The History and Construction of Thalian Hall

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.


By Dorothy Rankin

In 152 years its gone by different names The Wilmington Theater Academy of Music the Opera House but now its known as Thalian Hall or simply “the Hall.”

Physically its difficult to overestimate its importance in the citys downtown. The building was constructed on a rise above the Cape Fear River and according to Tony Rivenbark Thalian Halls executive director it stands “like an Acropolis over the city.” In a town of one- and two-story buildings he continues “it had to be phenomenal to the community to watch this building being constructed.”

The origins of the building can be found in the minutes of the Town Commissioners in May 1853 but the references are at best cryptic. What would eventually become Thalian was first referred to by commissioners who appointed a committee to seek a suitable site for a “public building to be used as a Town Hall.” No mention was made of a theater then since Wilmington already had a performance space. Known as Innes Academy it was a modest building that occupied the spot where Thalian Hall now stands and it was the towns principal theatrical venue for more than five decades.

Its not clear what sparked the desire to replace Innes Academy but Rivenbark has his own opinion. Although careful to state that his theory cannot be fully documented Rivenbark tells the story of a visit to Wilmington in 1850 by the “Swedish nightingale ” Jenny Lind. On her way to Charleston to perform Ms. Linds train went through Wilmington. Learning of the presence of such an illustrious star the towns prominent citizens met the train with flowers in their arms and asked if she might perform here. Her manager asked the size of the towns theater and when told the halls capacity he replied “Gentlemen my orchestra would fill a large part of that space.” Ms. Lind continued on to Charleston leaving Rivenbark conjectures consternation in her wake.

“You can just see people talking at the saloon or at the gentlemens club ” Rivenbark laughs “or after church at St. James and saying we need a decent hall here. We missed out.” Innes Academy didnt embody Wilmingtons vision of itself. This Rivenbark explains “was the largest city in the state and it was the most prosperous and the most up-to-date. It was a status symbol at that time to have an opera house.” Wilmington he believes “had a sophisticated viewpoint.” The town was a port and a rail center (trains were the eras principal mode of transportation) and the citizens “had a view not only to New York but also to Europe.” Even Thalians Italianate style reflected current architectural tastes.

The actual construction took more than two years and early in 1858 with scaffolding still surrounding the building Thalian hosted its first performance: a recital by Mr. Frensleys Dancing School. The official opening was six months later in October of that year when Marchants Stock Company of Charleston performed two popular plays of the era.

Marchants company remained in Wilmington into November 1858 performing a different play almost nightly at Thalian Hall. In December the Thalian Association (whose name is still attached to a local community theater) presented two popular plays including Box and Cox a farce that had its most recent revival in 2008 as part of the Halls sesquicentennial. Thalian Halls first season saw further amateur productions more stock performances operas presented by the New Orleans English Opera Company and appearances by the Martinetti and Blondin Troupe which offered comic pantomimes and dances and featured Charles Blondin a tightrope walker who became famous after crossing the gorge below Niagara Falls.

Thalians second season opened with a minstrel show followed by another stock company and a 40-member troupe that presented a week of plays and spectacles. No amateur productions were mounted that year but operas and road companies continued to visit including Signor Donettis troupe of “Educated Dogs Monkeys and Goats.”

They were the first animals to appear on Thalian Halls stage but certainly not the last. In 1869 actress Kate Raymond scantily clad rode her horse Black Bess across the stage in an adaptation of Byrons epic poem Mazeppa. In the 1890s an arctic play featured reindeer sled dogs three live bears and two St. Bernard dogs. Trained dogs often appeared and in 1909 a circus play included three ponies a trained donkey and a horse.

As interests changed so did Thalians offerings. The mid 19th century had seen the rise of panoramas and the Hall hosted Dr. Beales Wonderful Panopticon or Life-Moving Mechanical Exhibition of the War in India and the Sepoy Rebellion. It consisted of 80 000 models of men women horses ships artillery cavalry camels and other animals presumably moving in front of a backdrop of panoramic paintings. The Daily Journal described the event: “The aquatic scenery with ships and steamers moving about is truly remarkable as are also the battle pieces with vast number of figures in actual march motion cannon firing etc.”

Later another panorama drew crowds to the Hall. It was Rivenbark says “New York City on a giant canvas.” Spools on either side of the stage turned 18 000 feet of canvas revealing views of the buildings on more than 50 streets from Broadway to the Hudson River. The entire presentation took nearly two hours and apparently created the sensation of actually walking down the depicted streets.

As the Civil War approached Wilmington turned away from amusements and focused more on the conflict to come but Thalian Hall continued to play a central role in the life of the city hosting political meetings at which the coming clash was undoubtedly a topic of discussion.

During the war Wilmington grew. Rob Zapple president of Thalian Halls Board of Trustees observes that this “was a blockade runners town.” With money abundant and entertainment in demand the Hall stayed busy except during the yellow fever epidemic of 1862. “Percentagewise probably the most active period of this theater was during the Civil War ” Zapple says.

Within a week of the towns occupation by Union troops The Hall reopened. Production initially thrived but by 1867 both the town and the Hall were struggling. Eventually John T. Ford a theater manager from Baltimore agreed to handle Thalian and added it to his touring circuit. As the towns economy recovered so did the Halls fortunes and once again stock companies hit plays from New York and international performers visited.

During this time political meetings continued to occur at Thalian. The Democratic Clubs were addressed from Thalians stage and blacks came to hear (according to a newspaper report) “the radical candidates.”

According to Zapple while Thalian Hall was certainly segregated “We know that Wilmington up until the Civil War really up until Reconstruction and even during Reconstruction was one of the most integrated towns around.” And although some separation had to be maintained both Zapple and Rivenbark believe that economics were the deciding factor. “In the end ” Rivenbark says “its all about making money and selling tickets.” Zapple agrees. “Money talks in theater.”

When artists appeared who appealed primarily to a black audience Rivenbark believes that “they would put all the black people downstairs and put the white people in the balcony.” Looking around the Gallery (upper balcony) Zapple observes “Everyone says Oh this is where the slaves sat. That simply is not true. There may have been some slaves that did sit here but this is where the working class [sat] where the cheap seats were.” When Booker T. Washington spoke in 1910 Rivenbark says “they basically divided the house in half; it had a center aisle so they put the blacks on one side and the whites on the other.”

A variety of black entertainers appeared. Musical savant Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (also called Blind Tom Bethune) played the piano at Thalian appearing before the war as a slave and afterwards as a free man. Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones an opera singer and vaudevillian who was known as “The Black Patti” (referring to a famous Italian opera singer of the day Adelina Patti) also performed there and the theater has hosted classical singers Marian Anderson and Caterina Jarboro. Local black amateurs have a continuing history at Thalian. In the 1890s the Acme Club which consisted of 48 black musicians appeared and The Willis Richardson Players (named for a black playwright born in Wilmington) continues to perform there.

In 1870 a small group of men used Thalian to test the response of the community to blacks sitting in sections designated for whites. When they were ejected they sued the theater. The judge who heard the case chastised the blacks for asserting their civil rights “by resorting to violence.” But he also ruled that the blacks were “entitled to accommodation and privileges in this theater equal to those enjoyed by other persons.”

Clearly times were changing and Thalian Hall would change with them.

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.

Narrow Escapes

By Lee Lowrimore

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thalian Hall is that its 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 ” says Tony Rivenbark executive director of Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts (THCPA) “as minutes of the 19th and early 20th century City Council meetings show.”

Back 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 particular claim was definitively proven to be incorrect in the Halls 2009-2010 renovation during which the floors of both the Parquet Level (main floor) and Dress Circle (first balcony) were taken up. Rob Zapple president of the THCPA Board of Trustees walked through with a structural engineer. “We were concerned ” says Zapple “because we were dealing with really old wood.” After testing the structure and finding it “absolutely secure ” Zapple reports the engineer said “It looks like its done pretty well for 151 years.” Everything in the renovation of the first balcony has been built on top of that original framing.

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 unsupported span of more than 40 feet in some cases. Astonishingly the boards were totally clear no warping sagging splitting or evidence of insect infestation. “Unfortunately we had to take them out because modern codes dont believe that boards can do what these timbers clearly did ” says Zapple. 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 support just gravity which came into play when one of the footings for the new support walls was dug too close to the brick pier supporting a column. “It didnt shift much ” says Zapple “about a half inch. The compression was released and the column just fell followed by a cracking sound in the balcony.”

At that moment Zapple was sitting at the monthly construction meeting in Thalians Studio Theater along with everybody involved in the renovation including the head of the construction company Drew Brown. Zapple recalls how suddenly cell phones started to go off. “One guy gets up and leaves. Then another. Phones keep going off. Then a guy walks in and whispers in Drews ear and he says Uh yeah Ill be right back. Ive been around construction enough to know somethings going on.”

Sure enough when Zapple entered the theater he saw Brown grasping two 14-foot-long 2 x 12s that had been nailed together “which hes holding like a tinker toy.” Zapple watched in amazement as Brown who had worked on the 1990 renovation with Clancy & Theys slammed the 2 x 12s underneath the balcony to support the whole area. “I said Drew everything all right? And he said It is now.”

Thalian was threatened by fire in 1973 but Rivenbark doesnt believe that incident carried a threat of demolition. “Obviously if the fire had been bigger …” Rivenbark says 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.

The wall next to the shaft “just wasnt shored up properly. It might not have been necessary if it was hard ground but because its basically loam ” says Rivenbark voice trailing off. “So there was a wind that came through and the whole north wall collapsed which knocked out a huge chunk of what is now the mayors office.”

“All of a sudden ” Rivenbark continues “people who were interested in having a new library or a new theater or a new city hall said Well its a wonderful old building and all that but it really doesnt meet our purposes as a new city.” One issue was safety. The fear was that the building was not structurally sound. “It was really the first major debate on preservation ” says Rivenbark. After engineering studies proved the structure of the building to be perfectly sound the WPA secured the additional funds to do the necessary repairs and the building remained.

Designed as a hybrid structure Thalian Hall originally housed an armory two rooms for the Wilmington Library Association and as it does today city offices a meeting room for public assemblies and receptions and a theater. According to Rivenbark  “It was almost like they were trying to come up with enough uses for the building so they could make it really impressive. Which it is.”

Indeed the conjoined nature of city offices and theater has frequently proved providential. When it was an appropriate time for a new theater the city hall didnt need work and vice versa. “Being joined at the hip is to me why the building is still here ” says Rivenbark. “Its what caused the building to be built and thats why time after time the building somehow wins out.”

Thalian Hall stands in the heart of Wilmington and at the heart of Wilmington theater. For more than 150 years the building and all of Wilmington has won.

 The second Act continues after a brief one-month intermission … Dont miss the next installment in the July issue!