WILMINGTON — They were an unlikely pair: a 108-year-old building that had seen better days and an 18-year-old college kid from Duplin County, N.C. But, from the day Doug Swink introduced Thalian Hall to Tony Rivenbark in 1966, their destinies were entwined.
“Tony‘s marriage was to Thalian Hall,” county commissioner Rob Zapple told Port City Daily.
Rivenbark passed away Monday, July 18, at Lower Cape Fear Hospice. He served as the executive director of the historic theater for 42 years. A celebration to honor his life and legacy is planned at Thalian on Aug. 27.
Zapple, who serves on Thalian Hall’s board of trustees and was a friend to Rivenbark for over two decades, is acting as interim executive director. The committee is pursuing a nationwide search for Thalian’s new leader.
“The growth of it — every inch of the modernization, the expansion goes directly to Tony and his vision,” Zapple said.
Built in 1858 as a combined theater and city government building, Thalian Hall had endured several fires, removal of architectural features, and the wear and tear of over 100 years of use. It’s fitting that Rivenbark first came to Thalian Hall for an audition: a production of “Good News,” a collaboration between Wilmington College and Thalian Association.
Swink founded the drama program at Wilmington College, the precursor to UNCW, and the long-running summer stock, Straw Hat Theater Company. Swink, who worked and taught across the country, was a mentor to many people who had an adoration for live theater. To Rivenbark, he passed the torch — one that will continue to shine brightly.
Theater is a collaborative art. Rivenbark grasped early on that preserving Thalian Hall was going to be very similar to producing a play: Get financial backers, hire carpenters, electricians and designers, find the faces and voices to make it come alive — and, finally, most importantly, attract an audience.
While the multiple renovations and expansions of Thalian Hall that Rivenbark oversaw in his lifetime were well documented in the press, his ability to consistently network and get the theater’s message to people outside of the area remained steadfast even if not always apparent. It extended beyond Rivenbark’s work with The League of Historic American Theatres.
“I first heard Tony’s voice across the nation,” Zapple recalled. “I was on the 405 — the freeway in L.A., in my little VW, and on public radio I heard this funny little man talking about something called the ‘thunder roll.’”
In the 1990’s Zapple had never heard of a thunder roll — a 19th century special effect that simulates the sound of thunder utilizing cannon balls, which was installed at Thalian. Nor did Zapple know what Thalian Hall or Wilmington, N.C., were, for that matter. Flash forward 18 months and he found himself visiting the Port City.
Mary James Morgan and Lou Criscuolo — founders of Opera House Theatre Company — invited him to a production of “The Princess and the Pea” at Thalian Hall and thereafter to the cast party.
“It was at Tony’s house on 6th Street,” Zapple said. Rivenbark had portrayed the king in the show.
“And when I walked in the door, there’s this funny little man with this recognizable voice — and it connected,” Zapple said.
Rivenbark performed in over 200 productions throughout his acting tenure — and with multiple companies across town, as well as nationwide and Off-Broadway. Cast parties often were held at his house. It’s where Steve Vernon, artistic director of Big Dawg Productions, recalled his introduction to Rivenbark, after performing in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as part of the first season of Cape Fear’s Shakespeare on the Green.
“I had never really met a raconteur before,” Vernon said, “and have not met many as entertaining as Tony.”
Of course, good theater stories are about things going wrong. There is no funny recollection about the night everything was perfect with a show.
“One of my favorite moments with Tony happened during a production of ‘Tartuffe,’” Vernon recalled.
Vernon was cast with Rivenbark, the show directed by Swink.
“We had a scene where our two characters were supposed to engage in a fairly long conversation,” Vernon said. “We were less than a minute into the scene, when Tony went up on his lines. He looked at me and stated, all the while in character, ‘I can say no more!’ — then exited the stage.”
Vernon said he was left to improvise. Yet, he also appreciated being “abandoned … with such class and aplomb.”
“I couldn’t help but admire his exit strategy,” he said.
Vernon produced the last show Rivenbark appeared in — 2020’s “The Book of Will.” It ran only one weekend before the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered the production.
“He was only in the first 15 minutes of the play, but he stole the show every night,” Vernon said. “He was such a giving and generous actor, but he knew how to find the spotlight!”
Local actress and WHQR reporter Rachel Lewis Hilburn performed with Rivenbark many times, including on multiple productions of “A Christmas Carol.” The role of Scrooge was particularly special to Rivenbark who portrayed the character on stage in at least 14 different productions.
In “On Golden Pond,” Rivenbark took on the role of Norman Thayer, playing the father opposite to Hilburn’s Chelsea Thayer Wayne.
“He kept the bar high, both in terms of discipline during rehearsals and a willingness to keep discovering during performance,” Hilburn said. “Each night, Tony showed up willing to go deep; he was an incredibly alive and generous actor onstage.”
Hilburn admits she continued calling him “Dad” even after the show closed: “I still wanted him to be proud of me.”
Beth Crookham met Rivenbark when she joined the Thalian Hall board in 2009. She called him “ferocious” in his commitment to the preservation and conservation efforts of Thalian Hall.
It went beyond making sure a master plan, construction and budgets were met; Rivenbark was dedicated to building and maintaining the Thalian Hall Archives. The collection documents the physical history of the building and every performance, lecture, and visit that comprise the breathing, pulsing life of the space.
Some of the material is presented in Rivenbark’s 2014 book “Images of America: Thalian Hall” from Arcadia Press, including the story of Claude Howell — a local artist and one of Rivenbark’s friends. Howell had copies in his journal of the stenciled decorations inside the main stage, which were utilized when refurbishing the theater, an architectural blend of Classical Revival and Late Victorian design.
If Thalian Hall was his marriage, Rivenbark defended her like a lover. He could talk for hours in arcane detail about events and people connected to the building — or even relay info regarding a specific piece of furniture.
“It’s going to be a little more challenging now,” Thalian Hall’s managing director Jarrett Donmoyer conceded. “Every bit of knowledge about this hall and everything that happened … he knew it all.”
Earlier this year, Rivenbark received Historic Wilmington Foundation’s Thomas and Elizabeth Wright Lifetime Achievement Award for his devotion to historic preservation in the Lower Cape Fear.
Though there are many historic theaters in the world and many executive directors, by virtue of sharing a building with the city government, Thalian Hall has an unusual set of circumstances for operations.
“The actual day-to-day execution of it is a difficult job,” city spokesperson Dylan Lee said. “So many groups use this facility — there are competing demands for limited time and space.”
He said Rivenbark was integral to working through trickier moments, such as the time the adjoining ballroom where city council meets was painted red for a production to film on its premises.
“He was my go-to for a transparent and productive conversation about how to solve a problem,” Lee recalled. “I was just floored when he said, ‘I love it! It may be the only council chambers in the country painted that shade of red.’’’
“Most of all,” Lee continued, “he cared about the hall — which, by proxy, is caring about the community.”
During Wilmington City Council’s July 19 meeting, Mayor Bill Saffo called Rivenbark the first employee of Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts. That’s an understatement — for a while he was the only employee.
The eventual use of Thalian gained momentum: Thalian Association Community Theater, Willis Richardson Players, productions initiated by Rivenbark, and the birth of Opera House Theatre Company all came together to make the longed-for expansions over the last 30 years essential.
When renovations to the main stage and the addition of the black box theater space upstairs were complete in 1990, the theater world in Wilmington blossomed. As Zapple pointed out, every theater company in town can trace its roots to Thalian.
“I was always impressed with how often Tony rolled up his sleeves and made things happen, even when it seemed whatever the task was couldn’t be done,” Crookham noted. “Tony and his boards and staff would always find a way.”
When Covid-19 shut down performance spaces across the world, Rivenbark managed to keep Thalian Hall alive. Donmoyer said staff continued working to stay relevant and help enliven the community during some of its darker days.
“We were among the first to hold events as soon as we were able to,” he said.
Thalian hosted shows outdoors in fall 2020 when strict social distance mandates were still in place statewide. The hall utilized the Princess Street portico steps, and staff built an outdoor venue and deconstructed it nightly on productions including “Rocky Horror Show,” a reggae concert, comedy showcases, and a dueling piano music revue, “Legends.”
“Those first audiences — how utterly thankful they were to have something,” Donmoyer reflected. “Without Tony’s passion and drive to make sure that they had something in the community, it wouldn’t have happened. The arts were missing, and he did a phenomenal job working with Opera House and others.”
“Tony’s legacy is in the vibrant historic theater he left behind for all of us,” Crookham added. “And in the thousands of school children who were ensured a taste of live theater because of his dedication to Pied Piper and creating opportunities for young people to experience the power of live performance.”
That’s the other part of the torch that Swink passed to Rivenbark. Pied Piper Theatre started as a project, brought forth by the Junior League in the 1950s, and Swink launched it at UNCW when Kenan Auditorium opened. Every first- and second-grader in New Hanover County was bused to see a live stage production. Swink pulled from the Straw Hat Theatre Co. performers, of whom Rivenbark was among.
Pied Piper eventually moved to Thalian Hall, complete with Rivenbark recreating Swink’s curtain speech with an uncooperative spotlight, nonetheless.
“Oh, to see him trying to hammer down the spotlight and the confetti cannon exploding, with the kids responding — that’s the reason for him,” Donmoyer said. “That was the reason he did it.”
Donmoyer and Zapple are both adamant that Pied Piper will go on. Now playing two shows a morning during the week to accommodate the number of first and second graders in New Hanover County, plus one weekend show for the public, for generations it has ignited a passion for theater magic.
Rivenbark appeared in its shows annually and loved performing as Bossy the Cow, a bovine with dreams so big they include Broadway and outer space — sort of like Rivenbark, who could only dream big. Finding someone to fill those shoes is going to be difficult.
“But,” Donmoyer assured, “he will be there with us every step of the way.”
Rivenbark’s life celebration is open to the public on Aug. 27, 5 p.m., to take place on the main stage at Thalian Hall; seating is limited and first-come, first-serve. A reception will follow thereafter at the Wilson Center.
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