Sir Benjamin Fuller 1875-1952

Sir Benjamin Fuller

Sir Benjamin Fuller

In 1936 Sir Ben Fuller and his protégé Garnet H. Carroll formed Savoy Theatres, opening at the Apollo in Melbourne with a George M. Cohan piece called Billie.

In 1941 Fuller and Carroll formed Gaiety Theatres, leasing the King’s in Melbourne.

Sir Benjamin Fuller was in London, searching for new attractions, when he died on 10 March 1952.

 

Sir Ben and John dissolved their partnership in 1934. John concentrated on his real estate
interests and Ben gamely returned to live production, investing heavily in an imported English grand opera company. The repertoire ranged from Die Fledermaus to Die Walküre, and included the Australian premiere of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers plus a couple of performances of Alfred Hill’s Auster. Most of the principals were imported from Britain, including the Australian dramatic soprano Florence Austral, singing in opera for the first time in her homeland. The stage manager was Fuller’s protégé, a bright former chorus boy called Garnet H. Carroll.

This extraordinarily ambitious exercise was intended to complement the excitement generated by Melbourne’s centenary and provide a springboard for a permanent touring opera company. Fuller’s hoped-for support from the Federal government never came and, sadly, neither did audiences. Sir Ben’s operatic folly cost him £30,000. Australians did not see another major opera season until 1948.

In 1936 Sir Ben Fuller and his protégé Garnet H. Carroll formed Savoy Theatres, opening at the Apollo in Melbourne with a George M. Cohan piece called Billie; they romped on with revivals of The O’Brien Girl, No, No, Nanette, Lady, Be Good! and Funny Face. After that, they took over the lease of the Princess and Sir Ben came up with a most unlikely attraction – The Marcus Show, a travelling revue from America. It was the creation of Abe Marcus, a canny Midwest dry-cleaner who built his show around a stock of theatrical costumes left by a dance troupe that had been unable to pay its bills. The show reached Australia after traipsing through China, Japan, Thailand and New Zealand. One of its novelties was a cod hillbilly act by ‘Bobby’ Dyer – who returned here for the Tivoli in 1940 and went on to become one of the country’s best known radio and television quizmasters. The Marcus Show’s principal attraction was its crude comedy and, especially, its immobile, bare-breasted showgirls, the first ever seen in Australia. Strangely, though the show had been outlawed in several American states, there was little objection from the wowsers who guarded Australia’s morals.

In 1941 Fuller and Carroll formed Gaiety Theatres, leasing the King’s in Melbourne. After the war they established Carroll-Fuller Theatres. Working from the Princess in Melbourne and the Palace in Sydney, they produced a series of mainly inconsequential farces and popular plays. In 1951 Sir Ben combined with J.C. Williamson’s to present Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott in Private Lives. Fuller’s last production was The Moon is Blue, a racy American comedy.

Back in 1937 Sir Ben had told a reporter, ‘I was born broke. I shall die broke. But while I live I shall be an optimist.’ Sir Benjamin Fuller was in London, searching for new attractions, when he died on 10 March 1952.

For 40 years Fuller’s generosity funded various scholarships at the University of Sydney. The last, a Travelling Scholarship for graduates in Agricultural or Veterinary Science, was awarded in 1962.

Sir Ben’s son, Alfred Ben Fuller, was briefly and unsuccessfully involved in film production. Alfred’s daughter, Virginia, married actor Alastair Duncan; shortly before his death, Duncan chronicled the Fuller family history in Actors Blood, published in 2004. Sir Ben’s name, writ large, still adorns the Princess Theatre’s massive fly tower.

Frank Van Straten, 2007

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Biographical references

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