History of the Hipp

History of the Hipp

Darlington Hippodrome has a rich and interesting history; the Edwardian theatre has been a key part of the town's heritage. We have commissioned seven videos that bring this history to life in a way that's entertaining and educational for children and adults alike.

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Episode 1


At last Darlington Hippodrome is open! Or we should probably use the proper title the New Hippodrome and Palace of Varieties is open! Are you excited? Are you? Are you? Ay, I know I am, I've been watching it, I've been watching it being built less than a year it took to make it out of all of that lovely Middlesbrough red brick and that great tower 63 feet tall and the wrought iron and glass veranda all the way around the outside that keeps all of the theatre goers dry and people like me that drive the hackney carriages and sometimes handsome cabs as well. Oh yes I drive one of those horse-drawn beasts I'm just around the corner actually based on Borough Road opposite the hair cutters and the cycle makers and if you are a bicycler - cyclist - then you can indeed park at the theatre for free. But why? Why would you go on a bicycle, why would you go and risk the rain and you'd get absolutely soaked on a bike. No no no, far better to go on a cabbie journey like me. It's going to be transformed all that area around Park Gate, now that it's wider there'll be cabs and carriages all over the place an absolute great place to build the theatre as well just down the road from Bank Top Station, close to Darlington town centre which I reckon is going to be totally and utterly transformed by the presence of the new Hippodrome and Palace of Varieties. Oh yes, opening night 2nd of September 1907, I picked up from the theatre at closing and one of the people inside the cab left their one penny program and there's so many adverts for local shops and businesses. There was adverts for doctors and hairdressers and furniture makers and drapers and jewellers even the Lord Nelson Hotel and the Cricketer's Arms were advertising good stabling, so if you're lucky enough to have your own horse and cart you can come down have an evening to Darlington watch some shows at the Hippodrome and then stay over at a hotel or public house and have a lovely breakfast the next day. You might even be able to read one of the papers like The Stage or The Era that some of them are getting in that tell you all about the actors and don't worry if you can't afford to go to the theatre all the time, there's a free show on on Park Gate every Sunday. Yeah that's when the actors arrive, that's when they come down from Bank Top Railway Station having gotten the train in, they all come down the hill all of them with their props and their fancy costumes and some of them with their performing animals as well, it's a free show all of its own! Although I was talking to one of the actors in my cab the other week and they said that the train they're coming on is a bit stinky, smells a fish. It's the one that comes over from Grimsby with the fish supplies, yeah some people are calling the train o-fish-ol-actors - official actors! Although I've heard that that train is the plaice to be and the actors have a whale of a time! I'm sorry, I'm sorry sorry I'll stop with the terrible fish puns, I've just been very well schooled in them yeah, no no no! Oh all right then, well never mind, maybe I'll just stick to cab driving look either way it's going to be a fantastic place to be Darlington now the Hippodrome and the Palace of Varieties will change it all for everybody. If variety is the spice of life, then a Palace of Varieties is going to make a great season for us all

A chat with a coach driver

A hackney carriage driver shares his opinions about the newly built Hippodrome Theatre. 

He talks about the transport available at the time, including the train station, cyclists, and who (and what) you may share your journey with. As well a travel, this video covers businesses at the time and how the town centre was transformed by the new theatre.

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Hello. I do believe it was my wife Millicent's idea to come to Darlington to go to the Hippodrome and the Palace of Varieties. We are going to stay over at the Lord Nelson Inn after traveling there by coach and then go back to the theatre to enjoy an evening of culture and sophistication. Well it had been a very hard day at work so after a couple of pints at the Swan, the missus suggested we go up the Hipp for a bit of a laugh. The entire town centre seems very different for what I last remember, it seems to have been greatly modernized they even have electrical trams these days. I know, I nearly got run over they don't make as much noise as the horses do. After arriving by handsome cab, I was very pleased to see that a large wrought iron and glass veranda protected us from getting wet as we disembarked. I was even more pleased to see that gentlemen like myself and members of higher society like my wife were completely separated from the working classes upon entering the theatre. There's a special entrance just for us working types you know so we don't have to mix with all the gentlemen and worry about getting our dirty work clothes on theirs, you know rubbing off on their frock coats and special jackets, and no bowing and scraping and 'yes sir no sir', no no no, I have enough of that at work this time at the Hipp is time off, it's fun with your family and your mates I saw Mick and Ted in the audience, 'all right lads', didn't know they were coming in tonight. Upon entering the theatre the first thing that I was most impressed by was not the performance but the decoration, they have spared no expense with the ornaments, there's gold and rose and turquoise colours everywhere. In the stalls in the dress circle there are tip-up seats in crimson plush silk -what luxury - my wife and I however prefer to sit in our own private box which faces toward the audience of course so they can see us and my wife does prefer to watch theatre this way, as she prefers everything away from everyone. We're down in the pit, that's full of benches everybody crammed together. All your mates, friends, family all in one place and the great thing is if you've paid your money and you only want to watch one of the acts then you can leave, just stand up for the bench and go. Not like those toffs up above us and all those fall down tip up chairs, they have to squeeze past everyone in the two-dimensional walk of shame to get out. We can just come and go as we please, nice and easy. I was very excited, oh yes, very excited indeed to see what the first act might be, as the curtain went up I thought he might be treated to an overture or maybe a few opening scenes of the play Faust, which I have seen here before, but then... and would you know it the first act on was the Ten Loonies - the Ten Loonies! I saw them before back in '07, and you know the best bit about them? There's only nine of them!

The Ten Loonies, yes ten, but there's only nine of them! Oh Gertie pass me a hanky. Hmm what's that? Oh yes, yes we've seen many spectacular acts here before, there were the uh the dancing dogs. Oh yeah but Gertie's favourite was it the Memory Man, you like the Memory Man didn't you Gertie? Yeah. I can't remember his name... And, oh yes, there was the comedienne Miss Ray Ford, and some elephants - not at the same time though. Lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my! And I must remember to tell you, of course, about the incredible a Night in Egypt - oh that was breath-taking! As indeed was the representation of the sinking of the Titanic, oh oh a single tear dribbled down my face and wet one slight lovely perfect edge of my moustache, how on earth did they get all of that water on the stage? Well they don't bring it in in buckets do they? It's that water tower, you know the great big one that's over 60 feet tall at the front? Yeah, but they use that to flood the stage. That Titanic one was very good, never mind all that water the entire pit was in tears at the end. Oh absolutely it was very moving, I wept, wept into my completely and perfectly totally real moustache. Aye well, a smashing night and a lovely time. Wife's going back home she feels a bit tired, but uh Mick and Ted and I are off back to the Swan. May be back next week. I hear there's some acrobatic geese on, oh champion, count me in! Oh well we shall definitely be coming to the Hippodrome and Palace of Varieties again, do you know they have whiskey here that they serve in the House of Lords as well. I hear there's a famous ventriloquist - ven- ventri- a man that makes a toy talk - he's coming next month!

An interview with the audience

We have a chat with two audience members - one from the upper class and one from the working class - to see their opinion on the shows at the Hippodrome, as well as how their experiences differed.

This video covers how different social classes experienced the theatre, local pubs and hotels at the time, the ticketing system, variety performances, and the impressive Titanic water show.

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Episode 3


Bonjourno, my name is Senior Rino Pepi, that's right 'Pepi', and I am the managing director here at the Darlington Hippodrome and Palace of Varieties. You know before I was a theatre manager, I was an actor. Oh yes, si si si si, my family - they did not want me to be an actor. They were merchants, they sold the things, but I did not want to sell the things, I wanted to pretend to be the things or be the people, so I decided to train and become a great actor. You know, I once performed for Queen Victoria herself she was amused. "I was very very amused, yes". She was very amused, she was so amused when she saw my show, she asked to see it again right away, immediately! I just finished the first one and she want to see it again, it was done for twice as long but she still love it even more the second time and then it occurs to me that being a theatre manager is a lot like being an actor, you see one time I did the one-man show, I did a one-man show, I played all of the parts. I played the old man.

Hello I'm an old man, hello, don't go, don't go to the war, don't do it. I play to the soldier, oh we'll go to the war, it's what I want to do, you can't stop me. I played the butler and all, yeah, the butler. Hello, would you like a tray of tea to go to the war, I'll make you one up right now, and I also played the old lady.

Oh no, you make sure you bring that tray back for the war if you take it won't you, oh yes bring the tray, back it's beaten our family for at least seven minutes, seven whole minutes yes. And running around changing quickly into all of those different clothes it's a little lack being a manager of the Darlington Hippodrome. I have so many things to do, I have to worry about the shows that are booked and making up the running order, I have to worry about the lights, I worry about the money, I worry about the props and the stage, I worry about the seats, I worry about the marketing and the advertising, I do every little thing I work so hard!

After a long day I am so tired and sleepy. I am so tired and sleepy I go to bed at an

apartment I have here built specially for me to sleep. You would call it a, urm, a flat yeah I sleep in me flat here at the theatre, it's very comfy. It has to be comfy because I'm up early bright in the morning to start the work again. My wife she does not like it when I stay over, but she knows how hard we work and when there is a show if we are not too busy at one of our other theatres, then we sit in the box and we watch the show we watch all of the shows, all of the different time, all the shows, all of them like all the different parts that you might see in a one-man show. There are so many, there is the music and the music hall and the variety and the burlesque and the sing-alongs but also the opera and the plays, there is the acrobatics there is the juggling, the ventriloquism, the comedy, the tragedy, there is even sometimes a donkey on the unicycle! All, all of humanity is coming together here at the Darlington Hippodrome and Palace of Varieties, and that is why people keep coming back, because it does not matter if you're rich or you're poor, it does not matter what part of the world you come from there is something here for everybody to see, everybody want to see all the variety because it represents human imagination joined together in the community for imagination is the best nation on all the planet. Ciao!

A talk with Signor Pepi

Signor Rino Pepi wasn't just the founder of Darlington Hippodrome, but also a protean actor who performed in front of Queen Victoria herself.

Signor Pepi has a lot to share in this video, including a bit about his life, his early career, and his role later on in the theatre.

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Episode 4


Bonjourno! So in the next video it is your opportunity to join in with some of the performers who came to the Darlington Hippodrome and Palace of Varieties during the heyday four years after I opened the doors. Oh what a time to be alive on the stage here in the Hipp there were actors, artists, strongmen, magic, ventriloquists, acrobats, Shakespeare plays, and pantomimes with pirates in them. Marvellous! You know why pirates are called pirates, don't you? Because they 'arrrr'. Let me hear you! That's your first cue give me an 'arrr'. 'Arrr'. not 'ooh-arrr', that's farmers. 'Arrr' pirates! Loud, go 'arrr'.

Well done my pirate crew, now let's go and find Peter Pan. The Darlington Hippodrome and Palace of Varieties enjoys its prime, yeah! It's heyday, welcoming world-renowned acts like me Harry Tate. My name became cockney rhyming slam for being late for some reason - probably because I was always late and making a mess in my amusing comedy routines about sketches of things going wrong, like trying to fix a car. Could you drive a car out there? Go on, drive a car, that's it! I was also very famous for my moustache - look at that look! Could you wiggle your moustache? Doesn't matter if you haven't got one, just wiggle your face. Go on, bend it about the place in weird ways. Yeah do it now. Random! In 1911, stars like me turned up George Ruby, pantomime dame. I do have an amazing set of eyebrows if I do say so myself, but mostly it's my singing voice that people come fooooor. Could you sing like that? Go on give it a try!

Do it, do it now! Maybe do eyebrows with it as well, I could do that one and that one, as well. Can you do one eyebrow? Can you, can you? Or both? Come on join in! Although even though my eyebrows are rather impressive, the most impressive facial hair during 1911 came from a comedian who was performing that I, I can't quite remember his name... oh it'll come to me... oh shout it out if you know it... Charlie...

Even the Great War 1914 to 1918 didn't stop the shows at the Hipp. Those Tommy's marching back from the front lines for a bit of a rest at home, and you can march with me if you like, come on that's right get those knees up. All those Tommy's coming home could go to the Hipp and they could watch a music show, maybe some burlesque comedy, or even some dancing from the famous dancer Maud Allen herself. I did seven dances and got so many encores, let's have a bit of cheering for me shall we? Hey I can't hear you! Let's have a bit of cheering, in come on cheer! Cheer! That's right.

The Darlington Operatic Society was asked to perform in 1924. Can you sing opera with me?

Oh yes we here at the Operatic Society were delighted to be invited to perform and then there was more culture in 1927 when ballerina, Russian lady called Anna Pavlova, came to Darlington. Oh the people lined Park Gate to welcome her to the Hippodrome. Wave your flags everyone! Wave! Wave your flags! Anna Pavlova is here to perform her show the Dying Swan. I wonder what happens at the end... It was a pleasure to dance at the Hippodrome, I have been doing ballet since I was 10 years old. My show, the Dying Swan, was made especially for me. Can you make up a dance especially for you? Let's see, come on let's dance.

Dance! Everybody, even the grown-ups, let's dance to ballet.

Well done! Give yourselves a round of applause. Applause, applause! Indeed, it was Anna Pavlova the greatest and the most famous ballerina in the entire world performing at the Darlington Hippodrome. She performed the Dying Swan over four thousand times. She was from Russia but lived in London and she went on a 4000 mile round-trip tour of Yorkshire and the north to perform in Darlington. To perform here at the Hippodrome and Palace of Varieties. You know she was so famous she even had a cake named after her, huh. I wonder if you had a cake named after you what kind of a cake would it be. Chocolate cake? Cheesecake? Fish cake? Who knows, who knows what kind of cake. I would think about that as you give yourselves a massive round of applause, well done for joining in. Well done, yes, come on let me hear the applause. Applaud yourself for joining in with the video, you have all done so well indeed, magnifico. Ooh, I need to lie down - ciao!

Hearing from the performers

The Hippodrome has played host to a variety of performers, including Pepi himself. We talk to a few of them and hear their stories.

Featuring interactive activities and a rundown on the many types of shows in the Hippodrome. 

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Episode 5


'Ere, never mind all those actors, you want to know what goes on at the theatre behind the scenes then you work like me, behind the scenes. I'm a stage manager. I was a follow spot operator that means I controlled the spotlight that follows the acts around on stage yes yes yes it can be it can be very tricky. It's a little bit like a game of hide-and-seek but the actor's not really hiding here and I I got a massive light so it's sort of like really a game of light the humans you see, yeah not really a game at all. Senior Rino Pepi the Darlington Hippodrome and Palace of Variety's founder and first managing director died on the 17th of November 1927. His funeral procession went from Darlington over to Pennines to take his body to Barrow-in-Furness so he could be buried next to the grave of his wife. But as the procession moved over the mountains, the mist settled in and they had to stop; they couldn't go any further. It was almost as if the ghost of Senior Pepi wanted to look to the East one last time to see his beloved Hippodrome. Would you mind stopping with all the doom and gloom? I started work when I was a young lad backstage in 1928, that's the year after Senior Pepi died. We're still very busy. We're overwhelmed! I sell tickets all afternoon and then when the shows are done they come back and buy the tickets for next week. I did very well in the 1930s I was promoted to looking after the curtains although on the first day I didn't watch what I was doing and some poor lad got stuck. Oh I see that was me that was me when I was younger, yes I was hanging onto the curtains to open it for one of the actresses but forgot to let go with the curtain went up! Yes I was propelled into the air my little feet peddling away like I was on a bicycle yeah it's quite scary, I don't mind telling you it was quite high up. Although I did prefer that to being low down on the ground backstage in the dark, I didn't like that job at all. They do say that the ghost of Pepi walks the board and sometimes appears in the dressing room that used to be his personal box. Well the cinema is really, really popular now. We closed for a bit in 1933 so we could get a screen up so now people could come to the hip to see the flicks. It's 1939 and Britain's declared war on Germany, are we going to stay open? What are you talking about? People need to forget their troubles at a time of war but Darlington Hippodrome was busier than ever. We used to have a right laugh as well, all of us like family! The drummer in the orchestra one year dressed up for a laugh as Adolf Hitler and the crowd fell about. Yeah but of course the next step is cinema at home, innit? Television. We're really quiet now, I blame the televisions, we just do wrestling or burlesque.

For nearly 20 years I've done the lights here at the hippodrome but I received my letter letting me go 1957, January 31st. It was very nice of the manager to let me go that way, he's even given me a bit of money, but it won't be the same! I'd rather enjoyed swinging with the curtains and missing actors completely with the lights and running away from ghosts... what other job gives you that, eh what other the job?

Will the hippodrome ever open again?

Meeting the staff of the Hippodrome

While the actors were the stars of the show, the theatre staff were the ones keeping things running smoothly. There were plenty of jobs in the theatre, as well as plenty of ghosts! 

This video covers the different roles in the Hippodrome, the unfortunate death and funeral of Pepi, the rise of cinema, the effects of World War II, competition from new media, and the eventual closure of the theatre.

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Episode 6


The Darlington theatre is open again - hooray! Or to use its proper name, The Darlington Civic Theatre is open again - hooray! Was a little bit scared there for a while I thought we'd have no theatre at Darlington was frightening in the late 50s but we were saved - saved by the lovely, lovely people at the Darlington Operatic Society. You'll remember them...

Yeah, that's them, the Darlington Operatic Society-

Aye, all right well that's quite enough of that thank you. Well the Darlington Operatic Society - don't do it again - the Darlington Operatic Society, they came and they rented the theatre in the late 50s and then they got enough money together to buy it in 1961 for £8000 and then they immediately sold it the same day to Darlington Council for £5000. They had a secretary manager Miss Vera Seymour, she was succeeded by Mrs Janet Verrell and Donald Hamilton more from Liverpool, and then in 1972 they appointed the youngest ever theatre manager Peter Todd - he was only 24, awww. But he's been so good quite frankly I wouldn't care if Peter Todd was a baby - a massive bespectacled man baby managing the theatre he's been absolutely brilliant. Now I'm a cab driver right and my family ooh we've been cab driving up and down these streets for over 70 years and to see the roads outside of the old Hippodrome transformed into the Darlington Civic Theatre be so busy and full of people again it's been wonderful. It's been one of the most successful seasons ever 1974 to 1975, we've increased the audience numbers from 20 of the audience to over 80 percent every time we have a show. It's one of the most successful theatres outside of London's West End, aye! I wonder if the success will continue... and of course it has, of course it has the Darlington Civic theatre continues to go from strength to strength now Peter Todd did leave but in the 1980s Brian Goddard came to manage the theatre and increased attendance capacity to over 95%, aye unbelievable now as well as operas and players and pantomimes we're welcoming the variety acts of the day people like Les Dawson and the Grumbleweeds, aye and the Chuckle Brothers. What's next, actual royalty? We closed the theatre in 1990 to give it a renovation and a building makeover to put a few more chairs in and while we were doing that we found the body of a little doggy, aye. I reckon it was Senior Pepi's little doggy, well we buried it properly and since then there's been no appearance of any little doggy ghosts that people used to see and that got me thinking about all the other ghosts that might be here because of all the people that have come to the theatre and attended as an audience but also performed here as actors or singers or dancers all of the people that have worked here front of house in the booking office or backstage as lightning and setting people think of what a wonderful hub and centre of the community that this theatre has been whether you call it the Civic or the Hippodrome or the Palace of Varieties or all of those this wonderful place continues to be the spice of life for Darlington and beyond.

A chat with a cabby from the 70s

Despite closing in the 50s, the Hippodrome would reopen under the name 'Darlington Civic Theatre'. We hear from a taxi driver about the theatre's journey through the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond.

This episode features the Darlington Operatic Society, Darlington Council's involvement in the theatre, the renovation in the 90s, and some of the famous celebrities we've had on our stage.

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Episode 7

A full history of the theatre with Signor Pepi

Signor Pepi shares his full life story, and the story of the Hippodrome itself. 

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