THE final curtain is to come down on the last of Darlington’s small cinemas from the golden age of the silver screen when the town proudly boasted that it had more cinema seats per head of population than any other place in Britain.

The Odeon on Northgate – once the ABC and before that the Regal – is to close.

What next for this site which for more than 150 years has been a place of great entertainment and extraordinary drama…

1865

The Northern Echo: FIRST THEATRE: The newly discovered and only picture of the Theatre Royal in Northgate, Darlington, only lasted from 1868 to 1873 – today, a cinema is on its site

The site, near the confluence of the Cocker Beck and the River Skerne, was known as Butts Close, suggesting that in ancient times it was a place for archery practice. When witches were a problem in Darlington, they were ducked at Butts Close.

On Butts Close, George Briggs Scotson, of Haughton-le-Skerne, built the town’s first proper theatre. His four-year-old daughter laid the foundation stone beside the Bridge Hotel and the new Theatre Royal opened on February 22 (a sketch of it is above).

It was a desperately primitive and rowdy venue. The theatre manager, James MacDonald, doubled as the star actor, and on one memorable occasion, in the middle of a moving scene, he climbed off the stage, waded into the pit, pulled out a ruffian whom he ejected into the Northgate night before returning to the stage and carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Unable to turn a profit, the Theatre Royal closed in December 1868 and was pulled down in 1873.

1881

 

The Northern Echo: The opening night of the Theatre Royal in Northgate in 1881. Pictures courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local Studies

The opening night programme of the second Theatre Royal. Picture courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local Studies

THE theatre was rebuilt and reopened, this time looking quite grand. "It is the prettiest little theatre in the North of England," said the Darlington and Stockton (D&S) Times in September 1881, marvelling at its 1,900 hair-stuffed seats and the “cement-tinted pale green” décor in the auditorium.

Brothers Walter and William Hoskins – whose elder brother George was the town’s most indelible architect – were behind the project. Appropriately, Walter’s middle name was Hamlet.

But just 16 months later, proprietor George Hunter was declared bankrupt, and at auction, the Royal attracted a top bid of £4,000, which fell short of the £5,500 reserve price.

1883

The Northern Echo: Theatre Royal, Northgate

The liquidators found a new manager, but on November 16, tragedy struck at the end of the popular Miss Emma Rainbow’s week-long run in Ticket of Leave Man. To give her a send-off with a bang, before curtain up, a hot air balloon was sent up outside the theatre, and the posters promised that “the Performance will terminate with a Grand Display of Fireworks upon the stage”.

They covered the stage with wet sawdust in the hope that all the sparks would fizzle out, but one got lodged in the curtain, and at 1.05am, PC Taylor noted that the place was ablaze.

By 1.25am, the roof had come crashing down and there was "a solid fiery mass enveloping everything, beating against the walls and devouring the boxes, seats and ornamentation of the interior". By 2.35am, there was "nothing but a stream of burning sparks where an hour before a mountain of flames had soared up to the skies".

Only the bare walls remained. Miss Rainbow had lost all her costumes, but the people of Darlington did a whip round to compensate.

The Northern Echo: A poster advertising Miss Emma Rainbow's show on the night the theatre burned down in 1881. Pictures courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local Studies

Poster from the night the theatre burned down. Picture courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local Studies

1887

After lying derelict for a couple of years, the burnt out shell was bought by Mrs SA Jennings, landlady of The Bridge Hotel next door – her bar was connected to the theatre by a back door and she had a three-minute bell beside the handpumps.

She retained the pretty exterior of the theatre and had Charles John Phipps of Bath, a legendary Victorian theatre designer, work on the interior. For £6,000, he created dressing rooms above the rippling Cocker Beck, put tip-up chairs in the auditorium and lit the stage with electric lights.

They opened on Whit Monday, and were soon a roaring success. Proximity to North Road station attracted patrons from Barnard Castle and Bishop Auckland, and Mrs Jennings’ son, Tom, proved to be an astute theatre manager.

In June 1891, a production called The Streets of Darlington featured the municipal fire engine, horses and firemen and was claimed to be "without exception the most realistic effect ever witnessed on any stage in England".

Gracie Fields probably played the Royal, but stories that a young Charlie Chaplin appeared there are probably wide of the mark. He was in one of Fred Karno’s travelling troupes of comedians, but when one troupe played the Royal in April 1907, Charlie was with another in New York.

1936

The Northern Echo: The Theatre Royal in Northgate in 1937 after it had closed as a theatre and was about to be transformed into an art deco cinema, causing the loss of the all the external Victoriana. Pictures courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local Studies

The Northern Echo: The Theatre Royal in Northgate in 1937 after it had closed as a theatre and was about to be transformed into an art deco cinema, causing the loss of the all the external Victoriana. Pictures courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local Studies

The Theatre Royal in Northgate in 1937 after it had closed as a theatre and was about to be transformed into an art deco cinema, causing the loss of the all the external Victoriana. Pictures courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local Studies

ON October 10, the Theatre Royal closed, leaving Darlington with two theatres: the Hippodrome and the Astoria, in Northgate. It was bought by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) who spent £50,000 transforming it into a cinema. They removed the Victorian features from the front, and created an art deco palace of entertainment. It would seem, though, that they left at least the north wall of the auditorium intact because you can still see some brickwork that looks like it survived the fire of 1883.

1938

The Northern Echo: Regal cinema, Darlington.

The Northern Echo: Regal cinema, Darlington.

Publicity for the opening night of the Regal on December 31, 1938

ON December 31, Darlington’s sixth purpose-built cinema opened as the Regal, which was then ABC’s preferred name for its venues.

The D&S Times said: “The Regal is not only an architectural asset to Darlington, however, but is the embodiment of the best scientific knowledge and engineering skill calculated to ensure the utmost comfort for the patron. The seats, of which there are 622 in the circle and 978 is the stalls, are specially designed to give the maximum of comfort, and the carpets and appointments harmonise in colour and luxury with the interior decoration.”

Darlington now had nearly 15,000 cinema seats – proportionally more than any other town.

The Northern Echo: Echo Memories - Darlington 's ABC cinema which opened in 1938.

The Northern Echo: ABC cinema, Darlington.

The Regal was first of all known as The Regal but then became the ABC

1977

Rebranded as an ABC in the 1950s, the cinema was recreated as a triple screen, with its main auditorium being in the circle. In the 1980s, it became a Cannon, an MGM and then went back to being an ABC. Perhaps more importantly, in 1981, the Majestic cinema in Bondgate closed, leaving Northgate as Darlington’s only cinema until the Vue multiplex opened in 2016.

The Northern Echo: Cannon cinema, Darlington 1993.

A huge queue outside the Odeon in 1993

2022

Owners Odeon announce the cinema is to close on June 30. Will that be the end of 157 years of entertainment on the old Butts Close?

The Northern Echo:

The Wooler Street side of the Odeon in the 1960s