This winter's production of "A Christmas Carol" brought back into regular use Thalian Hall's fabled thunder roll. Before the show, WHQR's Megan Williams got a behind the scenes look at this relict of theatre history.
Wilmington, NC, January 4, 2006 – The attic which hides the thunder roll is a Dickensian warren of age-darkened beams, spiderwebs, dust, and shadows. Our guide, production manager Jeff Loy leads the way, hunkering through a long plywood tunnel and inching past the building's ventilation system.
"This is kind of like going into the history of the building. Very few people come up here any more," he says, pausing by a massive support beam.
"This beam is one of my favorite things in the whole building. It's heart pine. I'd say it's about eighteen inches wide by nine wide, and runs about forty feet. They don't grow trees this tall any more."
The thunder roll is just two narrow wooden sluices, which run the length of the building in a long horizontal V. It hugs the wall below the makeshift catwalk and directly above the front of the stage. On his climb down, Loy pauses next to a suspended wooden drum with a hand crank.
"This is a rain device. It's just a drum made out of rough-hewn wood, on a spindle, with cut nails driven into the slats in the wood. And traditionally they put fruit pits, like peach pits or cherry pits, things that are a little lighter weight than the rocks and bottlecaps that are in here now."
As advertised, the spinning wheel emitts clunks and clangs, but under it are lighter sounds of small objects pinging off the nails, the false patter of theatrical rain.
"That would fill up the hall. It would make a rainstorm, that little drum there."
Loy and his companion for this venture, Christmas Carol director Rob Zapple, set themselves to hoisting the cannonballs into place at the top of the run. The mechanics are simple: cannonballs, sluice, gravity, thunder. All it requires are strong arms, and a few smashed fingers.
Loy points out how unique the run is in the modern theatrical world: "it's not a CD, you know. It's not some sound bite that you captured on the internet. This is live. And within that, it's not just pushing a button. It's going to be a lot of time: it's a whole process, two or three people working in unison to make this happen. Of course, we don't have to whistle to give the cue, like the sailors did in the old days."
Preparations complete, Loy stands ready, holding the rope that will tip the first ball into the run.
"Okay, you ready?" He yells, "We're gonna do five cannonballs. In the production of the Christmas Carol, we're going to use eight. But right now we're using five because the other three are historic."
As the heavy balls follow their course, the whole structure shivers and creaks. The attic trembles with a sound that is felt as much as heard.
The thunder roll's construction is much more intricate than it looks at first. "In the bottom of it there are carved grooves, which give that rumbling effect," Loy explains. "And as they go, I guess they're in about twelve-foot sections, so there's a one-inch drop, and that's what adds to the crack of the thunder. There a rumble and then a crack, and then a rumble, and then a crack."
Preparing the thunder roll for the production is obviously exciting for Loy, who for years has brought guest performers up to the attic to show off Thalian's hidden treasure.
"This is the first time I've ever had this many cannonballs to play with. Usually there's only a couple. So to have five, and eventually eight, we'll be up here experimenting. Because what it sounds like down below sounds completely different up here. And to get the timing right: how often do you let them go. All that's lost. There's no one to call up and ask, "how did you work this thing?" 'Cause nobody knows."
As he leads the way back out to the public parts of Thalian Hall, Loy reflects on the building's dual life as a historic relic and working theatre.
"I love coming up here and feeling the history roll of the building. When this building was built and completed in 1858, this was state of the art. It was high cotton. No expense was spared to make this the best it could be for the community, and that's what we continually try to do. The history is there, but also a real look toward the future."