauty. Temperance lectures were another big draw during Thalians early years while today its more common to hear an author talk about architecture or a filmmaker discuss popular culture from Thalians stage.

Often modern equivalents of old-fashioned entertainments continue to amuse Thalians audiences. Sances which once riveted the population are seldom seen now but other entertainers such as humorists magicians hypnotists and ventriloquists have had longer stage lives. Japanese acrobats who were declared “the most wonderful jugglers in the world ” when they performed at Thalian in 1867 have been replaced in the 21st century by the stylized and athletic performance of the Shanghai Huai Opera which performed in 2009.

Musical performances have proven to be a remarkably consistent part of Thalians history. Opera companies as well as individual singers visited with regularity and operettas enjoyed wide acclaim. All kinds of vocal and instrumental groups have performed at Thalian from all-female cornet bands to John Phillip Sousa and from symphony orchestras to the US Marine band. As with movies many concerts have moved to more specialized venues but a variety of musical acts continue to appear. Now the Hall is as likely to showcase a classical pianist as a jazz trio or an African acappella group.

As with music celebrity appearances have long been a dependable element in Thalians appeal. During the age of “trouping” in the 19th century star performers brought shows to all parts of the United States including southeastern North Carolina but they occasionally encountered difficulties here. Companies traveled by rail but although Wilmington was an important rail center the trains timetables didnt always accommodate actors schedules. Often performances had to be cut short to enable a company to catch the departure of the night train much to the audiences dismay.

Still celebrities visited Thalian Hall from its earliest days. Rivenbark explains that in the 19th century “the way people capitalized on their celebrity status was to create a play and travel around the country because that was where the big bucks were.” John L. Sullivan appeared in a boxing play and Buffalo Bill Cody before he developed his Wild West show came to Wilmington twice. In 1875 he brought a “combination show” to Thalian that the newspaper called “a lavish expenditure of paint and powder.” He returned in 1875 with the play May Cody or Lost and Won. After that performance according to Star he “gave a short exhibition of his skill in handling the rifle.”

Other 19th century celebrities who visited were Joseph Jefferson (one of the most popular actors of the day best known for playing Rip Van Winkle) and Tom Thumb (Charles S. Stratton) as well as James ONeill (father of playwright Eugene ONeill). And although the 20th century saw a marked decline in celebrity touring Tyrone Power Agnes Morehead Charles Lawton and Nelson Eddy also performed at Thalian. In recent years nationally and internationally recognized stars often actors who now call Wilmington home have appeared on Thalians stage including Linda Lavin Pat Hingle Peter Jurasik Joe Gallison and Henry Darrow.

Amateur theater has long been a mainstay at Thalian Hall even though the kinds of performances have altered. In 1869 the ladies of St. Johns church presented an evening of Tableaux Vivant. These “living pictures” featured performers costumed (sometimes scantily) and arranged to reproduce famous paintings or statuary.

While such amusements were popular audiences still preferred plays. As early as 1868 the newspaper declared that “The legitimate drama surely has enough admirers in Wilmington to support a first-class company here ” and in the same year the Star carried a proposal that the Thalian Association be revived. It was and the groups current incarnation continues to perform at the Hall along with a number of other companies who also call Thalian home. Among them is Opera House Theatre Company which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

From its beginning Thalian has embraced talented local performers including Robert Howlette a 19th century Wilmingtonian who performed a tight rope act with an amateur “Humpty-Dumpty troupe” (a variety show which included acrobats music and pantomimes.) He was so well received that he eventually left his job with the Star and performed with several circuses billed as “The Slack-Wire King.”

Production values as well as types of entertainment reinforce the notion that “everything old is new again.” The modern era obviously offers technical advancements such as amplified sound special lighting effects and sophisticated scenery but audiences have always appreciated spectacle. In the 19th century many theaters used a device called a “thunder roll” or “thunder run” to create the sound of an approaching storm.

At Thalian the thunder roll consists of wooden troughs suspended above the ceiling near the front of the stage. Cannonballs are dropped into and rolled through the troughs to create the rumble of thunder. While these devices were once common in opera houses Thalian Hall is believed to possess the only one still in existence in the United States.

19th century performances at Thalian also were known to feature scenic effects that included a “brook of real water ” a “prismatic fountain with different colored jets ” and a railroad explosion. An arctic play even presented “glaciers and a snow storm.”

Technical advancements have been made on both sides of Thalians stage. Originally the theater wasnt especially comfortable. In the 1880s a reporter noted that “while our Opera House is a pretty one it is certainly not a comfortable one.” On that night the cold was apparently so bitter that the singer “shivered all over ” and she had to hold her music on the piano “as the wind was constantly blowing it over.” With the most recent renovation audiences will certainly have a much different experience.

Audiences themselves have also changed. In Thalians early years theater was an activity that was according to Rivenbark “almost like what television is to us.” Performances were widely attended by all segments of the population although ladies usually frequented only those events that were considered appropriate. Or they might go to less acceptable ones wearing veils. Now women at Thalian are audience members volunteers performers directors designers technicians and staff members.

Visiting Thalian almost invariably tempts us to try to imagine what it must have been like to be present at an event there a hundred or more years ago. While the audience cant experience the theater in an earlier age it can sometimes catch a glimpse of that world. During its 150th anniversary celebration Thalian presented a series of events meant to both recall its past and celebrate its future. One of these was Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with a Circus a play based on a childrens book published in 1881.

After the show the audience exited the building through the south door facing Princess Street originally the main entrance into the theater but largely unused for decades. No longer surrounded by the familiar stone and glass lobby they emerged from the narrow dimly lit hallway into the park where a crowd gathered on the lawn and suddenly they could see Thalian through new eyes.

It was possible to envision an event the Star described in 1883. ” the park and hall were illuminated with Chinese Lanterns. The Cornet Concert Club played on the south portico and a fireworks display on the lawn climaxed the evening.” In that moment it was easy to see that with Thalian Hall the more things change the more they stay the same.

The author is indebted to the research and scholarship found in the Thalian Hall Archives especially that of Isabel M. Williams and D. Anthony Rivenbark.

 Thalian Hall Construction
Part Two
By Lee Lowrimore

A newcomer to Wilmington might suppose that Thalian Hall the three-story Italianate building that dominates Third Street between Princess and Chestnut has stood largely unchanged since construction was completed in 1858. This would of course be absolutely incorrect.

The recently completed renovation is only the latest example of how Thalian has moved into the future while looking to the past for inspiration.

According to Rob Zapple president of Thalians Board of Trustees we cant say for sure what the interior of Thalian Hall first looked like. “Theres a lot we dont know ” Zapple says. Nineteenth century descriptions however tell of a large gas chandelier that hung in the middle of the auditorium. Crenshaw Lighting of Virginia has created an electric light replica seven-and-a-half feet in diameter and seven feet tall with literally hundreds of faceted glass balls. Rigged on a winch system “this things going to knock your socks off ” says Zapple. “When you walk in the chandelier will be lit and about halfway down between the two balconies. Then before the show the houselights will go down and the chandelier will rise up. Itll be really exciting.”

Descriptions also tell us that originally the auditorium floor was level the stage was raked (slanted down toward the audience) and the Dress Circle (first balcony) was a horseshoe-shaped structure with seating that came all the way to the front of the stage. “The earliest photograph of the interior is from 1910 ” says Zapple. It reveals a stage now level and an audience now raked.

In the renovation of 1909 led by A. E. Schloss who had been hired by the city to manage the theater the balcony was cut back to its current configuration. “The sightlines were terrible ” says Tony Rivenbark executive director of Thalian Hall “so angling the front of the balcony around to the outside walls made sense.”

The elegant curves of the balcony lead Zapple to believe the carpenters who built Thalian Hall had experience in Wilmingtons shipyards. “They had access to the tools to make the kinds of bends and sweeps in large pieces of wood that are employed here.” For example the central section of the 12-foot-by-12-foot beam that makes up the front support of the balcony consists of only two pieces of wood. Says Zapple “Were assuming they had access to some sort of large steam machinery” to create that bow shape. “Then they laid them on top of each other and sent a bolt through connecting the two. The bending process that they used is so true and so perfectly done. Twice! Its just amazing to think it was all done by hand.”

In 1909 seats in the Dress Circle were arranged in a series of tightly spaced straight lines. Also no consideration was given to heating and cooling the balcony. The current renovation addresses both these issues. “Weve gone back to using the sweeps of the radius for the seating ” says Zapple looking around the balcony. “Were going to lose about thirty seats up here but each row is now three feet from chair back to chair back. So you get more leg space. Also weve added HVAC air returns.” These will draw heated and cooled air into the balcony area. “Its a small thing ” smiles Zapple “but for audience comfort its going to be huge.”

Several changes in the main seating area address audience comfort as well. In the 1950s a steel beam was used to reinforce the front of the stage. This left the first few rows looking up at an uncomfortable angle. “You know ” says Zapple “the neck-breaking thing. The relationship between the stage and the audience is now about what it was in 1858. We raised it [the floor] a little over twelve inches but the difference is phenomenal.”

Not only are there larger seats with improved leg room on the Parquet (main) level greater accessibility is also available. At the rear of the house “moveable seating will allow for a total of six wheelchairs with buddy chairs ” says Zapple. There are also six “transfer” seats on the aisle of the Parquet level. “The side is actually hinged so it opens up. If Im in a wheelchair or a walker I can slide right over and sit down. It just makes it a lot better.”

The newly constructed cover for the expanded orchestra pit also improves the relationship between audience and stage. Operated by a hydraulic lift the cover is raised and lowered by the touch of a button. Composed of the same material as the stage floor it creates a seamless surface when raised to stage level. There says Zapple “it essentially creates a thrust.” Or it can be lowered to bring a seated actor eye to eye with the audience.

In 1990 the entrance to the theater was moved from Princess to Chestnut Street and the lobby box office and rest room facilities were expanded. The theaters decoration was also addressed. “Somewhere along the line the interior had been painted all one color ” says Zapple. Led by celebrated artist Claude Howell this renovation restored much of the Halls multi-colored glory.

The current work built upon that foundation. “In the decorative painting process ” says Zapple “we came across a variety of amazing things that you couldnt see without being right up on top of the ornamental plaster work. We decided to feature it.” John Sharkey and Chappy Valente the lead artists spent months working to accentuate these decorative elements.

Zapple then refers to the curve of the box seats at the proscenium (stage) wall and the Greek key pattern that is stenciled on the front. “He [Schloss] used 1x3s to create the curves here. Terrific except when youre talking about a painting surface because wood is a living breathing expanding contracting thing. So you end up getting these vertical lines that show through the stenciling.” The modern technique would be to produce the design on canvas “and print it out exactly with no mistakes that an artists hand might make.” Ultimately another choice was made. “Its a 151-year-old building ” continues Zapple. “What are we trying to do? Disguise that fact? You know what maybe I kind of like those little lines. And thirty years from now somebody will come back and theyll do the stenciling again and theyll have their chance.”

It seems every generation has a chance to make its mark on the Hall. This time around theyve looked to the past to figure out how to get to the future.

Who Built Thalian?

When the recent renovation brought the original framing of Thalian Hall to light Rob Zapple came away impressed. He describes a particularly complicated piece of joinery supporting the center of the balcony. Called a “valley joist ” all the connections are made by mortise and tenon construction with no nails in any of it. Every joint meets perfectly with no gaps. And everything was cut with hand tools.

Zapple shrugs “We came in and the guys used 2x10s and nail guns and went wham wham wham. Just bridged all the gaps with nails. It looked so crude up against this work that had been done 151 years ago.”

Who were these master carpenters? According to Beverly Tetterton curator of the North Carolina room at the New Hanover Public Library they were African slaves. “They built Thalian Hall Fort Fisher the Market House as well as most of the finer homes in downtown Wilmington.”

Hired out by their masters to work on large construction projects the slaves did the work and the masters got paid. Quartered in “slave yards” next to the construction site these men were sent to Wilmington from plantations all over Southeastern North Carolina.