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Heritage A-Z

Heritage A-Z

A is for ACROBAT

One the most popular variety acts in the theatre’s early years were acrobatic performances.  Performing in troupes such as The 4 Athos, Kremka Brothers and Brothers Richmond, the acrobats were often described as eccentric and extraordinary, performing summersaults, balancing routines, and cycling tricks.  Many of these acrobatic acts featured a comedy routine but some of the most daring routines featured the high wire - one notable performance in 1936 featured a high wire walk from the stage to the gallery!

B is for BANDS

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the Hippodrome programme seems to have been dominated by bands and band led variety shows.  Popular bands were Marcel de Haes and his Cosmo Band, Hal Moss and Ernest Lorraine and his famous Cabaret Band.  Many of the leaders and their bands played in radio shows, that were sometimes even broadcast from the theatre. In variety shows the band not only supported the musical acts but were often the star of the show themselves, performing original numbers or a mix of popular songs.

C is for CLOWN

Clowns were a regular feature in the variety days of the theatre - sometimes they were attraction like Paulo the Singing Clown (1940) or were part of a larger performance such as the Royal Clowns in the 1948 Colossal Circus.  Clowns are comedic performers, but there are lots of different types of clowns such as Circus and Auguste, each with different characters, costumes and performance styles.  In the early 1900s the Hippodrome Pantomimes still featured Harlequinades, a British style of comedy theatre, where highly stylised clown characters would perform in the middle of a Pantomime, such as in the 1920 production of Cinderella.

D is for DOG

One of the Hippodrome’s great mysteries is the name of Signor Pepi’s pug! The little dog belonging to our founding director and his wife was a much-loved member of their family and when it died was buried within the walls of the theatre. While we have a photograph of the dog and his ghost has been spotted in the building many times, we still don’t know its name! What do you think would be a good name for the pug? 

E is for ELECTRICITY

When the theatre first opened in 1907 the Hippodrome ran on a mixture of gas and electricity, with the theatre being mainly powered by electricity with gas as the back up in case of a failure. The Hippodrome would also later have its own motor generator specifically for lighting the stage. In addition to lighting the venue for the public, electricity also played a role in the theatre’s entertainment with intriguing acts such as Mddle. Lumiere’s Electrical Fairy Grotto in 1907, The Great Radiana "the most sensational Electrical Novelty in the world" in 1935 and most the exciting of all “TELEVISION - a marvellous demonstration of the future entertainment” in 1936. 

F is for FLYER

As part of the theatre’s archive we have thousands of flyers advertising shows and events staged at the Hippodrome. Flyers are an important way promoting upcoming shows featuring vital show information, cast details and positive reviews.  Our collection of flyers starts in the 1970s and show the development of digital design.

G is for GHOSTS

There's so many spooky stories tied in with the Hippodrome's history that we could fill an A-Z of just ghosts!

Mention our spectral friends to any member of staff, past and present, and you'll likely be regaled with a tale of unexplained goings on.

In 2016 the theatre hit the national news when members of the restoration team accidentally snapped what appears to be two phantom figures in the stalls. See for yourself in this article.

Check out our virtual ghost tours here.

H is for HEMP HOUSE

Darlington Hippodrome was a hemp house theatre, meaning that the theatre used hemp ropes on a weights and pulleys system to “fly” in scenery and sets.

Traditionally in theatres, with the amount of ropes, rigging and knots needed for this manually-hauled system, many ex-sailors were hired as flymen!

The hemp flying system has now been replaced with a modern double-purchase counterweight system. This allows the theatre to accommodate the increasingly heavy load requirements of larger touring shows.

I is for INNOVATIVE


Whilst theatre has always been a popular pastime, in the last 100 years it has come up against competition from radio, film and TV. To compete, the theatre has had to innovative with its shows, sometimes embracing the new technology.

At the Hippodrome Signor Pepi introduced the Pepiscope, a short segment showing early film clips, and in 1931 the Hippodrome hosted a special show that enabled people to take part in the newest film craze - Talkies.

The Hippodrome would continue to host innovative shows with a demonstration of TV and even live radio broadcasts.

J is for JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Jack and the Beanstalk was our first pantomime in 1908 and has been an audience favourite over the last 100 years having been staged 18 times at Darlington Hippodrome. Advertised as the “Grand Spectacular Comic Pantomime”, the 1908 pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk featured a full chorus and ballet, with a of troupe dancers and speciality acts.  The most recent production of Jack and the Beanstalk at the theatre had a distinct dance theme, starring Shirley Ballas and George Sampson!

K is for KING RAT

One of the best parts of a panto is the villain - a clever blend of wicked and funny! Every pantomime story has a different villain but in Dick Whittington the baddie is King Rat, the ruler of the rats who hates Dick Whittington and his cat.  This pantomime has been very popular over the years at the Hippodrome having been staged approximately 12 times – with 12 different evil King Rats!

L is for LETTERS

In the Hippodrome archives there are thousands and thousands of letters from audiences, cast and crew as well as hotels, theatre companies and other businesses. The letters range from thank yous and congratulations to complaints and even restaurant review requests, but our favourite letter is a copy of one sent to the Northern Echo in 1939 about the issue with ladies wearing hats in the theatre.

M is for MAGIC

During our variety days one of the most exciting performances would be magic acts. Working either as part of a circus troupe or as the top billing star, many magicians and illusionists performed at the Hippodrome with unusual tricks including John Warren the “court magician by appointment to HSH The Sultan of Morocco" in 1908 and famed WWII British Magician Jasper Maskelyne in 1935. One famous magician, Liga Singh "the world's famous Mystery Man”, poured gallons of water into a tank, magically changed it to beer and distributed it amongst the audience!

N is for NOTEBOOKS

A very special part of our archives are the original notebooks belonging to Signor Pepi, the founding Director and Manager of the theatre. The notebooks were used by Pepi to programme the different shows and acts at the Hippodrome, they include the acts names, potential dates and even the cost and ticket sales percentage split. One notebooks was just for Darlington Hippodrome and includes the original booking of Anna Pavlova in 1927, the notebook was passed on to the next director after Pepi’s death. The other notebook however includes the programming schedule for other theatres Pepi managed or helped programme including the Tivoli in Barrow-in-Furness, Middlesbrough Hippodrome and even the Theatre Royal in Darlington.

O is for ORCHESTRA

In the early years of the Hippodrome, the theatre had a resident orchestra, The Hippodrome Grand Orchestra. Led initially by Mr M Mendoza, the Hippodrome Grand Orchestra would support the musical acts on stage and also play the overture, an orchestral piece of music played at the start of a show.  While the Hippodrome Orchestra eventually disbanded in the 1950s performances from visiting orchestras such as the Halle Orchestra were very popular, as demonstrated by photographs from a 1960s Halle Performance.

P is PEPI

The Hippodrome’s founding Director and Manager was an Italian quick changed artist called Signor Rino Pepi. Born in Florence to a wealthy merchant family, Pepi became a successful actor, travelling the world and even performing for Queen Victoria. After years of performance and marrying the half Irish, half Italian widow Mary, Countess de Rossetti, Pepi left behind the limelight and began to manage a theatre empire. Pepi managed a series of theatres in the north west before opening Darlington Hippodrome in 1907, then opening a series of other theatres in the North East. Pepi was so attached to Darlington Hippodrome that he had a small flat built into the theatre and his ghost is said to haunt the theatre still.

Q is for QUICK CHANGE

Before managing Darlington Hippodrome Signor Pepi was one of the world’s greatest quick change artists. Quick change performers or “Proteans” are a performer who is able to act all the roles in a show or scene by quickly changing their appearance and often voice to suit each character. Signor Pepi was famous for his one man sketch 'Love Always Victorious', in which he played all seven characters, he was all well known for his ability to play classical composers supposedly transforming into 13 composers in 5 minutes on stage. The skills of a protean or quick change arts are now often used in performances by dancers, magicians and even figure skaters.

R is for RAILWAY

The railway has always been important to Darlington Hippodrome, one of the reasons the Parkgate site was chosen was due to its proximity to Bank Top Station. Being so close to the station meant that the theatre would be more accessible to out of town audiences and to travelling acts and theatre companies. As a variety theatre, the acts changed every week and the new performers would arrive in Darlington on the Sunday with the fish train! The proximity to the Station also meant it was easier for large props, scenery and even the animals from Zoos and Circuses to be brought down to the theatre’s yard and stables in a donkey pulled cart.

S is for SLEUTHS

From classic detective novels and true crime television series to thriller films and mystery plays, the subject of crime is a significant and popular genre, and Darlington Hippodrome has hosted a wide variety of dramas, comedies and musicals dedicated to it. Some of the most popular productions are about Agatha Christies’ two famous sleuths Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, with over 45 different productions at the Hippodrome in the last 60 years. One of the most popular plays was comedy, murder thriller 'Find the Lady' in 1980, featuring Mollie Sugden as Rosie Lake “the slightly faded ex-actress proprietor of the Delamare Private Hotel” who finds a body in her lodging house. This show played to a full house audience with a capacity of 105%.

T is for TILES

Revealed and conserved during the 2016 building the restoration, the original Parkgate Foyer features an encaustic tile floor.  Encaustic tiles are multicoloured ceramic tiles, where the colourful designs are not created through glazes but different clays inlaid within the main tile. These original 1907 tiles covered the floor in the main entrance, which would have been used by the audience in the most expensive seats in the house such as the boxes, front of the stalls and dress circle.  At some point the tiles were covered up by carpeting and sustained some damage, but through the efforts of a conservation team were restored to their formed glory for the 2017 reopening.

U is for UPPER CIRCLE

The Upper Circle is the highest level of seating the theatre; nicknamed the Gods because it is so close to the heavens, this area of seating is often the cheapest. When we first opened in 1907 people sitting in these cheap seats would have used a different entrance than the grand Parkgate Foyer, as many theatres separated people by class. During the 2016 restoration of the theatre, there are some decorative differences in the Upper Circle compared to the other levels reflecting our social history. 

V is for VARIETY

Opening in 1907 as the New Hippodrome and Palace Theatre of Variety, the theatre’s early years were dedicated to variety performances. With two shows a night, six days a week the shows were made up of 10-12 different acts ranging from singers, dancers and actors to comedians, acrobats and magicians. The Hippodrome archive has a series of signed postcards from the 1930s and 1940s of variety performers who visited the Hippodrome, showing the range of variety acts.  The variety acts included well know national stars such as George Formby, international performers and local North East acts such as “The Tyneside Comedian” Jimmy Campbell.

W is for WATER

During the Hippodrome’s peak variety years, the Theatre was known for its water based acts; utilising the building’s water tower the stage could be flooded with gallons of water to create a variety of aquatic scenes for plays and performances. One of the most famous water shows was the on stage depiction of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912! The majority of the other water acts didn’t use real life events for inspiration but rather used the water to create waterfalls, fountains rivers, lakes and sometimes even freezing it for skating.

X is for X-RATED

The Hippodrome has always offered a variety of shows to a variety of audiences, and since opening in 1907 the theatre has staged a few risqué shows! Starting in the early 1900s with La Milo, a well known performer who posed nude as famous statues, the Hippodrome would often feature Burlesque acts throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s. Often the Burlesque show or performers would have witty names such as Strip! Strip! Hooray! in 1940 or the Six Eves without Leaves in 1945.

Y is for YOU

You, our audience, are an incredibly important part of the Hippodrome’s heritage! The location, design and programming of the Theatre were all originally selected to match the taste and expectation of an Edwardian audience, ensuring they had the best experience; now as times have changed we have altered the building and programme to better suit our modern audiences with the recent restoration. One of the most exciting features of the restoration was hearing your stories and experiences of the Hippodrome, from first pantomime visits, reminiscences of interval ice cream treats and even actor’s first steps on stage! We are always happy to hear the memories you created at the Hippodrome.

Z is for ZOO

Animal acts were a popular specialty performance at the Hippodrome, and from 1907 to the mid-1950s a variety of animal acts visited the theatre in the form of zoos, circuses and variety troupes.  The animal shows ranged from performing dogs such as “Betty Kayes performing pekes” to exotic displays of lions, tigers, pumas and elephants, which all featured in the 1954 show “Hip, Hip Zoo-ray Circus”. Now we would consider the majority of these acts animal cruelty, as many animals, particularly exotic ones have specialised needs, and now many animal charities are able to protect  the rights and animals and ensure their safety used in entertainment.