Thalian Hall Pre-20th Century

Many consider Thalian Hall to be the center point of downtown Wilmington's diverse, cultural neighborhood. This historical icon has been the venue of many theatrical and musical performances and events since the mid-1800s and continues to enthrall audiences to this day. Throughout the years, the structure has been privy to participated in the history that has shaped Wilmington into the city it is today. Within the crown of historical and important monuments, Thalian Hall could be considered the top jewel in terms of the enriching and enlightening culture that it has been providing to locals and visitors alike for more than 150 years.

Playhouses were built in North Carolina during the early 1800s in towns that amateur theatrical societies called home. During this time a building was commissioned to be constructed to house both a theatre and an academy for study of the arts. This structure was known as the Innes Academy and was built on the current site of Thalian Hall. The performers of the Wilmington Thalian Association began performing at this academy in 1803.

Many famous touring actors would visit the area and give performances at the Innes Academy during the years leading up to the mid 1800s. Most notably during this time was Junius Booth, a great performer of tragedies. Traveling with him was his son Edward Booth who would also grow up to become one of the country's most famous performers and gained added attention and notoriety for being the brother of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

In the early 1850's, the citizens of Wilmington made the decision to replace the Innes Academy. It lost its function as a place of learning and was very much outdated in terms of theatrical productions and features. Everyone felt that with Wilmington having the greatest population in North Carolina, it deserved to have a larger and more modern place for theatre performances. In 1854, the appropriate funds were gathered and new construction began at the site. To continue its use of the theatre, the Wilmington Thalian Association paid an annual rent and by 1858, Thalian Hall opened with the first production company noting it as a "splendid new temple of drama."

In spite of their initial success, the Thalian society had many debts that they were not able to overcome. The society lost control of Thalian Hall and eventually disbanded. Once the Civil War came to the area, the population of Wilmington grew even larger as a result of the activity and business provided by blockade running. Despite the hardships that the war brought, it also resulted in greater prosperity for the residents and with money to spare, entertainment was a luxury that was in high demand. Before 1864 was over, almost 250 performances were given at Thalian Hall including war plays such as Roll of the Drum and many performances were held in order to raise funds for patriotic causes and for the war wounded.

When the city of Wilmington fell to Union troops in early 1865, it did not stop the performances from occurring as Thalian Hall was quickly permitted to reopen. However the reconstruction of areas of the city affected by the war caused an economic slump by 1867 and theatre performances began to decline. The only bright point of that time was the performance of The Black Crook, which many considered to be the first defined musical and contained spectacular scenery and stage effects to highlight the performers.

John T. Ford became the manger of Thalian Hall in 1869 and renamed it the Wilmington Opera House. Ford oversaw a refurbishing and reconstruction of the Hall which had suffered a fair amount of damage during the war and in addition to this theatre, also managed several others. He brought his stock company to the Wilmington Opera House for several performances until his departure in 1873.

When the railroad activity came to Wilmington, the city became a popular stop for the southern performing touring circuit. By 1870, the Wilmington Opera House (Thalian Hall) saw an increase in the amount of performances given and touring actors who came to this location for their acts. Two notable performers were Edwin Forrest, who was the first American-born performer to achieve international stardom, and Buffalo Bill Cody, who dazzled huge audiences with his acting and rifle skills exhibitions.

In the 1880's, the theatre played host to its most famous celebrity actor of the time, Joseph Jefferson, who drew the masses to see him in his famous role of Rip Van Winkle. He would return to Wilmington several times to give additional performances and was always very popular with the theatre-goers of the city. During the 1890's, amateur dramatic organizations began to grow in number, with the most prominent one being The Wilmington Dramatic Club. Most amateur clubs gave performances in various small venues around the city, but larger organizations would perform at the Opera House.

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