IN 1935, after watching a play at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool, two teachers from Darlington’s Polam Hall School made a £5 bet with the star of the show that he couldn’t make repertory theatre work in their hometown.

And so, in 1936, Charles Simon, an actor from Wolverhampton, pitched up in Darlington to try to win the bet. He established the Darlington Permanent Repertory Company, which was based at the Theatre Royal in Northgate.

Within months, the theatre was sold for conversion into a cinema, so Simon put on his shows in the Temperance Institute in Gladstone Street. In January 1940, he married his leading lady, Nancy McDermid, from Blackwell, and they were back on stage that evening in a play called Meet the Wife.

But in 1946, fire ravaged the Gladstone Street building, and destroyed with 50 tons of scenery, 4,000 volumes of plays and countless costumes.

He found a new home at the grandly-named Royal Astoria in Northgate.

The Astoria was built in 1873 and called the Livingstone Hall Assembly Rooms – presumably because the missionary and African explorer Dr David Livingstone died on May 1, 1873. It was also known in those early days as the Gaiety Music Hall, and the Salvation Army held its first meetings there, attended by up to 2,000 people, including a Council of War chaired by the founder, General William Booth.

What the Salvationists made of the goings-on next door can only be guessed at. In 1878, William Scott, “a stout, elderly man” was sentenced to three months’ hard labour for “keeping a common, ill governed and disorderly house” in Livingstone Buildings where he allowed couples to take bedrooms.

In 1909, it became a 1,800-seat cinema, known as the Assembly Hall – and children got a free nougat bar to chew on while they watched their movies.

Over the course of the 20th Century, it was known as the Ritz, the Plaza in 1938 and then the New Plaza, before it was converted back to a theatre for Mr Simon.

We believe it was on its stage, and under his direction, that a young pupil at Darlington High School for Girls, Wendy Craig, took a bow. She, of course, became famous as Ria in Butterflies.

Also appearing there was Christopher Hancock, who was born in Bishop Auckland in 1928 and found fame as conman Charlie Cotton – husband of Dot – in EastEnders.

However, in 1950, Mr Simon’s theatre made a £5,000 loss – he blamed it on civil servants who had been moved out of London during the war returning to the capital. There was a whipround in town, which raised £700-£3,000 for him (sources vary), but it wasn’t enough and his company closed in 1951.

It was, though, the making of him, as he moved to London, and in 1963-69 became Dr Dale in Mrs Dale’s Diary, a radio soap opera that daily had 7m listeners. He moved into TV, appearing in The Bill, London’s Burning and the Singing Detective. He died in 2002.

After he left, the Astoria, it became a restaurant and a bingo hall before it was demolished in 1973. Its site is now occupied by a petrol filling station.