To launch the centenary year of Darlington Operatic Society shows at Darlington Hippodrome, the oldest and youngest members of the society talk to PETER BARRON about the impact it’s had on their lives

IT was a meeting that was to be the starting point for a century of music, joy, charity, friendship – and love.

In 1924, Signor Rino Pepi, managing director of the Darlington Hippodrome, met representatives of Darlington Operatic Society (DOS) to sign a formal agreement between the two organisations to present annual shows at the theatre.

Little did they know it would be a partnership that would endure for the next 100 years – and enrich the lives of young and old…

AS the memories come flooding back, Susan Robinson looks across the room to the mantelpiece, where a framed photograph of her late husband, Ken, has pride of place.

The couple met as members of Darlington Operatic Society, with Susan  joining alongside her sister, Carol, in 1957, and Ken becoming part of the society in 1961.

“Carol and I were both interested in music, singing and meeting new people – and joining was one of the best things I ever did,” Susan declares, as she reminisces in her Darlington flat.

She was Susan Swift when she joined as a 22-year-old, and performed in her first show, White Horse Inn, in 1958. When Ken Robinson joined three years later, he sang in the chorus-line and worked backstage.

Love blossomed, and they went on to marry in 1966 – on the day England won the World Cup.

Carol also met her husband, Brian Thorpe, through DOS – and countless other love stories have flourished amid the excitement of preparing for shows over the years.

“It was like a marriage bureau – there was no online dating in those days!” laughs Susan, who was hooked on being part of “the Operatic” from the opening bars of White Horse Inn.

“We had a professional producer from London and, looking back, I think we were starstruck,” admits Susan, who was in the chorus-line for her first show. “I wanted it to go on for ever.”

Susan went on to appear in more than 30 DOS shows, including playing principal character, Aunt Eller, in three different productions of Oklahoma. She also served on the committee, alongside ICI worker Ken, who passed away in 2016.

She chuckles as she recalls the time DOS was staging Hello Dolly. The choreography had a team of waiters, including Ken, crisscrossing each other on stage.

Ken was carrying a chicken on a platter, and his friend, Jeff Wragg, was meant to skewer it as they passed. Alarmingly, Jeff missed the chicken and skewered Ken, who ended up in hospital for a tetanus jab while still in full make-up.

“It put him off kebabs for life!” observed fellow member, Julia Lloyd.

At 88, Susan – a former Head Teacher of Abbey Junior School in the town – remains an honorary member of DOS, and never misses a show.

“They are brilliant – totally professional,” she says. “Back in our day, we always had difficulty finding leading men, but that’s no longer the case, and it’s so nice to see more young people getting into musical theatre now.”

As well as the quality of the shows, Susan attributes the longevity of DOS to “the social side”.

“How lucky were we to have a hobby that led to so many friendships?” she asks. “Some of the friends I made are still my friends now,” she says.

“Whether you’re onstage or backstage, there’s a special camaraderie you feel from being part of a show – there’s nothing else like it.”

She also insists that the charitable contributions DOS has made over the years should not be underestimated.

“Then and now, no matter what financial difficulties we might have been facing, we always gave money to local charities.”

Indeed, it is estimated that DOS has donated around £124,000 to good causes in the community over those 100 years.

“Darlington Operatic Society has enriched so many lives – it certainly enriched mine – and long may it continue to bring people together,” declares Susan, with another smile in the direction of the mantelpiece.

WHEREVER her dreams take her, Rachel Geddes will never forget the feeling of appearing in her first show with Darlington Operatic Society.

At just 13, she was part of the children’s ensemble for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in October, 2018.

“As the curtain went up, the feeling of knowing that everyone in the theatre had come to see us was incredible,” she recalls.

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“I’d gone to dance schools since I was three, and been in competitions and a few shows, but I’d never felt anything like that – it was magical.”

Rachel, from Hemlington, had auditioned for Chitty after seeing an advertisement on Facebook.

Eddie Taylor-Jones, vice-chair of DOS and a regular leading performer, was her drama teacher at King’s Academy, in Middlesbrough, and she describes him as “a massive inspiration”.

“I’d seen him performing with DOS in West Side story, and to see your teacher doing something like that was amazing,” she says.

Now 18, Rachel is studying performing arts at Stockton Riverside College, and auditioning for drama schools.

DOS has provided invaluable experience, building her confidence, developing her skills, and inspiring her to pursue a career in the performing arts.

After making her debut in Chitty, she became an official DOS member as soon as she could –when she reached 16 – and, since then, the roles have come thick and fast.

She was the youngest member of the cast when she appeared in the ensemble in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, before progressing to more prominent roles as the teenage Princess Fiona, in Shrek; Frenchy, in Grease; and Ariel, in Footloose.

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Now, she’s in rehearsals to play an Angel in Kinky Boots, which runs at Darlington Hippodrome between May 1 and 11.

“It’s given me such an insight into what working in professional theatre would be like, because so much effort goes into producing every show,” says Rachel.

“I just feel privileged to be part of such a society that’s taught me so much. It’s like having a huge family where everyone wants you to succeed, and age is no barrier to friendship.”

As she anxiously awaits news of whether her drama school auditions have been successful, Rachel knows that her future studies mean Kinky Boots is likely to be her last show with DOS – at least for a while.

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“I’m really going to miss being part of it but, whatever happens, I know it will always be there for me when I come back,” she says.

“Darlington Operatic Society has given me so much: unforgettable experiences, special memories – and friends for life.”

By the end of this year, Darlington Operatic Society will have staged 168 shows at the Hippodrome over the past 100 years. Here's to the next century!