Sir Benjamin Fuller 1875-1952

Sir Benjamin Fuller

Sir Benjamin Fuller

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 and Roy 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.

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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