(Based on "History of Theatre in Wilmington" by Tony Rivenbark published in Time, Talent, and Tradition, 1995)
Thalian Hall is a bright jewel in the cultural life of Wilmington. As Wilmington's history has marched on, the building has played witness to and participant in that history. By combining the theatre with City Hall, the seat of the Wilmington City government, the city fathers of the 19th century created a place of civic and cultural pride. The building has been in almost continuous use since it opened on October 12, 1858, and today continues to function as a viable location for city government and as the site of over 400 cultural events annually for over 80,000 audience members.
During the early 1800's, several permanent playhouses were built in North Carolina, all in towns with active amateur theatrical societies. In 1803, the Trustees of the Wilmington Academy, under a bequest by Colonel James Innes, began advertising for bids for "a house in the town of Wilmington suitable for an Academy and Theatre...70 feet long by 40 feet wide and 30 feet high including the foundation." Three years later the gentlemen of the Wilmington Thalian Association gave the first of several performances in the new Innes Academy. This theatre was built on the present site of Thalian Hall.
Supplementing the Thalians' fare in subsequent seasons were many famous touring actors including the distinguished tragedian, Junius Brutus Booth, who appeared at the Innes Academy in The Iron Chest in 1850. Touring with his father for the first time was the 17 year old Edwin Booth who years later was to become one of America's most famous actors and the brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth.
In the 1850's the citizens resolved to replace the Innes Academy with the present City Hall/Thalian Hall building. The fifty year old Academy had ceased to function as a school and the theatre had become outmoded. According to one touring professional "on our arrival in Wilmington the days were spent in preparing the dusty old rat-trap of a theatre" for the opening of their stand. As Wilmington was the most populous town in North Carolina and a center of culture many of its citizens felt that it could support a larger more modern theatre.
In 1854 the Town Commissioners resolved to construct a theatre on the site in conjunction with a new town hall and to provide funds for fitting out the interior of the theatre. The Association, in exchange, for its interest in the Innes Academy agreed to pay an annual rent for the use of the theatre. John M. Trimble of New York, one of the foremost theatrical architects of the day was retained by the Town Commissioners to design the combination town hall and theatre. The new theatre, known variously as the "Opera House" or "Thalian Hall," opened on October 12, 1858 with G. F. Marchant's Company of Charleston which was brought in as the resident company for the first season of the "splendid new temple of drama." The Marchant Company presented the popular comedy in verse, The Honey Moon with The Loan of a Lover as an afterpiece. One of the highlights of the evening was the unrolling of the drop curtain painted by noted scenic artist William Russell Smith of Philadelphia which today is on display in the Parquet Lobby.
Despite the success of the first season, the Thalian society were heavily in debt and eventually lost control of Thalian Hall. The Association only presented one play in the 1859-1860 season and the theatre rentals were not enough to reduce their financial obligations. In accordance with their agreement with the Town, the Association relinquished all interest in the building to the town, which in turn assumed all financial responsibilities and the Association was disbanded.
The Civil War brought a heightened prosperity to Wilmington and enlarged its population as a result of commercial activity spurred by blockade running. Money was readily available and entertainment was desperately needed. For a ten-month period between the end of 1863 and September of 1864, 240 performances were given in Thalian Hall. Several companies and groups offered varied entertainment for the town. The Bailey Company presented numerous war plays, including The Roll of the Drum. The Katie Estelle Company, which had played in Wilmington during the antebellum era, appeared in July 1863 and another professional group, Bates and Jenkins also played Wilmington that year. Local citizens presented shows to raise money for patriotic causes such as Julius and Ransom's Burlesque Opera Troupe, in which all the actors were slaves belonging to citizens in Wilmington. Another performance consisted of "the young misses of Wilmington" presenting a series of tableaux to raise money for the sick and wounded.
The fall of Wilmington to Union forces in February of 1865 failed to deter theatrical productions. Within a week military authorities permitted Thalian Hall to re-open. The Davis Company offered the first production under the occupation with Lady Audley's Secret and thereafter performances by stock companies flourished. By 1867, however, the adverse economic effects of reconstruction were echoed in a slump in theatre activity, punctuated in 1868 only by the sensational The Black Crook considered by many to be the first "theatre musical." This production was a fusion of imported ballet and a pot-boiler melodrama combining shockingly clad dancers and extravagant scenery and stage effects.
In the fall of 1869, Thalian Hall came under the management of John T. Ford. Following the assassination of Lincoln and the subsequent closing of his Washington theatre, Ford operated several other theatres including the one in Wilmington. After refurbishing Thalian Hall which had suffered much abuse during the war, Ford sent his stock company to Wilmington for several productions. Ford managed Thalian Hall, which he renamed the Wilmington Opera House, until 1873.
As Wilmington developed into a major railroad center and the city became a principal stop of the South Atlantic touring circuit. Most stock companies traveled with their own costumes and props and used the "house scenery" available in each theatre. The theatre was equipped with a basic sets of scenery called "front room, back room, woods and town" which would consist respectively of a "fancy" interior, a "poor" interior, a outdoors scene, and a street scene. Larger companies would travel with assigned freight cars for scenery, with featured actors in parlor cars and star actors in private coaches. By 1870 theatre usage had returned to their pre-war level and stock companies, international performers and New York hit plays, highlighted this era. Among the many stars appearing at the Wilmington Opera House (Thalian Hall) was the legendary Edwin Forrest, the first American-born actor to achieve international fame. No great actor, but an extraordinary entertainer, was Buffalo Bill Cody who drew and "an exceedingly large crowd," with his performance of May Cody or Lost and Won followed by an exhibition of his rifle skills.
During the 1880's, there was a decrease in the number of performances by stock companies but an increase in star performers and long-run plays. The most famous celebrity actor to appear was Joseph Jefferson who appeared to packed housed in his world famous role of Rip Van Winkle. He returned in 1884 in the star attraction The Rivals with Mrs. John Drew, grandmother to the famous Barrymores, John, Lionel and Ethel. The children's father, Maurice Barrymore, appeared in Thalian Hall the same year with the famous Polish actress, Helena Modjeska in Twelfth Night. The playwright, Oscar Wilde appeared in 1882 and one of the newspapers stated that Wilde played to a "fair lecture audience" and that "he was attentively listened to throughout his lecture and frequently became exquisitely beautiful in his language."
During the 1890's amateur dramatic clubs flourished for the first time in many years. The Wilmington Dramatic Club which was active from 1892 until 1899 produced Charley's Aunt and Gloriana in 1897. In April, 1899, the Paint and Powder Club undertook a spring tour of theatres throughout the state. The Club's plays were directed by S. A. Schloss, lessee and manager of Thalian Hall. In Wilmington, most amateur events took place in other auditoriums around the city; however large productions continued to be presented at the Opera House (Thalian Hall) and were often produced by women's charity groups. One of the most elaborate was The Story of the Reformation with a cast of 150 presented by the Ministering Circle of the Kings Daughters. The production ran for two nights in 1896 to "standing room only crowds."
At the beginning of the twentieth century commercial theatre was a booming business across the country. As North Carolina's most populous city, Wilmington provided ample audiences for theatre performances which might number more than a hundred annually. Responsible in large part for the success of Wilmington's theatre was Simon Archibald Schloss who was affiliated with the Klaw & Erlanger theatre circuit which controlled most of the theatres in the country. At the turn of the century, Schloss brought numerous productions to the fourteen theatres he leased or owned in North and South Carolina. In Wilmington, Schloss' held the lease on the Opera House (Thalian Hall) and maintained his theatrical offices near the theatre. In 1902 In keeping with the marketing of the times, Schloss renamed the theatre the "Academy of Music." Booking large scale productions such as The Belle of New York also necessitated improvements and alterations to the theatre. The stage opening was widened and the ornate proscenium arch was installed in 1904. Under the supervision of, Wilmington architect, Henry Bonitz, changes were made to the balconies and orchestra pit and a complete redecoration of the interior was completed in 1909 creating the theatre as it exits today.
The Academy of Music continued to have full seasons of entertainment under Schloss' direction. Touring attractions peaked to 114 performances in the 1912-1913 season. But the death of Schloss in December 1913 ended the Wilmington connection to New York. Subsequently, in 1914 the opening of the Victoria Theatre, on Market Street provided competition for the Academy of Music (Thalian Hall). The Victoria Theatre seated 1,100 and offered daily bills of vaudeville. Almost immediately professional performances at the Academy of Music dropped markedly.
Changing times in Wilmington affected the commercial theatre. Competition was keenly felt by theatres throughout the country from silent films. In 1916, Birth of A Nation was shown in Thalian Hall and by 1920 Wilmington had a number of theatres providing vaudeville and motion pictures including, the Bijou, the Grand, the Royal and the Victoria. These theatres were patronized primarily by white patrons though blacks were permitted in segregated areas. After the turn of the century several black theatres opened including the Lyric followed by the Brooklyn both of which offered live entertainment and movies. Touring minstrel and vaudeville groups with black casts frequently played the theatres in Wilmington. Also during this time many african-american classical artists like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Marian Anderson and Wilmington native, Caterina Jarboro, appeared at the Academy of Music (Thalian Hall).
On these occasions the majority of the theatre would be reserved for blacks and a smaller section, usually one half of the main floor, was reserved for whites. There was very little black drama because the doors to the professional theatre in American had traditionally been closed to black actors and playwrights. Willis Richardson, originally born in Wilmington, became the first black playwright to be produced on Broadway in May of 1923. The Willis Richardson Players named for him presents an annual production of an afro-American work each year in the Thalian Hall studio theatre.
By the end of the decade the number of touring productions appearing in Wilmington continued to decrease. The Victoria Theatre was refurbished and reopened for motion pictures as the Carolina Theatre in 1928. And that same year the last regular season in Thalian Hall ended with an outstanding presentation of the Ziegfeld Follies with noted dancers, Ruth S. Denis and Ted Shawn.
The decline in commercial touring theatre had a direct effect on the "little theatre" movement which had evolved in the years preceding World War I through interested citizens who organized theatre groups for the purpose of presenting plays primarily for artistic purposes. In 1928 a group of citizens organized the Little Theatre Guild of Wilmington which presented its first production, in the Parish House of St. James Church in February 1929. So successful was the program that Professor Hubert Heffner, assistant director of the Carolina Playmakers in Chapel Hill was asked in to assist the group. Subsequently Mr. Heffner spoke to some 200 interested citizens at the old YMCA and from that meeting emerged the new Thalian Association Community Theatre, which presented and evening of one act plays in the Academy of Music in May of 1929. The theatre program notes that the group had combined "the old and honored tradition of the past with the modern Little Theatre movement." Throughout the next three decades, the Thalian Association was the dominant dramatic force in the community and today the group presents a season of plays annually in Thalian Hall.
During the next decades few professional theatrical productions appeared at the Academy of Music, which by 1933 had been renamed "Thalian Hall." Only two touring events played the theatre during the 1930's, The Freiburg Passion Play with Adolph Fassnacht in 1932 and Gene Austin's Broadway Rhapsody in 1933. Thalian Hall was leased to the Howard Theatres, Inc. for "talking" pictures and vaudeville who sub-leased it for local theatre performances and touring concert artists.
During the depression years, the national government created the Federal Theatre Project to provide employment for theatre professionals during the difficult times of the Depression. In 1937, the Thalian Association acquired its first professional director, Howard Ganstier, through this program. Under his direction the Thalians presented Stage Door, The First Lady, Stop Thief, and Room Service. Under the WPA, a major renovation of the building City Hall began in 1938 which resulted in the collapse of the north wall of City Hall. Many called for the demolition of the building but after a series of studies conducted by the City it was determined the building was sound and additional funds were found for its renovation and City Hall reopened in 1940 and Thalian Hall, the following year.
Productions dropped off during World War II but by the 1950's the Thalian Association was mounting more serious dramas including Anastasia, Picnic, and The Little Foxes and their first musical productions with Gian Carlo Menotti's one-act operas, The Telephone and The Old Man and the Thief. For the first time in many years, several star performers appeared in Wilmington, including Charles Laughton, Charles Nelson Reilly, Kim Hunter, and Agnes Morehead.
During the 1960's Wilmington College became an active force in local theatre. Doug W. Swink, who staged the colleges first theatre production in 1959 taught drama and mounted numerous productions. In 1963 Swink's direction, Wilmington College and the Thalian Association entered into an agreement to co-produce shows in Thalian Hall. The arrangement, which lasted 5 years, included the productions of Stalag 17, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Skin of Our Teeth, Tartuffe, Man for all Seasons, and My Fair Lady. 1963 also saw the establishment of what is now known as the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts Inc. (THCPA), created to undertake the restoration and preservation of Thalian Hall.
A fire in 1973 caused significant damage to Thalian Hall's historic interior. The near loss of the Wilmington landmark generated public support for restoration of the historic theatre. In 1975 under the direction of the THCPA, the interior was restored to its turn-of-the century grandeur. Following the gala reopening in 1975 THCPA took over the management of Thalian Hall.
With the restoration of Thalian Hall and a renewed focus on downtown Wilmington there was increased activity in all the arts. A major stimulant was the St. Thomas Celebration of the Arts, a week long arts festival in which over 20 arts organizations of the city participated. Also during this period the motion picture industry came to the region providing employment for local actors and attracting many theatre professionals to the area. As the decade progressed several new theatre companies were established including the Opera House Theatre Company founded by Broadway and TV actor Lou Criscuolo which presents Broadway hit musicals and first run plays. Throughout the 1980's Thalian Hall witnessed a dramatic increase in use by professional artists and community groups, and audience attendance rose.
In 1983, a master plan for the expansion of the theater and renovation of the stage house was developed with a total price tag of $5.3 million. In 1985, the citizens of Wilmington overwhelmingly passed a $1.7 million bond issue for the Thalian Hall Renovation and Expansion Project. Thanks to the magnificent response by the State and the private sector, more than $2 million was generated for the effort, with the City providing the remainder of the funds. Construction began in 1988 on the most extensive renovation and expansion in its 130 year history and the Gala Reopening in 1990 was one of the highlights of Wilmington's 250th Anniversary Celebration. As a part of the festivities, a total of six Wilmington professional and amateur theatre companies, as well as two professional touring companies, gave performances in the historic theatre.
Since that time Thalian Hall has become one of the most heavily utilized facilities of its kind. Thalian Hall's three venues annually host 422 events attended by nearly 80,000 people, a figure that has doubled in less than twenty years. In addition to the wide range of community programming, the THCPA provides touring performances through its Main Street Attractions series which include national and international touring artists. THCPA also features artistic films through the Cinematique Film Series. Thalian Hall plays an important role in arts education for local children. The annual Pied Piper Theatre produced by THCPA and the Junior League of Wilmington, NC provides a first experience with live theatre to every first and second grader in New Hanover County.
The demand created by this extraordinary use cannot be met by the existing facilities. Recognizing this and other longer-term needs, the THCPA Board of Trustees has completed a new Master Plan in 2003 which calls for a renovation of the historic theatre and the construction of a new medium size playhouse adjacent to the present stage. Fully implemented, the new Thalian Center will become one of the finest performing arts complexes in the state and will serve the needs of Wilmington and the Region well into the 21st century. Importantly, the plans ensure that historic Thalian Hall will remain the jewel in Wilmington's cultural crown.
The interaction and influence between professional and amateur, local and touring artists is a familiar theme throughout the Cape Fear region's theatrical history. As a port city, Wilmington's role and attitude has been one of receiving and incorporating outside influences and then nurturing and shaping these influences, creating a unique theatrical tradition comprised of many diverse elements including troupes of itinerant actors, prominent Wilmington thespians, great touring stars, historical pageants, original plays, summer stock seasons, little theatre productions, right down to present day citizens playing feature roles in contemporary films. All of these influences have served to imprint Wilmington's artists, delight its audiences and fill its theatres.