Our History - Curtain Up

Our History - Curtain Up

Curtain up

By Chris Lloyd


The New Hippodrome and Palace Theatre of Varieties opened on September 2, 1907, with a classic music hall bill, topped by "the Greatest of all Comediennes”, Miss Marie Loftus, but the real star of the show was the Italian impresario who had brought the theatre to life.

On that opening, there were two houses – 7pm and 9pm – with 2,000 people crammed into each, including 500 squeezed onto the wooden benches of the gallery with another 100 standing behind, watching what the local newspaper, The Northern Echo, called an “admirable” programme put together by Signor Rino Pepi to mark the launch of his third music hall.

Pepi was born in a village near Florence, in 1872, where his father was a well-to-do merchant, but the young man took to the stage. "One of his first appearances was before Queen Victoria in her castle at Florence, " says Pepi's obituary in the Barrow News. "The Queen was pleased with the young artiste and presented him with a diamond scarf pin." During the 1890s, Pepi became one of Europe's three greatest quick-change artistes - the theatrical fad of his day - playing to royalty.

Along the way, he met Mary, Countess de Rossetti, and fell in love. She was a widow who was half Italian and half Irish. She taught him English and, in early 1898, they came to London. For three months, Pepi topped the bill - there were 27 artistes beneath him - at the Pavilion (now the Trocadero shopping centre) in Piccadilly Circus. The programme made great play of his connection with Queen Victoria and described him as "Italy's Greatest Protean and Quick Change Artist".

"Signor Pepi's turn was a brilliant one," said the Echo's obituary of Pepi. "First he acted a 15-minute sketch unassisted, playing in all seven characters, male and female. He could sing soprano and tenor with equal ease, a feat which greatly enlivened his sketch." This sketch was called Love Is Always Victorious, and was so successful that after being the talk of the west end in London in the summer of 1898, it toured Europe for four years until September 1902, when Pepi found himself performing at the Star Theatre of Varieties in Barrow-in-Furness, in Cumbria.

Barrow is a most unlikely place for a 30-year-old Italian artiste of international repute to wind up, but the theatre was for sale. Pepi bought it and never again did Europe’s greatest quick change artist set foot on the stage – he went into theatre management. He spent a month doing up the Star and re-naming it the Tivoli, after the popular variety hall in London. Within two years, it was doing well enough for Pepi to take on the lease of the Blackpool Hippodrome, and then he built his own theatre, the Palace Theatre of Varieties, in Botchergate, Carlisle. It was designed by a Birmingham firm of theatre specialists, Owen and Ward, and opened on March 6, 1906. There was so much excitement about variety hall entertainment coming to Carlisle that police had to keep the queues in order.

Early in 1907, Owen and Ward and Pepi became involved in a project in Darlington, to build a hippodrome in Parkgate. Hippodromes were a specific type of music hall, popular for about five years towards the end of Edward VI’s reign. They took their name from the ancient Greek venue where horse-drawn chariot races took place, and they too specialised in animal-orientated entertainment: circuses, menageries and performing animals appeared at hippodromes, often with a water element to create a unique attraction.

It was to be Darlington’s second theatre, after the Theatre Royal in Northgate, and it coincided with the regeneration of Parkgate, which was regarded as too narrow to be the main approach to the railway station. Low grade shops and houses were demolished, and the first inkling that a variety theatre would take their place came in April 1905 when the North Star newspaper produced an artist's impression of an “opera house” planned for the Borough Road corner. This design was by Darlington’s pre-eminent architect George Gordon Hoskins who, as well as building colleges, the library and the King's Head Hotel in the town, had built the Victoria Hall Theatre in Sunderland. That, though, was more than 30 years earlier and Hoskins became ill having completed the first design – it shows a very different frontage, but it settled the interior layout of the theatre.

The project was picked up by a Newcastle architect, William Hope, whose repertoire included Middlesbrough's Grand Opera House (1903), Stockton Hippodrome (1905) and the King's Theatre, Sunderland (1907), but he too faded from the scene as Pepi and Owen and Ward took over. George F Ward, of Birmingham, seems to have been the principal architect of what one theatre historian has described as "riotous and wonderfully busy” façade. It is, he said, “a solidified fairground of shapes and motifs which proudly advertised the building's function as a hippodrome/music hall".

It took just seven months to build, and was opened on September 2, 1907. An opening night programme printed on silk still exists, detailing the acts that appeared with Miss Marie Loftus on that historic occasion.

"Vandinoff came on first, and received a well-deserved hearty reception," said the Echo. "He paints beautiful pictures rapidly - and well. The centrepiece - a floral design - was artistically executed, while the circular canvas was whirled round smartly.”

Next on was Mademoiselle Lumiere who danced in her electrical fairy grotto “while at the same time numerous exquisitely beautiful pictures of flowers, birds, butterflies, and so on were thrown on the folds of the ample skirt”. Then came Mezetti and Mora, the comedy triple bar performers, the Three Phydoras, in their musical eccentric novelty act (who were permitted to respond briefly to an encore) and Morny Cash, the Lancashire lad. Comedian Charlie Williams, who blacked up and had a strong Scottish accent, had the audience in stitches, “but”, said the Echo, “the most vociferous of the plaudits were reserved for Marie Loftus, a comedienne whose fame extends throughout the entire music hall world".

Marie Loftus (1857-1940) was known as "the Sarah Bernhardt of the Music-Halls", and although by the time she reached our Hippodrome, she was no spring chicken, still she had a full figure and an attractive voice. In her greasepaint under the gaslights, belting out her numbers, which ranged from naughtily risque to enormously sentimental, she was still capable of making a grown man swoon.

Even as Pepi and Ward stood on the stage taking the opening night plaudits and congratulations, they were planning their third joint venture: the New Hippodrome in Middlesbrough, a handsome terracotta-faced theatre with a capacity of 2,800, which opened on August 17, 1908. It is a splendid creation, although it now stands forlornly empty as the A66 dual carriageway flyover whizzes past its gutter level.

Pepi wasn’t much of a businessman – it may be that he persevered with Darlington because it was ideally located so that he could indulge another of his passions for racecourses. He spent £22,000 fitting up the Middlesbrough hippodrome, but it never turned him a penny, and he sold it just eight months later for £12,400. He may even have had to give away Queen Victoria’s diamond scarf pin to cover his debts, as it is believed to still be on Teesside, and he was also forced to off-load the Palace in Carlisle because it wasn’t paying.


But Pepi was undaunted. On December 6, 1909, he opened another Hippodrome in Bishop Auckland - "a most handsome and commodious building," according to The Northern Echo – which he followed, on September 21, 1910, with his fourth purpose-built variety temple, the "very fine" Shildon Hippodrome in Byerley Road.

Yet for all Pepi's optimism, this was not a good time to be building variety halls. Variety was yesterday's entertainment. "The flicks" - films - were the big draw, and cinemas were springing up all over the place. Pepi couldn't make either of his south Durham venues pay, and his involvement in Shildon ended after a little more than a year when the Bishop Auckland Hippodrome also went bust in 1911.

At the outbreak of the First World War, our hero owned only two theatres: Darlington and Barrow. Then, on December 7, 1915, the Countess died at their modest mid-terrace home in Barrow. She was only 46.

They had made an exotic couple. He, the Italian master of stagecraft; she, the aristocrat of continental descent. He, in his black top hat and black flowing coat; she, in her ballgown carrying her favourite Pekinese in her arms (the dog was 11 when it died and its ghost haunted the theatre until the 1970s when a doglike skeleton was removed from a wall and given a proper burial out the back).

Pepi kept on with Barrow until 1924, by which time film was overpowering. Pepi's diary remains at the Civic. You can feel his disappointment as he crosses out the name of a show he has booked and, in angry black ink, replaces it with the single word "Pictures".

He, though, raged against the dying of the light and he bowed out with a magnificent coup de grace, a truly theatrical flourish. In his pocketbook, in his expansive hand, he wrote in his customary black ink: "Madame Pavlova's matinee. Thursday Nov 17/27."

There have been few more famous ballerinas than Anna Pavlova (certainly no other ballerina has had a meringue-based dessert named after them). All around the world she had legions of fans, of pavlovtzi, who dissolved into raptures about her Dying Swan.

Much of Darlington turned out to greet her, and the tickets, priced at a premium, were snapped up. No greater name can have trodden the Parkgate boards.  But Pepi wasn't there to see her. He was at home in Tower Road, his fragile hold on life slipping away as the swan faded in the follow spot. Pavlova danced at 2.30pm.  Pepi died of cancer of the left lung later that night. He was 55.

His funeral was attended by 200 people two days later in St Augustine's Roman Catholic Church, and his body was transported by motor hearse over the A66 to Barrow to be buried next to his beloved countess in his evening dress.

Somewhere over the Pennines fog closed in. In the darkness before dawn, the hearse and a couple of cars pulled up - perhaps in a lay-by, perhaps in a pub car park - and waited for the mist to lift.

It is this break in Pepi's last journey that has prompted the many ghost stories about him. It was as if he were reluctant to leave Darlington and its Hippodrome, which is why his ghost haunted his one bedroom apartment after it was turned into a dressing room, and he mysteriously appeared in the royal box stage right to cast a critical eye on the acts.

About Chris Lloyd

Chris Lloyd is Chief Features Writer of the Northern Echo and Darlington & Stockton Times writing, amongst other topics, on local history and politics. A former North-East Journalist of the Year, he has written eight local history books about the Darlington area, including Of Fish and Actors: 100 Years of Darlington Civic Theatre, which was published in 2007.