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What is Thalian Hall?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

Since its completion in 1858, the edifice at 310 Chestnut St., Wilmington [Map this], has served both as Wilmington’s city hall and as a municipal theater. When opened, Thalian Hall seated 1,000 people, making it the largest theater south of Richmond and one of the largest in the United States just before the Civil War.

The name comes from Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy. The Thalian Association, an amateur theatrical troupe intermittently active since 1788, was instrumental in lobbying for the structure. It originally managed the theater but was forced by financial problems to give up its lease in 1860. The Thalians and the hall have remained closely entwined ever since, however, and many Thalian productions were staged here.

The Classical Revival structure was designed by New York architect and theater manager John M. Trimble, with James F. Post as supervising architect and well-known local contractors Robert B. and John C. Wood and G.W. Rose. It replaced the Innes Academy, an older structure that housed a theater on its first floor. Much of the skilled construction work on the structure was done by slave and free black labor.

The cornerstone was laid on Dec. 27, 1855, and the theater was opened with a gala performance on Oct. 12, 1858.

After the Thalians, management of the theater passed through a series of private impresarios until 1932. (One of these, John T. Ford, had managed Ford’s Theater in Washington.) For the next few decades, the building was known as the Wilmington Theter, the Opera House (by the 1870s) and the Academy of Music (from about 1902), before regaining the Thalian Hall name.

During the 1800s and early 1900s, the hall was a regular stop for national theatrical circuits. Among the actors who performed here were Maurice Barrymore, Edwin Forrest, James O’Neill (father of the playwright Eugene), Helena Modjeska, the comedian Joe Jefferson, the Scottish comedian Sir Harry Lauder, Alla Nazimova, Lillian Russell and Otis Skinner. London’s D’Oyly Carte opera company staged a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta here on Feb. 9, 1881.

Orators such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, William Jennings Bryan, Cardinal James Gibbons and Oscar Wilde (while on his 1882 American tour) all spoke here. Opera stars such as Marian Anderson and Lawrence Tibbett gave recitals here, as did dancer Ruth St. Denis and the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. John Philip Sousa gave concerts here in 1897, 1902 and 1908, while Walter Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony orchestra here in 1906 and 1912. The film “Birth of a Nation” had its first Wilmington screening at the theater in 1916.

Not all the performances were so uplifting. “General” Tom Thumb, the midget made famous by P.T. Barnum, made appearances at the theater in 1868 and 1875. Buffalo Bill Cody presented a scaled-down version of his Wild West show here in 1875. During World War II, it was used for professional wrestling matches.

The theater underwent renovations in 1871, 1881 and 1909 and — after narrowly escaping demolition — it was restored in 1938 with funding from the Works Progress Administration. At this time, the window spaces on the Princess Street side of the theater were bricked up to strengthen the structure.

From 1906 to 1956, the ballroom space on the hall’s second floor housed the Wilmington Public Library.

After World War II, the theater continued to function as a community center, with occasional special attractions; Agnes Moorehead delivered a one-woman show there in 1954. In 1963, the theater was turned over to the Thalian Hall Commission. A small fire in 1973 closed the theater for renovations until 1975.

In 1983, the Thalian Hall Commission was reorganized as the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts, a non-profit with ties to the city administration, which began to draw up a master plan for a major expansion and restoration of the theater. In 1985, Wilmington voters passed a $1.7 million bond issue for the renovation project, and an additional $2 million was raised in a statewide fundraising campaign.

The theater closed again in 1988 for 18 months of construction work. A 25,000-square foot expansion on the Chestnut Street side of the building included a new lobby (re-orienting the theater entrance from the Princess Street side to the Chestnut Street side of the building) as well as a “black box” theater for smaller, more experimental performances. Backstage facilities were enhanced and an expanded “green room” was added. Restorers, however, were careful to preserve much of Thalian Hall’s Victorian amenities, including a “thunder roll,” which recreated the sound of thunder by rolling a cannonball down a wooden trough. (The thunder roll is believed to be the last surviving example of its kind.) The complex reopened on March 2, 1890.

In 2009, the main stage theater was scheduled to close again for further renovations.

Today, Thalian Hall plays host to a schedule of touring shows and concerts, as well as productions by local theater companies and screenings by the Cinematique series of foreign and independent film.

The lobby areas and hallways are decorated with photos of famous performers and memorabilia from the theater’s history, including a fragment of the original, classically themed drop curtain. Guided tours of the theater can be scheduled in advance by phoning the office (343-3660); self-guided tours of the main stage may be taken during box office hours (noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2-6 p.m. Saturday).

Thalian Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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