Thalian Association Community Theatre, Wilmington, North Carolina
The Thalian Association, today known as Thalian Association Community Theatre, is an amateur community theatre company located in Wilmington, North Carolina. It is notable for being the oldest theatre company in North Carolina and possibly the oldest still in existence in the United States. Whether it is actually the oldest in the United States remains to be confirmed, but claims of that distinction have been made since at least 1892. The date of its founding cannot today be placed exactly, but a founding date of 1788 has been accepted by Association members since at least 1858, a date when there were people alive who knew the founders. The earliest known document referring to the Thalian Association is dated 1805.
The Thalian Association at its founding took its name from Thalia the Greek goddess of comedy. The name “Thalian” apparently was popular in early America as there are known to have been other Thalian Associations and Thalian Societies, most of them long since defunct. For example, there was in the early 1800s a Thalian Association in Fayetteville, North Carolina, but it no longer exists, and little is known about it. Fayetteville lies up the Cape Fear River, with Wilmington being the port near the mouth of the river, and in antebellum days there was close contact by riverboat between the two cities. This would suggest the possibility of close ties between the two Thalian Associations, but nothing is known about this possibility today. There is a Thalian Society still in existence at Oglethorpe University that dates to 1839 as a literary and debating society. On the Old Oglethorpe campus in Millegeville, Georgia there is a Thalian Hall whose construction date is said to be in the 1850s.
The claim to be the oldest theatre company in America is a hard claim to prove, with other theater companies making the same claim. The uncertainty of rival claims is due not only to the loss of much old documentation but also to a lack of precision in defining what is meant by the idea of “theatre.” The word theatre is used to mean both a performance hall and a production company of theatrical events. These two entities, even when they reside together, may not have the same founding date. This source of uncertainty can be illustrated by comparing the Thalian Association with the renowned Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
The Walnut Street Theatre also claims to be the oldest theater in America, citing a founding date of 1809 based on the construction of their performance hall which still stands at 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. The Walnut Street Theatre production company resides today within their performance hall but was not founded until much later, with the performance hall originally used for circus acts.
The Thalian Association’s claim of 1788 is the date of the creation of the production company. Thalian Hall, the Association’s performance hall, was not built until 1858 and still stands at 310 Chestnut Street in Wilmington. The Association’s earlier performance hall, called the “Old Academy,” was built at approximately the same time as the 1788 founding of the Association and was demolished in 1855 to permit construction of Thalian Hall on the same site.
Active Thalian Tradition
Both elements of the tradition, Thalian Association and Thalian Hall, remain active in Wilmington, although the production company and the performance hall now have separate boards of directors. The production company, Thalian Association Community Theatre, is a subscription organization whose board is elected by the subscribing members. The performance hall, Thalian Hall, is now owned and maintained by the City of Wilmington, and its board of directors is appointed by the city.
Thalian Hall, 1858, Wilmington, NC
Historic marker reads, “Thalian Hall/City Hall, Built 1855-1858 as city hall and theatre for the Thalian Association (amateur) formed c. 1788.”
The antebellum Thalian Association had an exclusively male membership that included many members from the most prominent families residing in the city of Wilmington and on the plantations along the Cape Fear River above and below the city. This led to a strong cultural dominance by these prominent families. The strength of this dominance is illustrated by the building of Thalian Hall. The decision to demolish the Old Academy, owned by the Thalian Association, and to build Thalian Hall, owned jointly by the Association and the City of Wilmington, was made largely within one family. The president of the Thalian Association worked together with his brother who was the mayor of the city.
Such a socially, economically, and politically prominent organization played a central role in the cultural and charitable activities of the Lower Cape Fear region. In addition to its many local charitable works, the antebellum Thalian Association performed a national charitable act that is on display in Washington, DC. In December 1851 the Association contributed a commemorative stone to the national fundraising campaign to build the Washington Monument. The stone was carved by Wilmington sculptor James McClarahan and is displayed today on Landing 23, along with 193 other stones displayed throughout the Monument. The Thalian Association stone is the only one representing a local cultural organization that is still in existence.
Washington Monument memorial stone, 1851. Located on Landing 23.
Head is of Shakespeare. Inscription reads “Wilmington, North Carolina, Thalian Association
The cultural dominance of the Thalian Association was reduced by the Civil War. Almost all antebellum Thalians were from the planter-merchant class and were personally impacted by the war and Reconstruction. The dissensions that grew up within and around the Association during Reconstruction and its aftermath led to discontinuities in the Association and to periods of inactivity. But the disarray also served to open the Thalian Association and its tradition to other members and to other activities. From 1871 to the early 1900s the Thalian tradition was maintained at Tileston Normal School, a private school in Wilmington for the children of the professional-merchant class. Student Thalians included females for the first time and performed in the Tileston Upper Room, a performance hall that still exists and functions under that name, even though Tilleston Normal School closed in the early 1900s. In 1929, the Thalian Association became a subscription membership organization that is open to all of the community and began the continuous activities that mark its presence today.
Modern Thalian Association Community Theatre
Thalian Association Community Theatre of Wilmington, North Carolina celebrated its 225th anniversary in 2013. In an unbroken sequence going back to 1929, the Association produces five plays and musicals each year on the main stage of Thalian Hall, built in Wilmington in 1858. The Association founded the Youth Theatre program in 1979 to introduce children to theatre through theatre arts classes and scholarships for underserved youth. Since 1994, Thalian Association Community Theatre has managed the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center for the City of Wilmington, providing an affordable home for visual and performance arts groups. In 1995, the Association originated the Orange Street ArtsFest to promote the visual arts in Wilmington. Thalian Association Community Theatre also manages and stages performances in the Red Barn Studio, founded in Wilmington in 2007 by Broadway and TV actress Linda Lavin and her husband Steve Bakunas. The Association was proclaimed by the North Carolina Senate to be the Official Community Theater of North Carolina on June 15, 2007.
Burr, James Green, (1871). The Thalian Association of Wilmington , N.C. with Sketches of Many
of its Members: By a Member of the Association. Wilmington, NC: J.A. Engelhard.
Sprunt, James, (1916). “The Thalian Association,” Chronicles of the Cape Fear River 1660-1916.Raleigh, NC: Edwards & Broughton
Henderson, Archibald, (1941). North Carolina: The Old North State and the New. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Co.
Williams, Isabel M., Thalian Hall. The Thalian Hall Commission, 1976.
1 Letter to editor, Wilmington Star News, December 3, 1892.
2 Wilmington Journal, October 12, 1858
3 The Memoirs of Gen. Joseph Gardner Swift, US Army, First Graduate of U.S. Military Academy, West Point
4 Tankersley, Allen P., College Life at Old Oglethorpe. University of Georgia Press, 1959.
8 Wilmington Commercial, Dec. 20, 1851; The Daily Journal,
9 Southern Business Directory and General Commercial Advertiser, Volume I. Charleston, SC: Steam Power Press of Walker and James, 1854
11Wilmington Star, June 13, 1879