Sir Benjamin Fuller 1875-1952
Sir Benjamin Fuller
The Fullers opened a new theatre, the 1642-seat Majestic Theatre in the inner Sydney suburb of Newtown in 1917.
In 1922 Ben and his brother John went into partnership with the American actor and producer Hugh J. Ward, revamping the Princess and the Palace in Melbourne.
Ben Fuller was one of the founders of the Theatrical Proprietors’ and Managers’ Association
– today’s Live Performance Australia; in fact he and Thomas Rofe, owner of the Grand Opera House, made the formal application for registration on 2 August 1917. The first president was George Tallis; Fuller and Hugh D. McIntosh were vice presidents.
That same year the Fullers opened a new theatre, the 1642-seat Majestic Theatre in the inner Sydney suburb of Newtown. Designed by Henry White, it became a popular venue for variety and weekly-change melodrama. After service as a cinema, it was leased in 1954 to the newly-formed Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Refurbished and renamed the Elizabethan, it survived as an intermittently used live venue until fire destroyed it in 1980.
From their headquarters at the National in Sydney, the Fullers rapidly built a vast theatrical empire. By 1918 they were shunting vaudeville, drama, musical comedy, pantomime and costume companies around their circuit of more than 20 theatres. Though the Fullers’ business parsimony was legendary, Ben was a generous supporter of educational institutions and war charities. It was this philanthropy, rather than any contribution to the theatre, that earned him Australia’s first theatrical knighthood in 1921. Wags claimed that when the King said, ‘Arise, Sir Benjamin,’ the kneeling entrepreneur had absent-mindedly mumbled, ‘A rise? Certainly not! You can play the Circuit again at exactly the same salary.’
In spite of his title, Sir Ben had no pretensions. The visiting British revue star Maisie Gay was bemused: ‘He received me without a coat, wearing a sweater and looking rather like an ostler.’
In 1922 Ben and his brother John went into partnership with the American actor and producer Hugh J. Ward, revamping the Princess and the Palace in Melbourne, and producing a string of modern plays and stylish musicals. In Sydney they built the magnificent St James Theatre in Elizabeth Street, designed by Henry White. They launched it in 1926 with No, No, Nanette. Ward retired soon after, but the Fullers went on to achieve an enormous success with Gladys Moncrieff in Rio Rita in 1928.
In mid 1929 the Commonwealth government awarded the contract to provide license-financed programmes for the new National Broadcasting Service – 2FC and 2BL in Sydney, 3LO and 3AR in Melbourne, 4QC in Brisbane, 6WF in Perth and 7ZL in Hobart – to the Australian Broadcasting Company Ltd. The partners in the venture were Fuller’s, Union Theatres Ltd and the music publishers J. Albert and Son. Union Theatres’ Stuart F. Doyle was chairman and Sir Ben was vice-chairman. Much to Sir Ben’s satisfaction, his consortium had defeated seven other tenderers – including the Dominion Broadcasting Company, a Tallis–Tait amalgamation. After the ABC was established in 1932, Fuller, Doyle and Albert bought into Sydney’s 2UW.
The Fullers virtually ceased live production in the Depression, and it was left to the all-conquering ‘talkies’ to keep a few of their theatres open. When their Sydney flagship, Fullers’ Theatre in Castlereagh Street, closed in February 1930, Sir Ben said, ‘Of course it is no secret that until a year or so ago it was a little goldmine. But it has lost thousands – say tens of thousands – during the past year. The end of the entertainment which thousands of people had enjoyed for many years was inevitable. The desires of people have changed.’
Watch this space
Alastair Duncan: Actors Blood, Lexington Avenue Press, 2004
Sir Benjamin Fuller: Reminiscences in Smith’s Weekly, 1947
June Lansell: ‘Carroll–Fuller Theatres’, in Australian Theatre Year Book, F.W. Cheshire, 1958
‘Doc’ Rowe: Reminiscences in The Sporting Globe, 1938
Martha Rutledge: ‘Sir Benjamin and John Fuller’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 8, Melbourne University Press
John West: ‘Benjamin Fuller’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995