The Darlington Hippodrome: Pepi's vision

The Darlington Hippodrome: Pepi's vision

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Financial Troubles, Risqué Performances and the Battle with Cinema: The Darlington Civic Theatre during Wartime. By young reporter, Grace Wakes. 


With 1914 playing a huge part in my life this week, I started to reflect on what the theatre was like during this period, especially the effects which the war had on the Darlington Civic.

If I was to take a step back in time, the outside of the Civic would be instantly recognisable. But instead of a busy road with cars zooming past, I would see trams tootling by, taking shoppers to the covered market and workers to the mill by the River Skerne. The beautiful Edwardian façade has remained pretty much untouched since it was built, apart from an incident in the 1960s when a fuel tanker misjudged the turning into Borough Road, resulting in the glass canopy coming crashing down. Thankfully, after some years of 1960s architecture gracing the front of the building, a replica of the original canopy was erected. 

Escaping back to wartime, the most fascinating character of them all, graced the theatre, his name was Signor Rino Pepi. Born in Florence, Italy and having toured the world as a quick change artist, Pepi was destined to run Hippodromes. Always donning his top hat, he was a man of charm and entertainment and was said to be very generous when it came to the arts. He was the man who helped shape the Darlington Civic and it is said his ghost still wanders the corridors of the theatre today.

Like today, Darlington was primarily working class in 1914 and the Hippodrome was a popular place for people to visit. Recreation was vital for allowing workers to escape the grim reality of the daily grind. However, theatre faced problems with the invention of the wireless and competition from cinema. Darlington had the most cinema seats per head in the UK and this resulted in the once favoured music hall declining. Audiences now saw it as outdated and demanded something different.

There were issues for Pepi too, his Italian heritage raised suspicion amongst locals during wartime and the theatre was thought to be struggling financially, with many acts been cancelled, simply replaced by 'pictures'. Due to a ration of all resources during the First World War, it was advised that places of entertainment such as the Civic should cut their opening hours, as there was a lack of electricity in the area, due to local coal miners being out on the Front Line.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom in Darlington though, audiences were treated to charity matinees, the 'smallest man in the world' wowed audiences and risqué performances, where ladies refused to wear tights underneath their garments.

The Civic Theatre and Darlington itself, survived the war untouched, however, according to Pepi's records, the theatre was still in financial trouble. Pepi refused to give in, still pushing performances to take place throughout the 1920s. After his death in 1927, an arts committee was set up, this played a large part in ensuring that the Civic remained a theatre and didn't get redeveloped into a picture house. The theatre continues to thrive in 2014 and has recently announced a five million pound restoration grant for renovations. The future looks bright, the future is in theatre.