Tony Rivenbark, an actor, historian, preservationist, arts administrator and cultural giant without whose leadership downtown Wilmington’s historic Thalian Hall theater would not exist in its current form, died Monday. He was 74.
Rivenbark had served as the executive director of Thalian Hall for more than 42 years. His death, from undisclosed causes, was confirmed by longtime friend and associate Shane Fernando, who is the vice president of advancement and the arts for Cape Fear Community College and the executive and artistic director of CFCC’s Wilson Center.
“It’s a huge loss,” said Fernando, who grew up going to Thalian Hall and acting in plays with Rivenbark, whom he calls his mentor. “His presence will continue to be felt in Wilmington for a very long time.”
Fernando said that, in Rivenbark’s honor, the exteriors of Thalian Hall, the Wilson Center, Kenan Auditorium on the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge on North Third Street will be illuminated with purple lights Tuesday evening.
In addition, Fernando said, multiple historic theaters around the country will be lit in purple in the coming days as well, owing to Rivenbark’s long association with the League of Historic American Theatres.
Thalian Hall, in the same building as Wilmington City Hall, dates to 1858. Rivenbark had been running the historic performance space since taking over as executive director in 1979. He never stepped down from his role. Despite ill health in recent months, he was actively running affairs at the theater “right until the end,” Fernando said.
“It’s a very sad day for our entire community,” said New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple, a member of Thalian Hall’s board of trustees and a close friend of Rivenbark’s who also directed him in multiple productions of “A Christmas Carol.” “He’ll be greatly missed.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the hall’s board of trustees appointed Zapple interim executive director of Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., the nonprofit that runs the venue for the city of Wilmington, which owns the theater. In a news release, the board said that it would initiate “a nationwide search for the permanent director.”
“We understand to find the right candidate to fill his shoes will be a difficult undertaking,” THCPA Board Chair Terry Espy said in the release. “We are extremely grateful that a thorough audit of the organization was recently completed that leaves us well prepared for the task.”
Funeral arrangements and plans for a public celebration of Rivenbark’s life and outsize role in Wilmington’s cultural affairs will be announced in the coming days, Fernando said.
Rivenbark’s survivors include a sister, Dana McBrayer.
In terms of his personality, Rivenbark, a slight man who in recent years often sported a shock of white hair, was known to harbor contradictions. He could be alternately charming or combative, warm or aloof. He had a quick sense of humor and was always ready with a story, many of them about Thalian Hall.
Professionally, however, there seemed to be little separation between his work and his life. He lived and breathed Thalian Hall. Even in the course of his extensive travels, he was often visiting one historic theater or another.
Rivenbark oversaw many renovations to Thalian Hall over the years, including recent repairs to its roof and ceiling from damage incurred by Hurricane Florence in 2018. The hall fully reopened from those fixes just this summer.
When he took over as executive director in 1979, Rivenbark told the StarNews in 2019, Thalian Hall “was very underutilized. The Thalian Association (theater company) did four shows a year, one weekend each. And that was about it.”
Starting in the early 1980s, Rivenbark and other cultural and community leaders embarked on a master plan to improve and fully renovate the theater. As part of that plan, a 1983 benefit show, “Remembered Nights,” would bring Broadway veteran Lou Criscuolo to Wilmington. Criscuolo, who died in 2014, would stay in town to form Opera House Theatre Co. in 1985, and that company has been instrumental in attracting audiences to the historic venue over the decades.
After a major, $5 million renovation to the hall in 1990, which added the present-day lobby and studio theater, “the activity here just jumped sky high,” Rivenbark said in 2019. Having some sort of performance, movie or other offering on any given night became the rule rather than the exception.
The 1990 renovation and preservation of the hall went a long way to cementing its role in Wilmington’s cultural life for decades to come. Another major, $3.6 million renovation in 2010 refurbished the main stage’s ornate proscenium arch, installed new seating, upgraded the hall’s technical capabilities and introduced “Alice,” a large, Victorian-style chandelier that hangs from the auditorium’s ceiling.
In addition to too many awards and honors to list here, the StarNews gave Rivenbark its Lifetime Achievement award in 2019. In 2014, he was honored with the Lela Thompson Award for Enduring Contribution to Wilmington Theater at the StarNews Wilmington Theater Awards, a ceremony and celebration Rivenbark helped sustain by providing space at Thalian Hall.
In May, the Historic Wilmington Foundation awarded Rivenbark with the Thomas and Elizabeth Wright Award for Lifetime Achievement.
David Anthony “Tony” Rivenbark was born in the Duplin County town of Warsaw on March 27, 1948.
In a 2019 profile, Rivenbark told the StarNews that the first time he ever set foot in Thalian Hall was in 1966, as a freshman at Wilmington College, now the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He was there to audition for a production of the 1920s musical “Good News” for the Thalian Association. (The Thalian Association Community Theatre is a separate entity from Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts.)
Rivenbark never stopped performing, going on to act in more than 200 productions in Wilmington and elsewhere, including off-Broadway in New York. His last official stage role was in the play “The Book of Will” for Big Dawg Productions at that company’s former Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street.
Notably, he played the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in 14 different productions of “A Christmas Carol” over the years, including a half dozen or more times for Zapple’s Theatre Exchange company.
Other notable roles include Norman Thayer in “On Golden Pond” for Thalian Hall Cube Theatre in 2015, which earned him a Best Actor in a Play nomination at the Wilmington Theater Awards and had him acting alongside one of his closest friends, the Wilmington actress Suellen Yates, who played Norman’s wife, Ethel.
Ray Kennedy, who has directed numerous musicals for Opera House Theatre Co., said he first met Rivenbark in 1985 after a production of “A Chorus Line” at Thalian Hall. Kennedy said he spoke with Rivenbark on Monday afternoon, and they talked about how different Rivenbark was in the roles of Ben Franklin in Opera House’s production of “1776” and as a right-wing, anti-gay politician in the company’s 2019 production of “La Cage aux Folles.”
“That was his genius,” Kennedy said. “He could play almost anything. No matter whether he was the lead in ‘On Golden Pond’ or doing a cameo for Opera House, the intensity and preparation were exactly the same. In his mind, there was no such thing as a small role.”
Fernando said that, before he died, Rivenbark “was cast in and preparing for” a role in Opera House Theatre Co.’s production of the musical “Newsies,” which Fernando is directing. It’s set to open on Thalian Hall’s main stage in August.
Rivenbark went to great lengths to document Thalian Hall’s history in Wilmington. He was the author of “Images of America: Thalian Hall,” published by Arcadia Press in 2015, and he wrote articles and essays about the building’s history for numerous publications.
In 2008, he organized a sprawling 150th anniversary celebration for the theater, even acting in a new production of the farce “Box and Cox,” one of the first plays to be performed at Thalian Hall when it opened in 1858.
Fernando also credited Rivenbark with maintaining Thalian Hall’s physical and financial health over the years. He said the venue is “one of the healthiest in the state and the region.”
With two theatrical productions happening there this weekend — Opera House’s production of “Grease” on the main stage and Big Dawg’s production of the play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in the upstairs Ruth and Bucky Stein Studio Theatre, which Rivenbark helped establish —”it is as vibrant today as it was before the pandemic,” Fernando added.
Rivenbark helped shepherd Thalian Hall through that disaster, Fernando said, and nursed the venue back to health once the lockdown eased.
Fernando called Thalian Hall “America’s greatest historic theater,” a status it would not have without Rivenbark’s tireless dedication.
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Tony Rivenbark, director of Wilmington NC’s Thalian Hall, dead at 74