An Elegy to Tony

04 Sep 2022

There will never be another Tony Rivenbark

By Gwenyfar Rohler

“Live your life so your funeral is standing room only.” Tony Rivenbark did one better: standing ovation only.  

To understand Tony Rivenbark, you must understand that for him, Thalian Hall was a combination of destiny and love at first sight. The beautiful 1858 Opera House building attached to City Hall would become the most enduring relationship of his adult life. In 1966 he walked in the door for the first time to audition for Doug Swink, who was directing “Good News”. Thalian Hall was suffering from the effects of multiple fires, over 100 years of wear and tear, and cheap repairs (it was easier to paint over the balcony decorations than to save or re-stencil them). Rivenbark was appointed Executive Director of Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts (THCPA) in 1979. At the time it was a more impressive sounding title than reality: he was a one-man show as the only employee. From scrubbing toilets, to the box office, to administrative paperwork, he did it all. Thalian Hall desperately wanted to be a building pulsing and vibrant with life again, and Rivenbark set out to make that happen.  

My first encounter with Rivenbark is one I share with thousands of people: I first saw him on stage in a Pied Piper Theatre production when I was six. Since the 1950s Pied Piper Theatre annually presents a play to 1st and 2nd graders in New Hanover County Schools. Rivenbark joined the cast in the 1970s at Doug Swink’s invitation and appeared in it since – including taking over the “troublesome spotlight” routine for the curtain speech from Swink when the show moved to Thalian Hall in 1990. Rivenbark appeared in more than 200 shows during his lifetime in a range that included Off-Broadway, regional theatre, musicals, Shakespeare, children’s theatre, Outdoor Historical Dramas, and even a one-man show about his dear friend, the late visual artist Claude Howell.  

Perhaps Rob Zapple, current Interim Executive Director of THCPA, has the best story about the first time he encountered Tony. “I first heard Tony’s voice across the nation,” Zapple recalls. “I was on the 405 – the freeway in L.A., in my little VW and on Public Radio I heard this funny little man talking about something called the ‘Thunder Roll.’” He had never heard of a Thunder Roll, or Thalian Hall, or Wilmington, N.C.  A Thunder Roll is a 19th century special effect to create the sound of thunder using cannon balls rolled down a wooden trough. Thalian Hall has the last operational one east of the Mississippi. Flash forward 18 months and Zapple found himself visiting Wilmington. Mary James Morgan and Lou Criscuolo invited him to an Opera House Theatre Co. production of “The Princess and the Pea” at Thalian Hall, then later to the cast party. “It was at Tony’s house on 6th street,” Zapple notes. Rivenbark played the part of the King in the show, “and when I walked in the door there’s this funny little man with his voice and it connected.”

There will never be another Tony Rivenbark. We have a world class historic theatre that breathes life into the cultural heart of this community – and we owe it largely to his personal force of will. He would credit a significant portion of Thalian Hall’s success, and future, to Pied Piper Theatre, which he regarded as a sacred trust between him, his mentor Doug Swink, and the school children of New Hanover County. This coming January will mark the first Pied Piper production in almost 50 years that won’t have Rivenbark on stage. But someone will step out on stage and the spotlight will run away from them – and they will chase it with an oversized hammer straight out of Looney Toons. The walls of Thalian Hall will ring with the excited cries of another generation of children falling in love with the performing arts.

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