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What is the Thalian Association?

Ben Steelman

The oldest community theater troupe in North Carolina, and one of the oldest in the nation, the Thalian Association has been a part of Wilmington life, off and on, since 1788. In its current incarnation, it has been in continuous existence since 1929.

Its name comes from Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy. Today, the organization stages five productions a year, as well as a season of the Thalian Association Childrens Theatre.

Traditional accounts say the group formed in 1788, after a group of professional actors performed in Wilmington, inspiring the locals to try more of the same. The group’s antecedents might date even earlier, though; a 1787 letter by James Iredell mentions attending a performance by “our players,” which might refer to an early version of the Thalians.

The group lapsed but was reorganized and formally incorporated in 1814. By 1833, however, the Thalians were recorded as organizing again, staging a number of performances in the theater at Innes Academy, which stood on the grounds of the present Thalian Hall.

According to period accounts, the actors were prominent local gentlemen. James G. Burr, an avid Thalian and later historian of the group, was longtime cashier for the Bank of Cape Fear; Edward B. Dudley, the future governor of North Carolina, also performed with the group. No women were members of the early Thalians, so several men donned skirts and wigs for the women’s parts, as in Shakespeare’s time. (James Sprunt, in his “Chronicles of the Cape Fear,” notes that William M. Green, a future Episcopal bishop of Mississippi with “a beauty somewhat feminine,” excelled in women’s roles.)

A further reorganization followed in 1846. This group was instrumental in the building of Thalian Hall. (It also bought and donated a stone for the construction of the Washington Monument, which can still be found by those who decide to walk to the top.)

This group took over the management of Thalian Hall in 1858. By 1860, however, the costs of new scenery and wardrobe, plus accumulated debt, proved too great, and the Thalians were forced to dissolve. The group apparently lived on in some informal form, though; as late as 1875, the “Old Thalians” are recorded as performing in the upper room of Tileston School.

In 1928, the Little Theatre Guild of Wilmington organized at the home of Mrs. Walter Sprunt and began to stage plays. On March 16, 1929, Professor Hugh Heffner of Chapel Hill addressed the group at the Wilmington YMCA, suggesting they adopt the historic Thalian name. The name change seems to have become official by the time of the “new” Thalians’ performance, May 31, 1929 in the Academy of Music (Thalian Hall).

Since then, the Thalians have staged at least one performance each year, except during World War II.

Today, the Thalian Association manages the Hannah Block Historic USO Center and presents an annual Pat Hingle Scholarship in Theater Arts to a deserving high school senior.

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