north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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     Thalian Hall, long the cultural and political center of Wilmington, was constructed between 1855 and 1858. The building is the only surviving theater designed by John Montague Trimble, one of the foremost nineteenth century American architects. The building since its earliest days has hosted city government offices as well as theatrical events.

     Thalian Hall’s origins lie in the Thalian Association, a theatrical company first organized in 1788 that took its name from Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy. The Wilmington-based association produced plays throughout the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century at the Innes Academy, named for James Innes. By the 1850s traveling theater companies leased the quickly dilapidating building for their productions. Joseph Jefferson, one of the most beloved actors in American theater, said of the academy, “days were spent in preparing the dusty old rat-trap of a theatre for an opening.”

     In response, Wilmington town fathers decided to construct a new facility, which would serve as a theater, library, and city civic center. Innes Academy was demolished, and Thalian Hall constructed over the site beginning in 1855. On October 12, 1858, Thalian Hall opened with a gala celebration. While the first two years were spent under the Thalian Association, from 1860 to 1936 commercial lessees who rented it to other groups managed the theater. Over the years, it has been referred to as Thalian Hall, the Wilmington Opera House, and the Wilmington Academy of Music.

     Productions have been ongoing at Thalian Hall since the first opening night. In a December 1858 performance of “The Invisible Prince,” men played female roles. Thomas Dixon spoke when his work The Clansman was presented as a play, and Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s film based on Dixon’s novel, was screened in the hall in 1916. Tom Thumb, Buffalo Bill Cody, Oscar Wilde, and John Phillip Sousa all performed or spoke in the building.

     Thalian Hall has also served political purposes. During the Civil War, the building provided an audience for impassioned secession speeches. In the summer of 1861, local Confederate women held a series of performances to raise money for sick and wounded soldiers. Theater attendees paid twenty-five cents a piece to see the plays. Illustrating wartime inflation, by 1865 admission to performances cost ten dollars.

     After the war, the Hall served African-American interests and those who opposed black progress. Black fraternal and social meetings took place in the building during Reconstruction, and several prominent African Americans such as Thomas Greene Bethune, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington lectured there. A pivotal event of the 1898 “race riot,” a rousing white supremacy tirade by Alfred Moore Waddell, was delivered in the hall.
     Thalian Hall survived the Great Depression, receiving a $50,000 Works Progress Administration Grant for renovations and performances. After the Second World War, a new series of renovations took place, followed in 1973 by a period of rebuilding after a catastrophic fire. The most recent restoration occurred in 1990. Presently, Thalian Hall continues to serve Wilmington in the capacity originally intended in 1858—hosting theatrical events as well as city offices.


References:
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina History (2006), 1114—sketch by Bennett L. Steelman and Beverly Tetterton Gala Opening: Thalian Hall for the Performing Arts – Official Souvenir Program, March 2-18, 1990
Mary B. Broadfoot, “Thalian Hall,” Lower Cape Fear Historical Society Bulletin, 13 (February 1970)
Donald J. Rulfs, “The Professional Theater in Wilmington,” North Carolina Historical Review (April-October, 1951): 119-136, 316-331
Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984)
Richard Walser, ed., North Carolina Drama (1956)
Hugh F. Rankin, The Theater in Colonial Americ (1965)
Charles S. Watson, The History of Southern Drama (1997)
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