Sir Benjamin Fuller 1875 – 1952
- Sir Benjamin Fuller 1875 – 1952
Sir Benjamin Fuller 1875 – 1952
Benjamin John Fuller was born in the squalid London suburb of Haggerstone on 20 March 1875. As a nine-year-old he appeared in a juvenile production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Savoy Theatre.
In partnership with George Marlow, Ben Fuller also ran the Adelphi in Sydney; he renamed it the Grand Opera House.
The showman knight
‘On careful reflection I say that Sir Benjamin Fuller was the greatest of all Australian proprietors-managers,’ claimed illusionist ‘Doctor’ Richard Rowe. ‘He controlled more theatres at one time than any man here, his shows ranging from Punch and Judy to grand opera. There were times when he juggled hundreds of acts between Perth and the Bluff, New Zealand. And under the Fuller regime artistes travelled saloon and baggage paid. You did not have to get past a team of office boys, managers or secretaries to get a word with Ben Fuller. If you met him in the street he would listen to what you had to say. Many artistes have been stony broke in some queer places, and found Ben Fuller ever ready to help them out. I was once broke in London, and Sir Ben sent me more than I asked for. “Here are the golden goblins you are in need of,” he wrote. He was a fine, understanding friend to artistes.’
The Fuller dynasty began with John Fuller. Born in London in 1848, he abandoned a job as a printing compositor to join the famous Mohawk Minstrels. He came to Australia with the London Pavilion Company in 1889, and stayed to entertain music hall patrons with his hearty tenor voice. One night, it’s said, a fellow artiste inquired, ‘John, was that B flat you touched?’ ‘Touched, be damned,’ retorted Fuller. ‘I hung on to it till I was bloody near black in the face!’ After that, theatre people would always salute him with a cheery, ‘Touch, be damned!’
‘The Silvery Tenor’ settled in Auckland. He and his wife hustled around the country with their ‘Myriorama’ tableau sideshow, and branched into vaudeville. As films boomed, they quickly established themselves as New Zealand’s leading exhibitors. John Fuller senior died in 1923; by then the business was in the hands of his three sons, John, Walter and, principally, Ben.
Benjamin John Fuller was born in the squalid London suburb of Haggerstone on 20 March 1875. As a nine-year-old he appeared in a juvenile production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Savoy Theatre. He joined his family in New Zealand in 1894, working his passage as a steward and ship’s pianist. In 1912 the Fullers expanded to Australia, taking over James Brennan’s vaudeville circuit, the Tivoli’s main rivals. Though Fullers’ vaudeville bills were pallid in comparison to the Tivoli’s, they nurtured a generation of local stars including Queenie Paul, Jim Gerald, George Wallace and, of course, Stiffy and Mo – Nat Phillips andRoy Rene – who added their special spice to The Bunyip, Fuller’s 1916 all-Australian pantomime.
In partnership with George Marlow, Ben Fuller also ran the Adelphi in Sydney; he renamed it the Grand Opera House to mark his first operatic venture, the visit of the Gonzales Opera Company in 1916. The troupe had been in Siberia when war broke out. Unable to return to Italy, they had trundled on through China, the Philippines, the Malay States, Java, Singapore and India, before arriving in Australia.
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.’
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
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