TODAY, Darlington Civic Theatre is reborn as the Darlington Hippodrome after its £12m revamp. The theatre is 110 years old, but it can never have been more important to the town.

The age of austerity has already seen Darlington lose its arts centre and now its library is teetering disappointingly on the brink of closure.

Darlington does not have the huge artistic set-pieces of its neighbours – the Stockton International Riverside Festival or the brilliant Lumiere at Durham – and so the enlarged theatre needs to act as a beacon reminding people that art and culture and good times should be at the heart of any healthy, well rounded town.

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I am also delighted at the name change. It only became known as the Civic Theatre in 1958, when Darlington Operatic Society funded by a small council grant saved the semi-derelict building from the pigeons and the bulldozer.

“Civic” is not a good time word. A civic centre sounds like a concrete and glass box where you go to quibble about street lighting and bin emptying; civic dignitaries sound like stuffily formal fuddy-duddies, and so a civic theatre does not sound like a place where you can take a flight of fancy and escape the cares of the humdrum world.

“Hippodrome” is different. The hippodrome age ran from the mid-1890s to the start of the First World War – when Darlington’s theatre opened in 1907, it was called the New Hippodrome and Palace Theatre of Varieties – and hippodrome theatres initially offered a specific type of entertainment.

“Hippodromos” was the stadium where ancient Greeks watched horse-drawn chariot racing, and hippodrome theatres transferred that animal element to the stage. They specialised in circuses, menageries and performing beasts, usually of an aquatic bent.

The best example of this animal-based water-orientated entertainment is at the London Hippodrome in 1904, where for the show The Golden Princess and the Elephant Hunters the curtains opened to reveal a real waterfall tumbling 40ft at the back of the stage.

In a show which featured ostriches and zebras, the highlight was the “elephant plunge scene”. Eight or so elephants would walk up a slope to the top of a 40ft water slide and then swoosh down into a glass-fronted water tank – the front rows of the audience were warned they might be soaked by the elephant tsunami.

I’ve no idea how you persuade a reluctant elephant to swoosh down a water slide, but a question was asked of the Home Secretary in the House of Commons about whether he would stop elephants being “forced on to a steep incline and precipitated into the water”. The minister, Aretas Akers-Douglas, replied that “no force is used…there is no cruelty”.

Polar bears and seals were also regular performers in hippodrome water tanks, but the only time that I can see that the Darlington Hip – which has a characterful 64ft high water tower above its main entrance – used its water power to its full potential was in 1912 when it put on a lifelike re-enactment of the sinking of the Titanic.

There is nothing as watery planned in the opening programme for the new Hippodrome, but I’m really looking forward to it making an enormous, elephant-sized splash and its waves rolling out across the area.