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Bendrodt, James Charles (1891–1973)

by Iain McCalman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

James Charles Bendrodt (1891-1973), roller-skater and restaurateur, was born on 26 June 1891 at Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, son of James Peter Bendrodt, a Danish sea-captain, and his wife Emily Caroline Delphina, née Swanson. Having attended school at Vancouver, Jimmy worked his passage to Sydney as a stoker, arriving by 1910 with only £5. Dark, lithe and muscular, he claimed to have been a lumberjack and to hold Canadian roller-skating titles.

With his partner George Irving, Bendrodt prospered as a trick-skater in Sydney and on country tours. Appointed manager of the new Imperial Roller Rink, Hyde Park, he soon secured the lease and fostered an exclusive and decorous image that was to characterize all his enterprises. Early in 1914 he reopened the building as the 'Imperial Salon De Luxe' to cater for American dance crazes. On 16 August Bendrodt enlisted in the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force and three days later sailed for Rabaul in the Berrima. He returned to Sydney in January 1915 in charge of prisoners of war. To his lasting regret, he did not see action during the operations in German New Guinea or while serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1918.

Meantime, he had played bit parts with J. C. Williamson Ltd which convinced him that he was 'a lousy actor' but 'a terrific showman'. Back in Sydney in 1919, Bendrodt taught dancing (until 1939) at Macdonnell House, 321 Pitt Street, and in 1923 established J. C. Bendrodt & Co. In the face of government and union obstacles, he imported foreign entertainers, including 'colored' minstrels for the opening of the Palais Royal dance hall that year. Wealthy entrepreneurs backed his enterprises: Ezra Norton was to contribute to the Trocadero nightclub and cabaret which opened in 1936.

The purchase of a mare for £100 in 1923 had inspired Bendrodt to take up racing and breeding. Although labelled 'a mug trainer' who was to cosset imported bloodstock on a 140-acre (57 ha) stud farm by the Nepean River, Bendrodt earned the respect of the jockey Bill Cook for his methods. Confronted with the Depression, Bendrodt saved the beleaguered Palais Royal in July 1931 by encouraging his employees to gamble their last wages on his unknown horse, Firecracker, which won at Menangle. A big plunge in 1937 on his filly, Gay Romance, helped him to finance Prince's Restaurant in Martin Place in 1938; with 'soft lights, sweet music' and good food, it rivalled Romano's.

Quick to anticipate fashion, in December 1937 Bendrodt formed a company to transform the Palais Royal into the opulent Ice Skating Palais which featured Canadian figure-skating and ice-hockey stars. Employees remembered him as a hard boss, willing to reward initiative or bend the law. He was tried in August 1939 for minor fraud over payments to employees, fined in 1951 for understating taxable income in the early 1940s, and forced to admit to a royal commission in 1952 that Prince's regularly ignored State liquor regulations. Lavish entertainments at the restaurant were criticized in wartime, though Bendrodt claimed that American troops had benefited.

On 5 August 1939 Bendrodt had married his dancing partner Florence Nellie ('Peggy') Dawes at Hunters Hill with Congregational forms. In later life he was noted for his imported suits, red carnation buttonhole, jewelled cigarette-case and manicured hands, as well as for his collections of Meissen porcelain and Bohemian crystal. Yet, he also relished his reputation for toughness which was heightened by an enduring Canadian drawl and by a penchant for 'bouncing' drunks. His boldness and opportunism were again exhibited in 1956 when he opened the Caprice, a lavish, 'floating' restaurant at Rose Bay, which became a Mecca for celebrities.

Childless himself, Bendrodt was not afraid to parade a heartfelt love of animals. He made an emotional radio appeal in World War II to halt the killing of pet dogs when meat was rationed. Abandoning the turf in the early 1950s because it involved 'too much distress', he campaigned against cruelty to animals. His vivid, personal tales were broadcast and appeared in American magazines. At the urging of his 'literary godfather' Frank Clune, he published three popular collections, A Man, a Dog, Two Horses (1946), Nine O'Clock (1949) and Irish Lad (1966). Bendrodt retired in 1967, looking at 72 'like a younger and happier Somerset Maugham', and lived quietly at Darling Point. Survived by his wife, he died on 17 February 1973 in St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Theatre Magazine, 1 June 1912, 1 May 1914
  • People (Sydney), 25 Apr 1950
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 May 1910, 1, 18, 19, 30 Aug 1939, 13 Sept 1945, 30 May 1946, 12 Apr 1950, 16 Mar 1951, 21 Feb, 27 Aug 1952, 1 Sept 1953, 30 Oct 1956, 4 July 1966, 18, 22 Feb 1973
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 23 Dec 1984
  • F. P. Clune collection (National Library of Australia)
  • Customs and Excise Office, New South Wales, Series A1 item 23/2723 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Iain McCalman, 'Bendrodt, James Charles (1891–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bendrodt-james-charles-9484/text16687, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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