High McIntosh 1876 – 1942
- High McIntosh 1876 – 1942
High McIntosh 1876 – 1942
Hugh Donald McIntosh was born on 10 September 1876.
In 1893 he landed in Melbourne where he joined the chorus of Maggie Moore’s pantomime Sinbad the Sailor at the Theatre Royal.
In 1911 McIntosh sold the Sydney Stadium to ‘Snowy’ Baker and outlayed £100,000 to buy the Tivoli vaudeville circuit.
In her memoirs, the beloved actress Nellie Stewart spoke glowingly of ‘Huge Deal’ McIntosh: ‘When I hear people talk slightingly of this big man I cannot bear it, for he was the most generous of men, and he was at all times far more likely to suffer from brigandage than to resort to it. He was of little less than medium height, broad in the shoulders, cheery in the eye, hiding under a rattling loquacity the fact that he was shy as a girl, a man all aglow with enthusiasm like a happy boy. He was electric. He had the oddest happy knack of getting out of all his people the best that was in them.’ Writer John Hetherington, who knew him in later life, said, ‘Even at58, he pulsed with all the adventurous ambition of youth, forever looking, not backward at his recently shattered past, but forward, to a shining future. He remained aggressive, unpredictable, irrepressible. He was a blend of charlatan, genius, dreamer and bandit, an unrepentant buccaneer.’
Hugh Donald McIntosh was born on 10 September 1876 in a tiny cottage in a nondescript lane in the inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills. His father, a Scottish policeman, died when McIntosh was only four. A few years later the lad left home and travelled around Australia with an itinerant tinker. In 1893 he landed in Melbourne where he joined the chorus of Maggie Moore’s pantomime Sinbad the Sailor at the Theatre Royal. Back in Sydney, he peddled pies, married a school teacher, and worked as a hotel barman. Soon he was running his own bakery. He started promoting professional cycling, and imported the celebrated black champion Major Taylor to race in the 1903 Sydney Thousand competition. This visit, and the blatant corruption that went with it, inspired the 1992 film Tracks of Glory, in which Richard Roxburgh portrayed Hugh D. McIntosh.
McIntosh capitalised on the 1908 visit of the American ‘Great White Fleet’ by staging a boxing match between the French Canadian Tommy Burns and the Australian champion Boshter Squires. For this he built a vast outdoor stadium at Rushcutters Bay. His friend Norman Lindsay designed the posters to promote the racially charged world heavyweight championship match between Tommy Burns and the ‘black giant’ Jack Johnson on Boxing Day 1908. McIntosh travelled the world presenting his film of the fight, and glorying in the affectionate nickname ‘Huge Deal’.
In 1911 McIntosh sold the Sydney Stadium to ‘Snowy’ Baker and outlayed £100,000 to buy the Tivoli vaudeville circuit from the heirs of its founder, Harry Rickards. He opened new Tivoli theatres in Adelaide and Brisbane, the latter the first of many Australian theatres designed by the great New Zealand architect Henry White.
McIntosh travelled overseas booking star acts, including Ada Reeve, W.C. Fields and the notorious exotic dancer Maud Allan, and introduced ragtime and the tango to Australia. He promoted the career of the beautiful Australian actress Vera Pearce, and commenced a scandalous ‘liaison’ with her that lasted for many years. Miss Pearce was the niece of Harold Holt, a future Prime Minister of Australia. McIntosh’s grand plans for an international Tivoli circuit were thwarted by the outbreak of the Great War.
Because the war made the importation of acts for the Tivoli nearly impossible, McIntosh turned torevue, a format perfected by his friends Charles B. Cochran and Florenz Ziegfeld. The Tivoli Follies was enormously successful, and toured Australia and New Zealand for two and a half years. He supported numerous war charities and distributed gold passes to winners of the Victoria Cross. In 1917 he was one of the founders of the Theatrical Proprietors’ and Managers’ Association (the forerunner of today’s Live Performance Australia), and he and Benjamin Fuller were the first vice presidents. McIntosh had little time for performers’ unions. He eventually had to accept the Australian Vaudeville Artists’ Association, the Musicians’ Union and the Actors’ Federation. ‘All I’ve got to say’, he growled at a TPMA meeting, ‘is that we’re lucky they didn’t wake up to us years ago.’
McIntosh dabbled in film exhibition, promoting the classic Italian epic Cabiria. He paid £150,000 to buy the Sydney Sunday Times, and the sporting weeklies The Arrow and The Referee, and started his own theatrical weekly, The Green Room, employing as drama critic Zora Cross, later known for her erotic poetry. The revered boxer Les Darcy made guest appearances for him at the Tivoli, but McIntosh later played a key role in ruining his career in the United States. Appointed by Holman to the NSW Legislative Council, McIntosh was described by Jack Lang as ‘Holman’s crony, a political fixer’.
From 1917 McIntosh abandoned vaudeville and steered the Tivoli upmarket, concentrating on lavish revues, plays and musicals. He persuaded the colourful Mildura-based dried fruits entrepreneur and pioneer aviator Jack De Garis to buy Tivoli shares; in return, the circuit staged what was, effectively, the very first Australian musical comedy, FFF, which De Garis had written. The show, with its thinly disguised portrayal of McIntosh, was a disastrous flop and De Garis eventually suicided.
McIntosh produced two of the most lavish musicals staged in Australia to that time – the stylish operetta The Lilac Domino and the Arabian Nights extravaganza Chu Chin Chow, the latter, complete with camels, donkeys and doves, was created by Geelong-born theatre legend Oscar Asche. McIntosh employed his old friends Maggie Moore and Nellie Stewart to assist with these productions. He developed plans for a school of drama with Nellie Stewart at the helm, and organised a tour by the brilliant young Russian pianist Mischa Levitzki. However, McIntosh’s financial profligacy finally caught up with him. His theatrical empire collapsed suddenly and spectacularly, he retired from production, sold his shows to J.C. Williamson’s and subleased the Tivoli Theatres to other managements.
From 1921 to 1929 McIntosh divided his time between his Sydney mansion at Bellevue Hill and ‘Broome Park’, the former stately home of Lord Kitchener, near Canterbury. He also had an apartment near Downing Street and offices in Australia House. He staged a lavish party for the stars of Cochran’s revue Dover Street to Dixie, the first London show with a mixed race cast, and brought the Dubbo buckjumper ‘Snowy’ Thompson from Australia to compete in Cochran’s Rodeo Championships at the new Wembley Stadium. With colourful Canadian entrepreneur J.D. Williams he contracted with Rudolph Valentino to star in the film The Hooded Falcon. He claimed to have clinched the deal by giving Valentino’s wife a mysterious ring that Lord Carnarvon had taken from Tutankhamen’s tomb, but the film was never completed.
Back in Australia, McIntosh tried to defend the local film industry from American influences. His 1927 London production of the lurid melodrama The Climax, starring the vivacious Australian Dorothy Brunton, was a flop. He stood unsuccessfully for a seat in the British parliament. In 1929 his finances collapsed and he rushed home to face charges for, amongst other things, unpaid tax. He was forced to sell his Bellevue Hill mansion and The Sunday Times.
The sublessees of his Australian theatres were also severely affected by the Depression and the introduction of talkies, and ceased production. McIntosh bought the freehold of the Sydney Tivoli, hoping to sell it for redevelopment. He resumed production at the Melbourne Tivoli, where his stars included Joe Lawman (Toni Lamond’s father), Roy Rene ‘Mo’ and young Robert Helpmann, and he made lavish on-stage presentations to celebrities such as Don Bradman and Nellie Stewart. To keep his theatre open he bought cheap shows from the failed Sydney entrepreneur and ‘colourful racing identity’ Rufe Naylor, whose huge Empire Theatre was also in trouble.
In 1930 Truth published a long, detailed expose of McIntosh’s life and loves. Virtually broke, he moved from a luxury apartment at the Astor in Macquarie Street to a villa near Centennial Park. He and his wife sold cakes in a shop on the Tivoli site. Amid sensational disclosures of extravagance and doubtful business dealings, he was declared bankrupt and forced to surrender his seat in the NSW Upper House. He returned briefly to boxing promotion, fostering young fighter Ambrose Palmer, later Johnny Famechon’s trainer. He staged a racially charged bout between Fred Henneberry and the tragic Aboriginal boxer Ron Richards. After the death of entrepreneur and jeweller Stuart Dawson, McIntosh managed Dawson’s Blue Mountains home, ‘Bon Accord’, as a guest house. His neighbour was his old friend Norman Lindsay.
In 1934 McIntosh and his wife travelled third class to London, where was reunited with Vera Pearce, who had become a big West End star. He established a highly publicised chain of ‘Black and White’ milk bars, the first in the UK. In 1936 he was involved in yet another scandal, this time involving the highly publicised theft of a trawler called Girl Pat. At the end of 1938, the milk bar enterprise collapsed. McIntosh lived modestly at Maidenhead and tried unsuccessfully to recoup his losses in a lumber business.
Aged 66, ‘Huge Deal’ McIntosh died in a London hospital on 2 February 1942. His friends clubbed together to pay for his cremation.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Chris Cuneen: ‘Hugh Donald McIntosh’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 10, Melbourne University Press
John Hetherington: Australians – Nine Profiles, F.W. Cheshire, 1960
Nellie Stewart: My Life’s Story, John Sands Ltd, 1923
Frank Van Straten: Huge Deal – The Fortunes and Follies of Hugh D. McIntosh, Lothian Books, 2004
Frank Van Straten: ‘Hugh D. McIntosh’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995