Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Thalian Hall’s executive director passes away, county commissioner takes over in interim

A bust of Thalian Hall director Tony Rivenbark, the former executive director, sits in the theater’s lobby. (Photo courtesy Thalian Hall)

WILMINGTON — A Wilmington cultural icon, historic preservationist and revered actor who led the helm of the historic Thalian Hall for four decades has died. Tony Rivenbark was a champion and steward of the Cape Fear’s arts community and especially its historic theater, constructed in 1858. The 74-year-old served as Thalian Hall’s executive director for 42 years.

The theater — which also is home to the City of Wilmington’s government operations — became a beacon of artistic output and historic preservation under Rivenbark’s careful eye. In 1983, the executive director helped lay the groundwork and master plan for the hall’s extensive renovations and expansions.

The first took place between 1988 and 1990 — a $5 million project that included expanded lobbies, the inclusion of what’s known today as the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre, plus backstage upgrades, and a new northern wing, among other amenities.

Twenty years later in 2010, another $3.6 million renovation took place to reconfigure the main stage’s seating, a hydraulic orchestra pit, and the introduction of “Alice,” the beloved Victorian-style chandelier that hangs above the audience.

In the last year, Thalian has undergone more improvements, including backstage upgrades and restorations in the main hall, as well as a new stage surface.

Rivenbark’s love for Thalian has been captured in written form as well in “Time, Talent and Tradition” published by the Cape Fear Museum in 1990. In 2015 he wrote “Images of America: Thalian Hall,” published by Arcadia Press. Recently, Rivenbark penned an essay, “The Theatre That Never Got Finished,” to be published in the book “Theatre Architecture” by the Theatre Library Association at Lincoln Center in New York.

Having served on the board of the League of Historic American Theatres, Rivenbark gave lectures throughout the country about Thalian and the importance of its continuation.

Not only was he the theater’s most beloved caretaker, he also appeared on its stage plenty throughout years, first in 1966 as part of the musical “Good News.” A gifted actor who received numerous accolades throughout his lifetime — including the Wilmington’s Lifetime Achievement for the Arts in 2004 — Rivenbark appeared in more than 200 productions, both locally, regionally and Off-Broadway (“Holy Ghosts” with Beth Grant and “The Passionate Men” with Peter Bartlett).

Just in May, he received Historic Wilmington Foundation’s Thomas and Elizabeth Wright Lifetime Achievement Award for his dedication to historic preservation in the Lower Cape Fear.

“Rivenbark exemplified the best attributes of a preservationist: dogged persistence, an inexplicable ability to séance with a building, and a fundamental understanding that historic resources are preserved because of the stories they share,” the foundation noted in a statement Tuesday.

According to Thalian Hall, all productions and events will move forward as planned at the venue, three of which take place this weekend. New Hanover County commissioner Rob Zapple — who serves on the Thalian Hall board — will step in as interim director.

Zapple directed Rivenbark throughout the years in many productions of “A Christmas Carol.” Rivenbark was known for playing Scrooge locally, a role he performed over a dozen times.

Thalian will conduct a nationwide search for Rivenbark’s permanent replacement, according to a release.

“We understand to find the right candidate to fill his shoes will be a difficult undertaking,” said Terry Espy, president of Thalian’s board of trustees. “We are extremely grateful that a thorough audit of the organization was recently completed that leaves us well prepared for the task.” 

Tuesday evening Thalian, as well as CFCC’s Wilson Center, UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium, and the City of Wilmington’s Meadowlark Lemon Bridge will pay tribute to Rivenbark by illuminating the façades purple through Saturday.

The League of Historic American Theatres will be sharing in the remembrance with venues across the United States participaing in the tribute.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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