Actors want to see Tony Rivenbark perform. They want to be cast in his productions, take his direction, and learn from a man who has entertained generations of audience members. “I’ve never seen him do anything that I wasn’t thoroughly impressed” is how one actor put it when asked to describe Rivenbark’s talents. He has become synonymous in Wilmington-area theater for playing “Scrooge” in adaptations of the Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol”, but is just as happy and engaging playing “Bossy the Cow”, entertaining children in Pied Piper Theater productions.
Tony Rivenbark’s introduction to theater is an often-told story. As a freshman at Wilmington College (now UNC Wilmington) in 1966, Rivenbark ventured into Thalian Hall after seeing a note posted on a campus bulletin board. He sat in the balcony, and fell in love with the building at first sight. More on that later.
Rivenbark filled out an audition card that day. On it he wrote “I do a mean Charleston”, referring to dancing talents developed as a child in Duplin County. Rivenbark had started taking dance lessons from a man in Clinton, about 15 miles from the Rivenbark family home in Warsaw. Those early lessons led to Rivenbark’s first television appearance at age five, dancing to “Ballin’ the Jack” on WNCT-TV in Greenville, North Carolina.
“My mother would take me over to take lessons, and then he started teaching in Warsaw,” Tony remembers. “Well, I was already a year ahead. So, my father actually opened up a little nightclub in Warsaw with a stereo. The crowd gathered, the people who were taking ballroom dancing, and we had a dance club in Warsaw. I was always there, and quite often I was a very popular partner because I was ahead of all the men in the class. I could do the steps better, so I would be dancing with these people who were taller than I was.”
Doug Swink, who launched the theater program at Wilmington College, saw what this young man in the theater had written on his audition card. Swink cast Rivenbark in the 1920’s musical “Good News”, and a career in theater was born.
Rivenbark actually started directing, producing and starring in his own productions many years before getting that role as a college freshman. Before ever appearing in Thalian Hall, Rivenbark wowed audiences in his own backyard, fueled in part by his parents taking him to outdoor dramas, and the inception of television.
“We had one of the first televisions on the block,” Rivenbark said. “In the early 50s you were watching things like “I Married Joan” and “I Love Lucy”, and both of them, particularly Lucy, was always trying to get into show business. My favorite was “I Married Joan”, when she (Joan Davis in the title role) was in a civil war play. The costumes and sets arrived at one woman’s club where they were going to do the show, and the cast arrived at another. She’d sent them to the wrong place. She had to do all the parts in the play. She kept coming out in different costumes playing different characters. Well, I could do that, so I made up my own plays. I would put a quilt on a clothesline and make the neighborhood kids come and watch, and I would make up these plays and go in and out, playing all the characters. It was inspired by “I Married Joan”.”
Following his college graduation, Rivenbark spent time in New York City producing an off-Broadway play. He would return to Wilmington to do summer stock, and years later had made plans to move to Florida when a job came open at Thalian Hall. History was Rivenbark’s first love, particularly architectural history, so getting the opportunity to work inside the building he loved was a perfect match.
“I just couldn’t believe what an extraordinarily beautiful building this was,” Rivenbark remembers thinking during that first visit as a college freshman. “This peaked my interest in architecture. I didn’t know anything about it, and that was strange to me. It was pink and white and gray, not very pretty really. It was striking and handsome and magnificent, but it was very shabby, very rundown, almost like a secret place.”
Rivenbark is now the Executive Director of the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts. He has guided the famed center through restoration and expansion projects, and in 2014 created “Images of America: Thalian Hall”, a book that chronicles the history of the hall through pictures and images.
“I had many hours when there was nothing going on in the building, when the show wasn’t going on and no tours coming in. so I just read every scrap of paper in files or whatever, and began researching and looking at it,” Rivenbark said. “I have a phrase that I’ve said to other people who are involved in restoring theaters. I’ve said ‘you have to listen to the building, and there are many ways the building will speak to you. It speaks through newspaper articles, documents, letters, and in people talking and just looking at it.”
It is safe to say that Tony Rivenbark knows nearly every inch of Thalian Hall. He has acted in, directed and produced hundreds of productions on its’ stage. He has walked every floor, perhaps thousands of times, seeing or hearing things that pass by the occasional visitor or audience member. Yet there is a drive deep inside the man to learn details about the historic hall that escape him to this day.
“I have spent 37 years trying to figure out what this theater looked like when it opened in 1858, and I actually have a conjectural image that I have gotten that I think is pretty true, except for about six feet,” Rivenbark says. “I can’t figure out what was there. From the front of the original forestage to the actual proscenium of the stage itself. What was between that, I haven’t figured out. I’m still searching for that.”
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