'THE death on Thursday night," reported the Darlington & Stockton Times, on November 19, 1927, "brings the curtain down on a ... romantic epic of stage life ... By his forceful personality he made many friends in Darlington, but few knew of his antecedents which, in fact, read like a novel."

Like an epic romantic novel, in fact.

The central character was Signor Rino Pepi, and one chapter dealt with his founding of Darlington Civic Theatre 100 years ago this month. But the book opened with his birth in 1872 in Florence, Italy. His father was a well-to-do merchant, but impetuous Pepi took to the stage. By his early twenties, he was renowned across all Europe - in capital cities and royal houses - as one of the three greatest quick-change artistes of his day. Queen Victoria liked him so much she gave him her diamond scarf pin.

Along the way, he fell in love with Mary, Countess de Rossetti, a widow who was half-Italian and half-Irish. She taught him English and, in early 1898, they came to London. For three months, Pepi topped the bill at the Pavilion (now the Trocadero shopping centre) in Piccadilly Circus with his 15-minute sketch, Love Always Victorious. In it, he played all seven characters, male and female, and he seems to have fallen in love with himself, singing a love song to himself, one moment the lady in her soprano voice, the next the man in his big deep tenor.

He then embarked on a tour of the Continent - Austria, Belgium and Holland - before taking his brilliant act on a tour of provincial Britain, the star name on a variety bill that included singers, comedians and jugglers.

The tour concluded in September 1902 at the Star Theatre of Varieties in Barrow in Furness. The Star was for sale. Pepi bought it. Aged only 30, this Italian artiste of international repute abruptly ended his stage career in Barrow and became an impressario.

He started building a chain of theatres. After Barrow came Blackpool and then Carlisle. Then, early in 1907, in partnership with the Birmingham theatre specialist George Ward, he began work on an "Opera House and Empire" on some recently-cleared land in Parkgate, Darlington.

Within seven months, the theatre was complete and, named the New Hippodrome and Palace Theatre of Varieties, it opened on September 2.

Even as Pepi received the opening night acclaim, building was beginning on another of his hippodromes, this one in Middlesbrough, on top of an old Quaker burial ground.

After Middlesbrough came Bishop Auckland Hippodrome in 1909 followed by Shildon in 1910.

But even as it was growing, Pepi's empire was crumbling at its peripheries. He sold off Middlesbrough after just eight months, losing £10,000 in the process. Shildon lasted a year, its disposal coinciding with the Bishop Auckland Hippodrome being declared bankrupt in 1911.

By the outbreak of the First World War, our principal character owned just two theatres: Darlington and Barrow. To make matters worse, on December 7, 1915, his wife Mary, Countess de Rossetti, died at their modest mid-terrace home in Barrow. She was only 46.

They had made an exotic couple. He, the Italian master of stagecraft; she, the aristocrat of Continental descent. He, in his black top hat and black flowing coat; she, in her ballgown carrying her favourite Pekinese in her arms (the dog was 11 when it died and was buried inside the Hippodrome's walls. Its ghost was apparently sighted on a couple of occasions by children at the foot of the circle staircase, and when in the early 1990s the bar extension was built out through the staircase, canine remains were indeed uncovered).

Owning theatres after the First World War was not a sound business proposition as the country went cinema-mad. Pepi's diary remains at the Civic, and you can feel his disappointment in it as he crossed out the name of a show he has booked and, in angry black ink, replaced it with the single word "Pictures".

Being a thespian through and through, he raged against the dying of the light and bowed out with a magnificent swansong, a truly theatrical flourish. In his pocketbook, in his expansive hand, he wrote in his customary black ink: "Madame Pavlova's matinee. Thursday Nov 17/27."

There have been few more famous ballerinas than Anna Pavlova (certainly no other ballerina has had a meringue-based dessert named after her), and her legions of "pavlovtzi" swooned when she danced her piÃce de thÃÃtre, the Dying Swan.

But Pepi wasn't there to see her. He was at home in Tower Road, his fragile hold on life slipping away as the swan faded in the follow spot.

Pavlova danced at 2.30pm. Pepi died of cancer of the left lung later that night. He was 55.

His funeral was attended by 200 people two days later in St Augustine's Roman Catholic Church in Darlington, and his body was transported by motor hearse over the A66 to Barrow to be buried next to his beloved countess in his evening dress.

Somewhere over the Pennines, fog closed in. In the darkness before dawn, the hearse and a couple of cars pulled up and waited for the mist to lift.

It is this break in Pepi's last journey that has prompted the many ghost stories about him. It was as if he were reluctant to leave Darlington and its Hippodrome, and so, according to the stories and the seances, he still cannot tear himself away. He appears silently in his box to the left of the stage and, in his top hat, wing collar shirt and long black coat, casts a critical eye over the actors.

After less than an hour, his final journey re-commenced and he made it to Barrow.

"It was a bleak November morning, with threatening clouds coursing across the grey sky, " said the Barrow News. "The coffin was of solid oak, with brass mountings. It bore the simple inscription: 'Rino Pepi, died 17th November 1927, aged 55 years. R.I.P.' The grave, in which the deceased's wife, Countess de Rossetti, was buried in December 1915, was lined with sprigs and leaves of rhododendrons and Irish yew."

And so there, high on a hillside in Barrow, lies Signor Rino Pepi - one of the greatest quick-change artistes of his day who became the singular most important figure in the first century of Darlington Hippodrome's existence.

His (and, indeed, hers) is a white quartz headstone flecked with yellow-green lichen. It turns its back to the sharp wind and the painful squalls which blow in off the Irish Sea, driving the distant grey waves which ceaselessly roll on to a broad bay of empty sand. The trees in the graveyard are cruelly misshapen by the wind which tears over the lumpy dunes and up the hillside so high that the seagulls on a skyward spiral, their cries lost to the wind, are actually beneath Pepi's final resting place.

And so an extraordinary novel comes to a close and the curtain is rung down on a "romantic epic of stage life".

* This article is an abridged version of a chapter in Chris Lloyd's book, Of Fish and Actors: 100 Years of Darlington Civic Theatre, which is available for £7 from the Civic, from The Northern Echo/Darlington & Stockton Times offices in Priestgate, Darlington, and from Waterstone's in the Cornmill Centre.

Mr Lloyd is giving a free, illustrated talk based on the book in the theatre on September 25. To book a seat, please call 01325-486555.