Thalian Hall to get new leader soon, but late director Tony Rivenbark still 'haunts' venue

Thalian Hall is still looking for a new director after the passing of Tony Rivenbark.
Thalian Hall is still looking for a new director after the passing of Tony Rivenbark.

It's been six months since Tony Rivenbark, the longtime executive director of Wilmington's historic, 165-year-old Thalian Hall, died after leading the institution for more than 40 years.

When Pied Piper Theatre, the Thalian Hall-based company that performs for thousands of New Hanover County first- and second-graders each year, returns this month for its first shows since the pandemic, Rivenbark won't be around for a pre-show bit he did for decades in which he "chased" a spotlight that eluded him, much to the delight of the kids in the audience.

For the 13 employees of Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts, the nonprofit that runs the facility for the city of Wilmington, which owns it − not to mention the dozens of volunteers and city staffers who work there − not having Rivenbark around after 42 years has been "very weird."

Those are the words of Rob Zapple, the New Hanover County Commissioner and longtime Thalian Hall board member who took over as interim director when Rivenbark died last July.

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"Stepping into Tony's office," Zapple said, "I look around and see 42 years of memorabilia," as well as documents about business dealings and the shows that have been performed there. Zapple said he's even gone over Rivenbark's notes from the late director's meetings with Thalian Hall's board of trustees and city employees.

"Tony still haunts the building," said Richard Trubia, a Thalian Hall board member who currently serves as treasurer and is a past board president. "I see him everywhere."

Thalian Hall's new 'CEO'

Time marches on, as they say, and Thalian Hall's board is in the process of hiring a new director, with hopes of having a new leader installed by April or May, at the earliest.

In December, a job listing was posted for "chief executive officer" of Thalian Hall, with an application deadline of Feb. 24.

The search is being led by Margaret Genovese, a senior partner in the Toronto firm of Genovese, Vanderhoof & Associates. She's a "cultural consultant" of sorts who Zapple said advised the Thalian Hall board about six years ago on several matters and who worked with Rivenbark in the League of Historic American Theaters, a professional network dedicated to sustaining historic theaters all over the country.

Genovese "made a big impression on all of us" during her time working with the board six years ago, Zapple said, so the board decided to hire her to conduct the search for Rivenbark's replacement.

New Hanover County commissioner Rob Zapple is the acting director at Thalian Hall.
New Hanover County commissioner Rob Zapple is the acting director at Thalian Hall.

"This is what Margaret does every day," Zapple said. "She has what we used to call a 'deep Rolodex.'"

Clearly, no one is going to "replace" Rivenbark. But the qualifications for the position laid out in the job posting set a pretty high bar for the person who eventually succeeds him. After laying out some Thalian Hall history (built in 1858) and facts (640 seats in the main theater, events most days of the year and 80,000 visitors per annum), the job post goes on at some length.

"The ideal candidate," it says, will have "proven success in a leadership position with performing arts centers, hopefully with historic theatres."

It continues: "Knowledge of capital/endowment campaigns and a successful track record as a senior administrator with performing arts facilities and project management are desirable."

The "essential characteristics" the job posting lists include "being an articulate champion for the performing arts" as well as "fundraising experience," "a consensus-building managerial style" and "political savviness."

High school students from all over North Carolina packed Thalian Hall  in 2019 for the Cucalorus Film Festival.
High school students from all over North Carolina packed Thalian Hall in 2019 for the Cucalorus Film Festival.

It also outlines the unique position of Thalian Hall, which is one of the very few performing arts centers in the United States to share space with the local government. In that sense, maintaining relationships with city staff and officials is just as important as dealing with the many arts groups and theater troupes that use (and bring money into) Thalian Hall.

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The job pays pretty well, with a listed salary range of between $100,000 and $135,000, not including a benefits package.

"I'm excited. It's going to be a new day for Thalian Hall," said Trubia, the Thalian Hall board member who's on the five-person job search committee. "This is going to help bring Thalian to the next level."

Zapple said the board plans to meet, either virtually or in person, with Genovese when the applications are in. After that, the process of winnowing the field and conducting interviews will begin.

Both Zapple and Trubia said they've heard from multiple people locally who are interested in the job.

"A number of people from in town are interested," Zapple said. "When they've called me, it's been a very short conversation," because all applications go through Genovese, the hiring consultant.

And both Zapple and Trubia acknowledge that following in the footsteps of Rivenbark, whose name was essentially synonymous with Thalian Hall for decades, is going to be inherently difficult.

In particular, "It's going to be really hard for someone from out of town," Zapple said, who would be unfamiliar with the local arts landscape.

Trubia said that, "If you don't have the connections, that takes years and years to develop," adding that "the new person will definitely have different functions than Tony," perhaps a bit more booking and a bit more fundraising.

At the same time, there wouldn't seem to be too many people in Wilmington who would meet the job's very specific requirements. One notable exception is Shane Fernando, who runs Cape Fear Community College's 1,550-seat Wilson Center as CFCC's vice president of advancement and the arts. He's also a Thalian Hall board member and for the past 10 years has served as a paid programming consultant to the Hall, booking touring shows at the Hall and helping manage the performance schedule.

Shane Fernando, left, and Tony Rivenbark pose at the N.C. Azalea Festival's Airlie Luncheon Garden Party at Airlie Gardens in 2018.
Shane Fernando, left, and Tony Rivenbark pose at the N.C. Azalea Festival's Airlie Luncheon Garden Party at Airlie Gardens in 2018.

Fernando, however, said he's not throwing his hat into the ring.

"I grew up at the Hall," Fernando wrote in a message. "Thalian Hall means the world to me, and I want to see her continue to prosper and I look forward to continuing my involvement in so many ways. Tony left the Hall in probably the strongest place it has been in its 164-plus year history: facility wise, financially, organizationally. This is great news for the person taking the reins. Tony and I talked about the Hall's future many times ... I believe my greatest contribution to the Hall's success at this present time, especially during this transition, is at the helm of the Wilson Center, being the strongest collaborator possible with the new leader (and) working to maintain the incredible, community-focused relationship that Tony and I built between our two venues."

A large crowd at Thalian Hall in February of 2020.
A large crowd at Thalian Hall in February of 2020.

'A moving train'

In the meantime, activities at the Hall − plays, musicals, touring shows, movies − have continued apace.

Rivenbark knew he was dying last summer, and in his final days he was active in discussions on how to keep the Hall running after he passed. "There were lots of relationships built by Tony" that he and the board are trying to maintain, Zapple said.

Zapple said he initially thought he and the staff could simply and somewhat passively maintain the momentum of what Rivenbark had started until a new person was hired, but several full-time staffers quickly disabused him of that notion.

"What they told me," Zapple said, "Is, 'Right now, we're on a moving train. This train does not stop. If we put it on autopilot it will stall, and we can't afford to let it stall.'"

Essentially, that means that on any given day, there are many, many things at the Hall that need attending to, many decisions that have to be made. No one's as likely to be as hands-on as Rivenbark was, but Zapple heaps praise on the current staff and the board, saying that they've all stepped up and taken on additional responsibilities since Rivenbark's death.

Trubia points to a successful New Year's Eve gala and show with Opera House Theatre Co., which he said brought in $10,000 more than any previous New Year's Eve gala. He also notes that planning continues for a full renovation of the lobby.

Zapple said that financially, Thalian Hall, and indeed most nonprofits in the performing arts world, "came out of the pandemic in pretty good shape."

"Not to say we're rolling in money," but thanks to such government programs as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, "it could've been worse." (He notes that in April of 2020, the Hall was in "freefall" in terms of revenues.)

Recent technical upgrades have also been made, Zapple said, with dressing rooms remodeled and even some water lines serving them replaced.

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Some uncertainty looms, and not just about who the new director will be. The city of Wilmington recently announced that it was exploring the purchase of the PPD building on the Northside, and potentially selling most other city-owned buildings, with the exception of Thalian Hall.

Such a move, if it did happen, would likely take years.

"It would impact us. How, I don't know," Trubia said. "It'll be interesting to see how it goes."

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: As former director 'haunts' venue, Thalian Hall preps for new leader