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Do Wilmington’s two Thalian groups compete for grants and donations?

Ben Steelman
StarNews
Thalian Hall. Note early automobiles parked diagonally on Third Street. Courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library.

Thalian Hall. Note the early automobiles parked diagonally on Third Street. Courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library.

Q. Why are there two organizations in Wilmington both after the same arts funding? There is the the 225-year-old Thalian Association and then there is the Thalian Hall Association, both with high powered boards of directors, etc.

A.It does get a mite confusing, but the two groups are entirely separate and do not, as the questioner suggested, directly compete for arts grants and donations. Simply put, one is a community theater troupe. The other is a management agency for a historic theater.

The Thalian Association traces its roots to 1788, when traditional accounts state that a group of local gentlemen, inspired by a traveling acting troupe resolved to put on shows of their own. (The name comes from Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy.) Amateur theater might have an even earlier start, however, as a 1787 letter by James Innes includes a reference to “our players.”

The group would periodically lapse and reorganize, with major revivals in 1814, 1833 and 1846. The present incarnation of the Thalian Association dates from 1929, when the newly organized Theater Guild of Wilmington, inspired by a talk from a Chapel Hill professor, resolved to rename themselves the Thalians. Since then the group has staged at least one production every year, except during World War II.

From 1855 to 1858, the Thalian Association was active in the building a municipal theater as part of a grand new City Hall at Third and Princess streets, replacing the old Innes Academy building on that site where plays had been staged in earlier days.

(The association had other off-stage projects as well. In 1851, it donated a block of stone to the Washington Monument in the District of Columbia. This inscribed stone can still be found beside the monument’s steps today.)

Thalian officers played a major role in the opening of the new theater – named Thalian Hall – on Oct. 12, 1858. The association then took over management of the theater. Within two years, however, weighed down by the costs of scenery and costumes, the association was apparently forced to disband. (The group may have survived informally, however; an 1875 newspaper clipping reports on a performance by “the Old Thalians” at Tileston School.)

Operation of the theater was contracted to private managers from the 1860s through the 1930s. From 1941 to 1973, however, the Thalian Association again managed Thalian Hall under a multiyear contract from the city of Wilmington.

At this point, we meet the other Thalian group. In 1963, the city of Wilmington and the Junior League of Wilmington jointly formed a Thalian Hall Commission as a private, nonprofit foundation to raise funds for the restoration and capital support of the theater. In 1973, the commission took over management of the theater. In 1986, as part of a major capital campaign, the commission renamed itself the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts, governed by a board of trustees.

The center continues to run the theater and has overseen major expansions and renovations in 1990 and 2010. It is independent of city government and receives no city funds but collects a management fee, based on a share of box office receipts. (In 2011, this fee amounted to $127,500 per year.) It also obtains funding from concessions and souvenir sales.

With rare exceptions (notably, the 125th anniversary gala “Remembered Nights” in 1983), neither the commission nor the center has produced shows of its own.

The Thalian Association continues to mount shows in Thalian Hall – currently, five a year – but has no role in the theater’s day-to-day operations. It does, however manage of Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center building at 120 S. Second St. under a city contract. The center’s Hannah Block theater is the scene for productions by the Thalian Association Children’s Theater (TACT), the Thalians’ youth wing.

In June 2013, the Thalians obtained a three-year, no-cost lease on the Red Barn Studio Theatre at 1122 S. Third St. from owners Linda Lavin and Steve Bakunas. The association announced plans to use the 60-seat theater for classes, set construction and a summer theater season. Its first production in the new space, “Other Desert Cities,” is scheduled for November.

According to Thalian Hall marketing director Gary Tucker, The Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts and the Thalian Association have no legal ties to each other; nor is either affiliated with any other drama group. (Rumors to the contrary, there are no official links between the Center and Opera House Theatre Company.) The Center and the Association are separate nonprofit organizations, each with separate governing boards and membership programs.

RELATED LINKS:

What is Thalian Hall?

What is the Thalian Association?

Did the Thalian Association help build the Washington Monument?

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