Late Tony Rivenbark directs his own memorial service fit for royalty

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) – It was a last farewell and celebration to the leader of one of the oldest and most adored historic theater’s in the country.

A pillar of the Wilmington arts community took his final bow over the weekend, directing his own memorial service.

Tony Rivenbark helped shape what Thalian Hall is today, and was a member of The League of the American Historic Theaters, an organization that represents historic theaters across the country.

Actor Walter Kunz performed with Rivenbark the first season the theater opened.

“It 1978 I came here and did ‘Pippin’ with Tony,” he said. “Tony has been the eye of the hurricane for Thalian Hall.”

Late executive director Rivenbark, on Saturday, conducted his final event meticulously, with full choreography.

New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple and on the Thalian Hall Board of Trustee for 20 years, worked alongside Rivenbark both on and off stage for years.

“A few years ago the board setup an emergency succession plan that had me appointed as the interim artistic director, Tony and I worked closely together on a number of projects,” he said. “If Tony put his shoulder behind something, it was done right and it was done with great detail.

“A person who has helped shape our community over the last five decades lays down his wit and talent and returns to his maker.”

All three levels of the auditorium was open to the public, which gave the audience a chance to see Rivenbark on stage for the last time.

His work projected on the screen, his passion for theater undeniable.

“I came to this theater as an actor when I was in college at the age of 18,” said Rivenbark in a previously recorded interview.

Rivenbark, a student at UNCW and Duplin County native, made his first appearance on the Thalian Hall stage in 1966 in the musical, ‘Good News”.

In Rivenbark style, a procession fit for royalty, a traditional New Orleans-style second line led the crowd up 3rd Street to the Wilson Center for a reception.

The roving party included the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard, a Horse-drawn hearse and themed brass band from New Orleans.

Rivenbark’s dear friend Shane Fernando and artistic director of the Wilson Center was overwhelmed by the farewell celebration.

“I’m heart broken but I feel so uplifted, I had one of the most incredible directors who directed this, and I hope he’s pleased,” he said.

Fernando had one last message for his long time mentor.

“Tony, I love you, while I am going to miss you being here physically, I am blessed knowing your life’s work is all around, in our entire community,” he said. “I will think of him every day.”

Zapple described Rivenbark as mercurial, witty and talented, both on stage and off stage.

“He could make you feel like a million bucks when he walked into the room, it’s one of those kinds of personalities, but he also would insist that you give him everything back,” he said. “He was also curious about the world and a great lover of life, of art, of people, theater, of all of that. He couldn’t get enough of it.”

Rivenbark’s legacy will continue, when he was asked in an interview after the completion of one of many Thalian Hall renovations, when is it (Thalian Hall) going to be finished, he said “never”.

“It will never be finished as long as it continues to be used as a live theater,” he said.

Those who missed the event can watch it online, here.

Funny Girl: The Musical by the Opera House Theater Company is set to start at Thalian Hall September 1 through the September 11, for tickets click here.

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