A NEW "people's museum" has opened in a Bishop Auckland bingo hall which was first built when variety theatre was all the rage.

The Hippodrome opened for the first time on December 6, 1909. It was owned by three local businessmen: lemonade manufacturer Edward Sant, consulting engineer Leopold Seymour and wholesale fruit and potato merchant John Joseph Snailham. They employed the legendary Darlington impresario, Signor Rino Pepi, as their managing director.

Pepi, of course, is one of our great heroes. He’s the founder of the Darlington Hippodrome – as well as hippodromes in Shildon, Middlesbrough and Blackpool – and his ghost still haunts the Darlington royal box.

However, despite opening with the famous London comedienne Lil Hawthorne, Pepi struggled to make the Bishop theatre pay. One of the items in the new museum is a scrapbook from the Memories archive which shows how the theatre sunk into administration on July 6, 1911, owing £6,557 to the local council.

The administrator was accountant Alfred Morgan, of Newgate Street, who re-employed Pepi to run the theatre.

The scrapbook reveals a fabulous battle between the hard-headed bean-counter and fanciful impresario. On one occasion, the headline act suddenly pulled out because the accountant wouldn’t pay them enough so Pepi drummed up an act called the Bros O'Brien as a replacement.

The brothers telegrammed Mr Morgan from Manchester railway station saying: "Arrive eight o'clock, will be ready for last turn."

There must have been chaos at the theatre because the first house was due to open at 7pm.

And then Mr Morgan notes acidly in the scrapbook: "Bros O'Brien – only one turned up."

Unfortunately, what waylaid the other brother O'Brien is not recorded, but when he eventually arrived to complete the act, Mr Morgan was still not impressed.

He wrote angrily to Pepi: "The Bros O'Brien in no way fill up a Top of the Bill in Bishop Auckland and are very unsuitable. Surely you have made a mistake in stating £20 to be their salary – £10 would be by no means a small figure for them."

Pepi had been one of the greatest music hall acts of his day, renowned across the continent for his quick-change artistry, and a huge draw in London. Now he was running an agency, sending acts to theatres all across the north of England, and yet here was a mere accountant doubting his theatrical stardust.

Pepi, who was born near Florence in Italy, replied in no uncertain terms. "First of all that the tone of your several letters is far from satisfactory to me and for the future please do not write such bulleying (sic) letters to me as you might get the reply you are asking for."

He said the Bros O'Brien usually commanded £25-a-week.

"I may also mention that the Bros O'Brien have topped bills in better places than the Hippodrome Bishop Auckland," he finished.

Sadly for Pepi, the theatre that week made a huge loss, and in March 1912, Mr Morgan managed to sell it for £7,552 to Picton's Pictures. It ceased to be a 1,800 seater variety theatre and became a full time cinema.

In the late 1930s, the capacity was reduced to 900 by closing the upper balcony. When the Newcastle Essoldo chain of cinemas took the Hippodrome over in 1947, it must have intended to reopen the balcony as it replaced the chairs, which name have its name on them (all Memories readers will remember that the Essoldo chain was owned by SOL Sheckman whose wife was ESther and their daughter was DOrothy).

However, the balcony remained closed and hidden from view behind a false ceiling.

The group behind the people’s museum is hoping to receive two large projectors from a former cinema in Durham and to be able to reopen the balcony, at least so people can see the glory which has been lost for the last 80 years.

L The People’s Museum in the Hippodrome is staffed solely by volunteers. As well as telling of the building’s history as a theatre and a cinema, it looks at life as it used to be in south Durham. One of the displays at the moment is on the popular Doggarts stores, there’s plenty of railway-related material, and in the near future, the Durham Amateur Football Trust will be putting on an exhibition.

The museum is open from 5pm to 10pm every day, and from 10.30am to 2pm from Tuesday to Saturday each week, so why not pop along and have a look.

L With huge thanks to Michael O’Neill for his help

l This week's front cover shows Sir William Eden, of Windlestone Hall, laying the foundation stone of the Hippodrome. For his troubles, he was presented with a pen and ink sketch of the theatre by Darlington architect, JJ Taylor, who also handed him a silver trowel. The Edens were very supportive of the performing arts in Bishop. Sir William's son was, of course, the Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden. The picture is courtesy of Tom Hutchinson