Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fuller, John (1879–1959)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

This is a shared entry with Benjamin John Fuller

Sir Benjamin John Fuller (1875-1952) and John Fuller (1879-1959), theatrical entrepreneurs, were born on 20 March 1875 and on 20 April 1879 in London, second and third sons of the seven children of John Fuller (d.1923), compositor and later theatrical entrepreneur, and his first wife Harriett, née Jones. From December 1884 Ben appeared for three months at the Savoy Theatre in a juvenile production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Two years later he played in London and the provinces with Montague Robey's Midget Minstrels, then joined Warwick Gray's Juvenile Opera Company. He returned to school, and at weekends as 'End Man' played in London clubs in his father's minstrel troupe.

In 1889 his father, who had a fine tenor voice, went to Australia with a theatrical company. After working briefly in an engineer's office for a year, where he learnt shorthand, Ben toured England as Harry Liston's dresser, then joined a troupe of 'waxyhommies' (or busking `nigger' minstrels) at Herne Bay. He played the piano and double-bass by ear. About 1894 he worked his way to Melbourne as a pianist in the Austral, then joined his father in Adelaide.

Meanwhile John junior, who had performed in his father's minstrel troupe and remained in London, arrived in Melbourne on 31 July 1891 and went to school at Collingwood. In February 1892 he was engaged by J. C. Williamson for La Cigale. After several other engagements, he spent nearly three years as call-boy in Williamson's Royal Comic Opera Company. He played any juvenile parts going and occasionally deputized as stage-manager for Henry Bracy.

In 1894 the family settled at Auckland, New Zealand. While he was still at school, John sang at his father's Wednesday night popular concerts and Sunday night choir music. In 1898 John senior started waxworks displays and lantern shows, worked by John junior, interspersed with vaudeville, with Ben as comedian. About 1899 they took the show to Dunedin. Ben remained there when the rest of the family went to Melbourne. He was so successful that he soon opened at Christchurch and Wellington as well. The others returned to help. Gradually they built up a vaudeville circuit, regularly changing the items and the waxworks, and began to buy the houses they were showing in.

At Dunedin on 6 October 1900 Ben Fuller married a widow Jessie Elizabeth Burton, née McDonald; she bore a son in Sydney in 1902 and died in May 1903. Living at Auckland, he married Elizabeth Mary Thomson, a music teacher and singer, at the Sacred Heart Church on 8 November 1905. John, who was in charge in Wellington, married with Anglican rites Alice Gertrude Mary Fraser on 5 July 1902 in Hobart; they had a daughter and were divorced in December 1913. He served on the Wellington City Council in 1911-16. There he married Lavina Moar on 28 September 1916.

The Fullers went into the moving picture business in New Zealand in 1907 and gradually extended their vaudeville circuit, featuring 'Stiffy' and 'Mo', throughout Australia. In 1914 Ben and John became joint governing directors of John Fuller & Sons Ltd and Ben was based in Sydney, at Haughley, Elizabeth Bay. Reputedly he was 'the originator of the ideas but John developed them'. Prospering during World War I, they ventured into pantomime and melodrama and in 1916 presented a season of Italian grand opera. After Ben announced that he had volunteered for active service late in 1916, John moved to Sydney, leaving their brother Walter (d.1934) in charge of the Fullers' and Hayward's Pictures Ltd. in New Zealand.

In 1920 Ben gave £1000 to Vernon Treatt to enable him to take up a Rhodes scholarship. Over the next year he gave two sums of £5000 for educational purposes and established the Fuller Trust to provide scholarships for overseas training in agriculture. He was knighted in 1921 and next year contested the Sydney seat in the Legislative Assembly as an independent but lost.

In partnership with Hugh Ward from 1923 to 1926, the Fullers moved into musical comedy; in December 1923 they opened with The O'Brien Girl at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. In Sydney the Fullers built the St James Theatre and building on the site of the Sydney Girls' High School and opened on 26 March 1926 with No, No, Nanette; Sir Benjamin scored a hit in 1928 by paying Gladys Moncrieff £150 a week, despite John's protests, to star in Rio Rita. In 1929 John, with Frank Albert, became a director of the Australian Broadcasting Co. By the 1930s vaudeville had largely given way to cinema and in 1930 'talkies' apparatus was installed in most Fullers' theatres. They survived the Depression better than most, backed by their solid theatre freeholds in all the State capitals except Hobart.

By 1934 John was tired of travelling, and the brothers divided their assets, John taking the St James Theatre and building as the major part of his share. Henceforth he devoted himself to real estate. Sir Benjamin sold off his New Zealand interests, remained governing director of Fullers' Theatres Ltd and returned with gusto to the legitimate theatre. He tried to establish a permanent opera company, to sing in English, but the Melbourne season was a financial loss and he was forced to disband the company in 1935 when he failed to get a government subsidy. From 1939 he was associated with Garnet Carroll and from 1946 governing director of the Carroll-Fuller Theatre Company Pty Ltd. They sponsored the tour of the Old Vic Theatre Company with Sir Laurence (Lord) Olivier in 1948. In 1950 the picture interests of Fullers' Theatres Ltd and Hoyts Theatres Ltd were merged.

Among other charitable activities Fuller was chairman of the Howard Prison Reform League and a vice-president of the Sydney Industrial Blind Institution. As president of the Australian Council for International Social Service, he raised money (contributing generously himself) to bring refugee children to Australia from Europe in 1950. He lived at Ardendraught, Point Piper, and decorated the hall with a massive stuffed gorilla. A large man, bluff, warm-hearted and genial, he enjoyed billiards, walking and reading. Generous in private, he was a hard-headed businessman, who never lost his love for 'the whole mocking illusion of the stage'.

Sir Benjamin died in St George's Hospital, London, on 10 March 1952. He was survived by a son of his first marriage, and by his second wife and their two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £173,180.

John, always shy, retired from active business in 1944 and lived at Caerleon, Bellevue Hill. One of his 'best time-wasters' was bowls. He died in St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, on 26 September 1959 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £163,406.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Tait, A Family of Brothers (Melb, 1971)
  • Theatre Magazine (Sydney), 1 Nov 1913, 1 Apr 1915
  • Punch (Melbourne), 20 July 1916
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1921, 22 Nov 1922, 10 May 1923, 30 Apr, 2, 5 May, 29 Aug 1934, 2 Feb, 30 Mar 1935, 31 Oct 1950, 22, 28 Sept 1959
  • Auckland Star, 10 May 1923, 22 Mar 1952
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 4 Mar 1926
  • Evening Post (New Zealand), 3 Apr 1952, 7 Feb 1956
  • Christchurch Star, 30 Sept 1960
  • Fuller trust records (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Fuller, John (1879–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fuller-john-6375/text10771, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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