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CoastLine: Tony Rivenbark, 1948-2022: "All I've done is theater my whole life."

Tony Rivenbark, 1948-2022; Executive Director of Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts, 1979-2022

Tony Rivenbark grew up in Duplin County and wanted to go to college at the smallest branch in the University of North Carolina system. So he came to Wilmington. He walked into Thalian Hall in 1966, which, as he says, for good or ill, set the course for the rest of his life. In this episode, we hear him talk about local history, Shakespeare, historic Thalian Hall, and the importance of story.

“I love stories. The theater is stories. But life is stories. That’s what your life is, really, a string of stories. And then they stop, and it’s sad when those stories disappear because someone didn’t tell them to someone else.”

Tony Rivenbark passed away in mid-July of 2022. Some of the stories he wanted to tell are captured in his book, Images of America:  Thalian Hall. Published by Arcadia in 2014, he dedicated the work to Doug Swink, in his words, “actor, director, teacher, designer, playwright, historian, and the theatrical father of hundreds of thespians.”

Many of those titles, in fact most, apply to Tony Rivenbark.

Within those titles are more stories, many of which we will never hear, his own biography and that of the Cape Fear region forever intertwined. While it’s likely there are private recordings done by those in his inner circle, we know of no comprehensive narrative that weaves together his biography and local history.

Tony and I had an appointment to begin such recordings, a project conceived of by his close, and, he liked to joke, oldest friend, Suellen Yates. He passed away the day before we were to begin.

Tony Rivenbark’s most public-facing and prominent legacy: shepherding downtown Wilmington’s Thalian Hall from a disused building that had fallen into disrepair into one of the most beautifully restored historic theaters in the U.S. Under his direction, the Hall became a thriving center of cultural arts in the Cape Fear region. He served as Executive Director from 1979 until his passing in 2022.

He also acted in more than 200 plays, in theaters around town but mostly at the Hall, either on the mainstage or in the upstairs studio theater, now known as the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater.

He mentored the younger generation: artists, actors, historic preservationists.

An historian in his own right, Tony Rivenbark understood previous centuries in the region in a way that few people do. Ben Steelman is another one of those special local citizens, and in fact, we’ll hear part of a historical exploration with the two men from a 2015 CoastLine episode.

This is the part of CoastLine where I usually welcome the guest sitting with me in the studio.

Since I can’t do that, a moment of silence instead.


“My name is Tony Rivenbark and I am 73 years old.”

This is from a StoryCorps interview in 2021, 10 months before his death. You can hear him speak through a mask. He talks with his friend, Travis Gilbert, Executive Director of Historic Wilmington Foundation.

TG: When was the first time you laid eyes on Thalian Hall?

TR: I had been coming to Wilmington all my life because my mother lived to shop and so all the cities we would go in North Carolina at some point or another but I had never seen or heard of Thalian Hall, so as a freshman in college here, I saw auditions for a play and I went down to where the address was, and I walked into this incredible building that I had never seen or heard of. And it was not in great shape. It had very faded, maroon carpet that was worn and threadbare. The walls were painted gray. The ornate interior was pink and white with gold paint. It had corduroy chairs. It had radiators. It was very shabby. But it was magnificent. The bones of the structure, the architecture was very much intact. The slender cast-iron columns that supported the balcony, the ornate proscenium – it just blew my mind. Blew my mind.

And so I went upstairs to the balcony and watched the audition process. I had never been in – had no background in theater. I had been theatrical but no background in real theater. I had seen theater. So I just sat there and watched the process, bathed in this magnificent building, never having any idea that I would have anything to do with it or change it.

The next night, the force pulled me back again and this time I accidentally got herded in with the other auditionees, mostly college students, and auditioned for the show. And Doug Swink came and said, “I see on your little form that you have had dance. Would you like to dance for us?”

So I went up and did the Charleston. I do a mean Charleston. And I was cast in the show and I did every show the college drama department did for the next four years, except for two, I think.

And that changed my life and that’s all I’ve done is theater my whole life. So walking into Thalian Hall, for good or ill in 1966, sort of set the course for the rest of my life.

Tony grew up in Duplin County and wanted to go to college at the smallest branch in the University of North Carolina system.

So he came to Wilmington.

TR: It didn’t have dorms. So you didn’t have to live on campus. And the idea of living with a stranger just, you know, made me very nervous. So I lived in a beach cottage, you know. That’s the attraction to Wilmington, anyway, is the beach. And I did not know anybody but by going into the theater and becoming a part, I became part of a theater family.

A show is like a theater family. It isn't the same people all the year long. It's a different family every six weeks.

I sometimes call Thalian Hall Wilmington's living room. It's the place that people bring their guests from out of town and say, oh, well this is what's in our community. It's a place you show off.

It was 1963 when the Thalian Hall Commission was chartered for the purpose of restoring the Hall as a performing arts center.

TR: The sixties were that period where Wilmington was changing in a bad way. Economically it wasn't doing very well, but old buildings were beginning to disappear everywhere. And Thalian Hall was one of the first buildings with an organization created specifically to restore it, which is the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts. Further along was the Foundation looking at residential and what was happening there and how to get more people to preserve buildings and buy them and then find buyers to restore them. These were all important parts of making this town, particularly the historic district and downtown, be viable.

But in the sixties, it was a low ebb. By the seventies, it was beginning to change. And then, 1979 when I was hired was really kind of the beginning of downtown Wilmington becoming its own destination.

Although, says Tony, it was more than 20 years before Wilmington really got there.

Tony tells Travis that he went on to act in New York theater, did summer stock in Wilmington, and then had designs on Florida as a place to pursue acting.

TR: And then the job became available at Thalian Hall and I was hired on the spot. I was only asked to do two things: increase the income and stop the smoking in the building. That's all they asked me to do. And it wasn't very hard to create more income because somebody needed to understand the front of the house and the back of the house.

You need to understand the audience, the showroom, and understand the factory. And by making that work, and then actively trying to get people to use it, because I quickly came upon the realization that if you were going to fix the building and make it properly work for theater, which basically desperately needed a fly system for scenery and then the backstage needed to work, the auditorium was beautiful. It'd been restored, but the backstage was a disaster. And the only way was to make the building more important to more people.

It was important to a handful of people who were basically the theater folk and their audiences, but it wasn't important to the community in the same way. So it had to be more important to more people in town. That was one thing.

And so you had to get more shows in there that would bring in more different audiences. That was the first realization. And then the second one was, Wilmington, particularly in that period of time, kind of thought it was the only place in the world that was like it was, and in some ways that's true, but it was so isolated because the I-40 came in much later. Wilmington was like an island off the rest of the state. And they thought the way they did things was the way they had to be done. They didn't really look at how people did things in other places.

So I started going to theater conferences and looking at other historic theater restorations, and saw that there are many ways, you know, we are not that unique. There are other historic theaters and they have been successful and revitalized.

And so I started seeing that and then bringing some of those ideas back and then started bringing in people with the expertise from other places. So if you want to make a place important in your own town, bring somebody from somewhere else who says it's important. And then people will believe that.

And being that the building was owned by the city and the city hall was in, it was an advantage and a disadvantage. The city really didn't need a theater next to it, but it was already there. So they had to deal with it. Eventually I was trying to persuade the city government that the building was an asset to the community. That didn't just happen overnight or even in my head. But as time went on, we all came to the realization that reinvesting in that building was good for the community, was good for the city government, was good for the citizens.

Tony Rivenbark admits he’s still learning about Thalian Hall.

TR: All of this is not as interesting – all of the wonderful things that are in this town if you don’t know the story behind it. I think. I find history the most exciting thing in the world. And every day we make more of it.”

TG: The best history is a story. That's why historians fail because they aren't storytellers.

TR: I agree with that. Agree with that completely.

And Tony, the historian, DID tell his own and some of the region’s lesser-known history through stories. That’s next.


When Tony Rivenbark, Executive Director of Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts, passed away in July of 2022, he left behind a magnificently restored cultural arts center, younger generations of thespians and preservationists, local history told in ways that are quintessentially Tony Rivenbark.

In 2015, he and Ben Steelman, a journalist and local historian, came to the CoastLine studio to explore the history of the Cape Fear region. It was just two weeks after a white supremacist gunman killed nine people in an AME church in South Carolina. That shooting raised new questions nationwide among white people about Confederate history and Confederate symbols and the appropriateness of those symbols in public spaces.

Keep in mind, as you listen to this part of the discussion, it is 2015 and while 2015 may sound like recent history, local and national opinion surrounding Confederate history has undergone a profound change in the last seven years.

TR: I mean, I'm from Eastern North Carolina. My family have been there on both sides, you know, going back to before the revolution. And so certainly I had ancestors at fault in the Confederate army. I was very interested in the civil war, you know, when I was in high school and of course that was the sixties, which was the hundredth anniversary. And I was president of the Duplin County Children of the Confederacy chapter and I came to Wilmington when they had the state conference and all this stuff. So I was part of all of that stuff.

You know, I never thought of it in terms of racially, though. It all had to do with the war and, you know, young guys love playing battles, fighting battles, whatever it is.

And we just happened to do the civil war. It was a colorful and interesting period only as time went on and when going to school and then the school was integrated by then. Particularly into college, I start seeing things in a different kind of light. And most of us, or many, certainly a great many people in the south have, you know, changed a lot of those attitudes and it has become, you know, what was not acceptable when we were kids and we never question it, is something that now we do question about those things.

RLH: And you told me earlier, Tony, that you took down a picture recently of Robert E. Lee. Tell us why you decided to do that.

TR: Well, I don't know. I think, you know, one time I was talking to somebody and they made some comment about me and they said, oh, you're just like the people that ride around in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a, and a gun rack on your car. And it irritated me. So I went home and pulled out all my Confederate stuff and put it up.

But gradually over the years I put it away. And the other day, this recent business of this terrible situation in Charleston, and I said, you know, I don't need a picture of Robert E. Lee hanging up. You know, it was a tiny one on the shelf. I don't really need that anymore. Plus the fact I don't have enough room for everything anyway.

So I've pulled whatever little bit there was left. Like I said, because I think it belongs in a museum now. It might be important as a piece of set decoration, but personally, I don't need it anymore.

RLH: Ben Steelman, you also grew up in North Carolina.

BS: Yeah. I can actually top Tony. I'm a sort of sideways descendant of Robert Frederick Hoke, the Confederate general who was camped out at Sugarloaf while Fort Fisher was falling. That's a whole different story.

My father's name was Hoke Steelman. So, anyway, so that was a minor point of pride. White southerners need to be reminded that not all of their neighbors feel the same way about their heritage as we might. And we have to admit that yes, slavery was, slavery is a horror and yes, the right side won the war.

RLH: There are a lot of people, many of them from Northern parts or other parts of this country, people who didn't grow up in the south, who don't really have that sense of cultural heritage internalized who look at the Confederate flag and do see the emblem of the fight to keep slavery, which is, you know, a fight for human oppression. So how do you tease that apart when you're looking at it through a historical lens versus a personal lens, Ben Steelman?

BS: Probably most white southerners rationalize it by saying by, by you hear the phrase a lot, it's, it's about heritage not hate. And they saw their ancestors as fighting to defend their homes. Most southerners did not own slaves. Certainly most of the privates in the Confederate army did not own slaves and they were defending their homes. And when their homes were occupied by the Yankees, they up and deserted to take care of their families.

So, I think that's part that's part of it, but we have to admit that yes, slavery was an issue. Alexander Stevens, the Vice President of the Confederacy wrote as much. Bedford Forrest said the same thing, although not as politely as Mr. Stevens did.

It's something we have to face.

RLH: When we talk about the reasons behind the civil war, there are people who will say this was a fight over states’ rights. Slavery was sort of an ancillary issue. Is that true? Is that a smoke screen? Tony Rivenbark?

TR: The underlying cause it had to do with the state's rights were important because people wanted to maintain the slavery as an institution. And it was dying out in the world. In other places, it was gradually being done away with, but you can't sugar coat it and the bottom line: that's what it was about. And that was about money and money was tied in with slavery. That was the wealth of the south was based in human, uh, flesh. Uh, and you take that away then great part of the wealth is gone. So yes, money, states’ rights, power, the country was divided in a sense evenly to some degree, but it was beginning to shift toward the Northern manufacturing and the southerners resented that. But still you can't take that – slavery's the underlying bottom, dark side of this, no matter how you slice it,

RLH: We have some rich historical sites right here in the Wilmington area related to the civil war – Fort Fisher, for instance. For folks who aren't familiar with that, Ben Steelman, can you tell us what Fort Fisher is and what it was for?

BS: Fort Fisher guarded the new inlet into the Cape Fear river and up to Wilmington. The new inlet no longer exists. It was closed in the, uh, late 1800s in a massive Corps of Engineers project led by the father of Henry Bacon. Bacon later became famous as the architect of the Lincoln Memorial. And he's actually buried here in town.

But anyway, that kept the port of Wilmington, which is usually normally a very small and significant port open, even as other Confederate ports were closed. And Robert E. Lee famously wrote that if Wilmington fell, he would not be able to keep his army in the field. And, in fact, the Army of Northern Virginia lasted barely 90 days after the fall of Fort Fisher.

So, a battle that's often overlooked when the final battle occurred in January of 1865, there are only about 1800 Confederates on one side and about four times that many Union soldiers and sailors on the other, but it was a very strategic battle. And more people recognize that.

RLH: When we talk about historic sites from the civil war, Tony Rivenbark explains why Thalian Hall is key.

TR: It was the center of entertainment in that period in Wilmington with 2000 blockade ships coming in. Most of the people sat around and waited for a ship to come in. There was nothing else to do but party. And this was the party town in the south. And one of the things people did was go to the theater. And from January 1864 to January 1865, there were over 300 different productions in Thalian Hall. That's how busy the theater was, because people had nothing to do while they were waiting for these blockade runners to come in.

BS: Wilmington was a civil war boom town. Most of the old residents moved out or moved inland for safety, but there are all these speculators, all these people who are getting stuff imported on the blockade runners. There are all of these young Royal Navy officers on reserve or half pay who are commanding or acting as officers on these blockade runners. And basically they were behaving like sailors in a port.

There's a famous letter. It's in one of Dr. Andrew Howe’s books, recounting a witness seeing a Royal Navy officer in fox hunting scarlets riding on the back of a poor in Wilmington, constable and whipping him with his riding crop. It was just terrible.

RLH: A listener asks about an incident in Wilmington when many Black people were killed and land and wealth was taken by white people. Ben Steelman tells the story of the 1898 coup d’etat when elected Black officials were forced from office at gunpoint by a white mob, an unknown number of innocent Black citizens were murdered. And a majority of African-American citizens fled the city, leaving everything behind.

Tony Rivenbark sets the scene where it happened – at Thalian Hall.

TR: Out on the streets were filled with armed people to essentially enforce that will, and they could see it from that window. You can't see third street from the ballroom if you're sitting at a desk, but you can from Sterling Cheatham’s office.

RLH: Sterling Cheatham was the Wilmington city manager in 2015.

TR: And evidently it was a very intimidating force – of all these armed people and every one of the aldermen resigned. And that was one of the few examples of an armed coup d’etat that held and was not treated, was not disciplined in any way by the government.

RLH: Is it true… That is the only coup d’etat that we know of in American history?

BS: Some people say that.

TR: Yeah, I think that there's a couple of other instances of something similar to that, but this was very specific.

TR: The collector of ports of customs was a major federal position at that point, and that was an African American.

BS: Right.

RLH: And we know that the elected officials were forced out – that's pretty well documented.

TR: Oh, it's absolutely documented.

RLH: What about the loss of wealth and land for local residents, people who were African American, who were forced out of their homes?

TR: I think that gets a lot fuzzier.

BS: It does. Some people, a lot of people like Alex Manley moved north and..

RLH: Alex Manley the publisher of the newspaper.

BS: And they lost their material wealth. Others sort of hung on as long as they weren't a threat to anybody. The fact is, of course, that Wilmington's economy needed Black labor to work. So, I mean, I've always sort of felt like 1898 wasn't like a massacre. It was more like a botched lobotomy or failed attempt at a lobotomy. They were trying to eliminate the Black middle class.

RLH: And they succeeded?

TR: To a great extent. You know, there were certain families that continued to stay on and still on to this day.

BS: Like the Sadgwars, for example.

TR: Yeah, and Manly was, interestingly enough, was actually a descendant of a former white governor, which I find also very interesting.

BS: Yes.

RLH: There’s a question from a listener about a series of tunnels that run underground in Wilmington. What are they? Were they ever used to move supplies and weapons during the civil war or to help enslaved people escape? Ben Steelman?

BS: There are a lot of brick-lined tunnels dating from the late 1700s and early 1800s, the most famous being Jacob's Run, which runs under the Bricks nightclub and all the way up to St. James Church. Father Abrams once showed me a little doorway you can open up and get in there.

The sad fact, though, seems to be that these were sewers. And though you get all sorts of great romantic stories that pirates had booty in there or that the underground railroad smuggled slaves out through there or anything, uh, doesn't seem to be much evidence for that.

TR: Jacob's Run actually starts up there above what used to be the law enforcement center and it runs down. And when you look at the old courthouse, you see how low the right side is between that and the judicial building. It's really very low. You go way down to the ground. Well, that was a stream that basically ran down – eventually bricked that up all the way down so they could build streets and things.

Because downtown, you know, Wilmington is built on a bluff that was a very hilly area. There were seven, basically seven large hills. Bill Reeves referred to it as the seven sand dunes of Wilmington, like the seven Hills of Rome. And gradually over the years, was trying to level this off for building.

So you had this tremendous disparity between height and low, Thalian Hall stands on one of those hills. And the bottom of that hill is on the other side of the courthouse. And evidently at one point on Third Street actually was a bridge across Second. It was that low-lying area, but gradually over the years, it sort of smoothed it off.

RLH: So Thalian Hall, when was it built and why did local leaders decide that this community could support a theater of that size?

TR: Well, first of all, it had a theater right there where Thalian Hall stands for 50 years. So it wasn't a new idea, but the city had grown. The city was the largest city in the state. The city government was operating out of rented space on Princess Street. The courthouse had moved from the center of Front and Market to the corner of Princess and Third, not where the courthouse is now, but the one where that new bank building – that's where the courthouse was.

So the city, operating out of rented space, wanted a new seat of government, and they began to eye the property directly across the street where the Innes Academy stood, which was a school that had a theater in it. And the school was no longer in operation. And at the back was another school called the Oddfellow school, which wasn't torn down until 1925.

So, antebellum Thalian Association, the fourth group of that name had been organized in 1846, 1847, and they were using the theater. But for years, the Wilmington papers had talked about the need for a proper theater and theaters in those days, particularly in provincial towns, did not just serve drama. They were the assembly room. They were the convention center where you could have big events in political rallies because you didn't have the media that we're talking on. If you're making a political speech, you need a room with enough people to come in to help, you know, support your cause.

RLH: Frederick Douglas lectured there at one point?

TR: He did. And then there was also another group that were interested in the library. So, and then the home guard, which was sort of the national guard of the day, the Wilmington Light Infantry, and the Cape Fear Guards, they needed a place to store their armaments. So all these forces came together, which is why this massive building, it's almost, if they decided we really want a grand building. So now let's think of all the things we put in it.

RLH: Tony, when were bones found and who did they belong to?

TR: Well, in the 1990 renovation, when we expanded the building and added the new lobbies and all, and working in the auditorium itself, there were some portions of bones found. And of course the work stopped and all this stuff, and it was sent off for investigation.

It turns out they were pre-Columbian. But I guess, more recently work on the county administration building, the old Tidewater power and light building, that's being redone. Now, they found some too, and these actually were not, these were later.

RLH: How much later? Do we know?

TR: I don't know, but there were parts of a coffin. So probably in the early 1800s. Thalian Hall has been occupied by a building continuously since 1803. Prior to that, there wasn’t anything on that block at all. It was really on the edge of town. Past Third was getting into the edge of town. St. James was on the way out of the city and the little tiny cemetery back of St. James, well, that was really the only cemetery in Wilmington for well over a hundred-some years until the mid-19th century when Oakdale was built. So I think that you'd be hard put, if you dig pretty much anywhere within two blocks of St. James, you are liable to find bones.

RLH: And how did film get its start in Wilmington before the studios were built?

TR: It really was Frank Capra, Jr. Because,

RLH: And we're talking about the eighties right? Early eighties?

TR: 1986, 1980s. Yeah. ‘83 is really, is really what, but, uh, but, uh, Dino was looking for a place for the shop for the sequence in fire starter,

BS: The headquarters of this rogue spy agency…

TR: And, Frank Capra saw this picture of Orton. And that's really where that's how it all started. And they came down to – had negotiated with the Sprunt family to use Orton, and then they made the film and it was a, uh, Wilmington was very welcoming to the film community. And, uh, Dino decided he built a studio here.

RLH: How has the film industry and the arts industry, I'm thinking about the theatrical landscape, really, Tony Rivenbark, how have those two disciplines sort of fed each other and intertwined here?

TR: Well, I think when it was going full-speed ahead, you know, it made a, it was a very attractive place for people to look at the idea and say, well, I need to move somewhere and I'd love to be able to do film, or I am doing film and maybe I can get a chance. So a lot of people were attracted to Wilmington and that had a tremendous influence on the quality of the theater and all of that here.


RLH: Tony Rivenbark, who passed away in July of 2022, was hired to run Thalian Hall in 1979. While the building was in his words, shabby and neglected over the decades, as he improved the building, he built up the importance of the Hall in the eyes of the public.

Then in 2014, Cape Fear Community College was on the verge of opening the Wilson Center. Some wondered what impact a state of the art and much larger facility would have on Thalian Hall. Would the historic hall lose audiences to the shiny new theater down the street?

Tony Rivenbark joined us on CoastLine to explore the future of the arts in Wilmington, along with Shane Fernando, then-Director of the Wilson Center, and a man Tony had mentored through his teenage and young adult years.

Were these two about to become competitors?

Here's part of that conversation.

RLH: Tony Rivenbark, let's go back in time a little bit. When you first heard that CFCC was going to build a brand spanking new state of the art humanities and fine arts center, what was your gut reaction?

TR: Well, I think you have to think about that, this discussion about a larger venue for this community has been discussed for, like, 15 years. And so this is nothing new to me at all. And I have had numerous meetings with Cape Fear Community College, with the Arch group, with the different arts leaders, the symphony, all talking about these issues. It takes a long time to build a new venue in a community.

And when you build it, it's not, you're not solving the problems of the past. You're solving the problems of the future.

RLH: What do you mean by that?

TR: Well, you can't do anything about the past. You could only plan for what you're going to do tomorrow. You can't plan for what you did yesterday. So these venues are built, they aren't built often. You don't often have a new facility for the performing arts and they are built for the long haul, not for the short haul.

So, we looked at next to the Hall. We looked at many different sites, as people were trying to figure this out. Eventually the community college came forward and decided to do what they're doing.

So, uh, gut reaction, a little, you know, a new hall. Yeah, well that's gonna change some things, but that makes it more exciting. And you start planning for that and looking at positioning Thalian Hall.

That was part of what we did with the last restoration. We worked a lot on the beauty of the interior because the uniqueness of Thalian Hall isn't going to change. They're bigger. We're a little smaller. One size doesn't fit all.

RLH: So yes, Tony Rivenbark will always be remembered for leading Thalian Hall and, by extension, the arts community into a thriving sector of the Cape Fear region's economy. Through the renovations and improvements, he was careful to preserve the old beauty and elements of the theater that are now considered obsolete.

In this 2017 CoastLine episode about Shakespeare, he describes the historic thunder roll.

TR: The thunder roll is a piece of sound effects equipment at Thalian Hall, which is original to the building, which consists of two wooden troughs, which run the entire width of the theater, like a V lying on its side. And you have a series of small cannonballs at one end, and you could release those cannonballs in a timed sequence, through a mechanism called a rabbit hutch. And as the cannonballs roll down the wooden trough, it creates the rumbling sound of thunder.

RLH: When was this built?

TR: 1858. And it was typical of theaters in the 19th century to have this kind of equipment. The fact of the matter is, it’s the only one left in this country today. When I was The Globe, I was in the gallery, the very top of the gallery one time in London. And I noticed in the corner, there was a square wooden thing with a handle on it and a cannon ball inside it. And I said, I bet you I'm the only person in this theater that knows what that is, because that's exactly what that was. So the mechanism is the same, regardless of how you design it.

RLH: How many thunder rolls do you think still exist?

TR: Well, there's one at the, in Liverpool. There's a thunder roll in the theater there, the Royal Theater there, and there may be a couple of more in private theaters in Eastern Europe. There are a lot of private theaters throughout Slovakia and Hungary and so on, so forth.

But it's still operable, and we're the only ones. So we decided we would play it and then to add something, well, how does that work? So we then revved up the dream machine, which is a wooden barrel with gravel in it that you turn, and then, of course, you’ve got the famous storm speech from Lear, which also was in Christmas Carol that you were in and is, you know…

Blow, winds, blow, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!

You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head!

…and on and on. It's great fun. You know, the thunder roll, it's cool. It's a neat thing.

RLH: As a good historian, Tony Rivenbark understood the importance of bringing the past alive into the present. And with Shakespeare, he recommended people read play summaries before attending a show. Although some of the parallels between the Elizabethan Era and modern times are impossible to ignore.

TR: Well, I mean, if you go through Shakespeare's life and his family's life, and then the time period of people that lived in the 16th century, and then the 17th century, and the way that religion kept switching back and forth, depending on who was king today, or queen or whatever, you know, and so you worship one thing today because that's what you're told to do.

And then the next day, you are being persecuted because you do that. And then you go into hiding or whatever, or you try to switch over the other and then it changes again and you have to go back.

And so that's a very unstable kind of period. And so, you know, the politics of the day and therefore the crown and the importance of the government and the stability of the government, which was always in jeopardy, how that filters down to the ordinary people. So many of the plays deal with exactly those issues. Why so many, you know, deal with, you know, a king of Monarch has to do with the crown and the importance of the crown and the stability of the government and when the top is dangerous and is in turmoil and where we see that happen all around the world, I'm not even gonna go where I'm sure some people's minds are going at this very…

RLH: You're talking about Venezuela, right?

TR: Venezuela's a perfect example. But when the top is really in, you know, in a dangerous, chaotic way, it puts everybody on edge and nervous. So much of the work is coming from that and playing these different issues, but he's writing it somewhat in disguise because he can't come out and say it exactly that way.

RLH: Tony's love of theater did not end with the hall or the patrons. He was always a performer, whether on stage portraying a character in a play or telling stories. This story he tells in WHQR’s Homemade Holiday Shorts.

TR: My mother had a great sense of style. She was very Hollywood and always wore sunglasses. She loved Christmas, and she lived to shop. The strongest memory I have of Christmas when I was growing up in Warsaw, in rural Duplin County, was shopping. To my mother, shopping was an art form, and in her mind, educational as well.

In addition to Saturdays throughout the year, at least once a month throughout the school year, my mother would take my sister and I out of school for one of these shopping expeditions. Both my parents came from families who had lived in the area for generations going back to before the revolution.

But one thing my mother would never wear on her back was anything purchased in Duplin County. It had to come from a really big city like Goldsboro in Wayne or Raleigh in Wake or Fayetteville in Cumberland or Wilmington in New Hanover. It was in those cities that there was a real selection of stores.

In other words, Belks, Sears, JC Penney's. If what she needed to buy was not too important, then she would begrudgingly shop at the little Belk Williams on the courthouse square in Clinton, which was in neighboring Sampson County. But that was like going home because after all, we were a bi-county family. So there were always plenty of relatives to visit. I remember on one of those trips coming back to Warsaw from Clinton, (this is a ride I have taken many thousands of times), with us on this 15 mile trip was my elderly white haired maternal grandmother, who was known as Miss Ida. She had a very sweet disposition, and it is said that when she was a young girl at the end of the 19th century, her beaus would say, Miss Ida, would you please put your finger in my coffee and sweeten it for me?

TR: Miss Ida was in the front seat with my mother and I was in the backseat with my sister, Danakay. Now that is spelled DANAKAY with one N and no E. One year, my father bought a new boat and named it after my sister. But when it arrived there, painted on the stern, was DANNAKAYE. This was because daddy had forgotten how to spell her name.

Don't get me wrong. My father loved us to death and never missed a trick in business, but he just couldn't be bothered by certain details like our birthdays and the spelling of my sister's name.

Back in 1992, my father and I toured Europe, retracing his steps in World War II. When we got to Normandy, we had to go to all five landing beaches because he couldn't remember which one was his.

Anyway, during the year, the weeks before Christmas, we would go to all of these towns all over again, one after another to purchase the necessary presents for me, my family, my father's family, my mother's family, which included eight older brothers and sisters and my cousins. So many relatives! To tell the truth, I was related to so many people in Duplin and Sampson Counties, I sometimes felt like I was related to myself.

My father was the Pontiac dealer in Warsaw. So my mother always insisted on driving a new car off the showroom floor. So off we would go mother, dressed to the nines, complete with sunglasses in a new four door Star Chief, with factory air and push button windows.

These were the days of two-lane roads and far less traffic and few shopping centers. All the stores would be on the main street. These frequent trips made me as comfortable on Hay Street in Fayetteville and Fayetteville Street in Raleigh as Railroad Street in Warsaw.

The closest of these big cities was Goldsboro, which was only about 30 minutes away. Our ultimate destination was Weils Department Store, where mother always bought her hats. After all, this was the day when no lady attended church without hat and white gloves. Weils Department Store was also the official Cub Scout headquarters, where all the important blue and yellow uniform accessories and accoutrements could be found.

In Goldsboro, there was also a Belks, a Sears, and a J.C. Penney’s, as well as the dress shops, which specialized in the latest New York creations for miladies' fascination. On the way out of town, our backseat filled with new purchases, we had to make one more stop. No trip to Goldsboro was complete without a sumptuous pork dinner at Griffin's Barbecue Restaurant, famous all over Eastern North Carolina for this rendition of this all important staple of the Southern diet.

The trip to Fayetteville was slightly longer, but there were always interesting things to see. After an hour's drive, we would get to the Cape Fear River, just outside of town. As we crossed the bridge, we would crane our necks to the right to see the huge yacht, Florida, which was birthed in the river.

On the other side of the river was the restaurant where my father and mother had partaken of their wedding supper. It fascinated me because in the front window was a giant aquarium with live lobsters swimming about, then it was up the hill past Liberty Point where the Declaration of Independence was first read when the town was called Cross Creek.. We were now in downtown Fayetteville, and then we drove up Hay Street around the old market house, which was in the middle of the intersection. As we passed it, we would crane our necks to the left to try and see the bullet holes in the round brick columns purported to have been made by attempts on General Sherman's life when he occupied the town during the civil war.

In the next block was the all-important Capital Department Store. It had an escalator and they sold blue candy, something we never saw in Warsaw. The Capital is where we did most of our shopping, though, there were many other fine stores, including Belks, Sears, J.C. Penney’s. I think most of my Christmas toys came from the Capital.

My principal gift was always a war set complete with toy soldiers and some assembly required, a metal castle with multicolored plastic nights and horses, the battle of Lexington with red coats and the Patriots, the Alamo (remember this was during the year of Disney's Davy Crockett), and of course the civil war battle set with this glorious army of blue and gray soldiers and many cannons. You had to imagine what you would get in this set. And if indeed Santa Claus brought it, which he invariably did, there were usually three versions of these miniature battlefields. They were boxed in small standard and deluxe sizes. Santa always brought me the standard, not the deluxe, which I have to admit still irritates me slightly to this very day.

On the way back home, with the Star Chief again full of Christmas packages, we would always stop at a country store and get a snack. Unlike the folks who worked in tobacco, we were townspeople. They would order Nabs and a Pepsi or RC Cola and a moon pie, but we were more cosmopolitan and had a box of cheese tidbits and an Orange Crush in that mysterious Amber bottle.

On Sunday, before Christmas, all four of us, even daddy, would drive to Wilmington to eat at the Fergus Ark to see the world's largest Christmas tree. The Fergus Ark was a two-story floating restaurant, permanently docked at the foot of Princess Street. We would park our car on the wide wooden docks that lay along the river's edge in front of the brick warehouses that stood where the parking deck is now.

After walking up the gangplank, we would arrive in the entrance vestibule where the cashier was stationed and next to her counter was a free standing hard hat diving suit. It was as fascinating as it was scary as there was always that chance that behind the glass, in that helmet, someone was still inside.

But my favorite thing was the bronze plaque on the wall next to the stairs. You see when the USS North Carolina first arrived, it was backed into Eagles Island. And in the process, the ship struck the Fergus Ark, the plaque commemorated the only occasion in Naval history when a collision took place between a United States battleship and a restaurant.

Tony Rivenbark: community leader, historian, actor, preservationist, producer, mentor, teacher, storyteller, leaving a legacy, impossible to quantify, a legacy in which we can point to the public parts and perhaps capture a fragment.

1948 to 2022. Rest in peace, Tony. And thank you.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 4 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.