Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Paulsen, Alexander Henry (Harry) (1906–1990)

by Jill Cassidy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Alexander Henry Paulsen (Harry) (1906-1990), showman, was born on 5 April 1906 in Oslo, son of a Norwegian sea captain and his German-born wife.  Raised in Norway and Germany, Harry spent six months at a Norwegian sea-cadet school before running away to sea.  He played the drums in dance bands when work aboard ships was in short supply.  In February 1928 he jumped ship from the Oder in Hobart, without money or immigration papers, and unable to speak English.  After working at various labouring jobs, he had a short career as a boxer, touring Australia in 1935 with Jimmy Sharman’s and Alf Hanson’s boxing troupes.

Returning to Hobart, in 1936 he set up Harry Paulsen’s Touring Stadium.  It became a regular fixture at Tasmanian shows and at regattas and carnivals; in the early years he also took the troupe to the mainland.  He was the only Australian showman with a raised boxing ring, which provided better viewing for spectators.  Local boxers attempted to make money by lasting three rounds against Paulsen’s 'professionals', who were usually a lighter weight than the challengers.  Champions such as Mickey Miller and Jimmy Carruthers staged exhibition matches at major shows.  Paulsen’s heavily accented spruiking ('a round or two for a pound or two' and 'step inside for a program full of fight, fun, and fury') and his use of a drum and a bell to draw attention attracted up to five hundred people at a time.  He maintained that 'it’s the outside of the show that gets the dough'.

Short, with tattooed arms and a scar on his leathery face, Paulsen became a legend on the show circuit.  Through sheer personality, he controlled and managed up to eight fighters.  He did not allow alcohol or women at camp sites.  Volatile, fearless, tough and very strong, he had a few minor criminal convictions for assault, receiving and disturbing the peace.  On 11 March 1948 at Holy Trinity Church of England, East Melbourne, he married 18-year-old Sylvia Norma Lewins, a Tivoli showgirl, who claimed to be 23.  Charged with marrying a minor without consent, he was found guilty on 1 April and sentenced to gaol for four months.  For some years the couple travelled around Tasmania with the boxing troupe, living in a caravan, while the fighters slept on bunks on the back of a truck.  Sometimes in the off season, the Paulsens toured the mainland with a variety show:  one year Paulsen was the Miracle Man of Cairo and another he was a one-man band; Sylvia took on several roles, including Talanah Lee, the hula dancer.

In 1954 they settled at Invermay, Launceston, and in 1957 established a demolition business.  They continued to operate the tent show until 1972, by which time such entertainment was losing popularity.  Paulsen was naturalised on 27 January 1967.  Fair and generous, he was always willing to help people who were down on their luck.  He could play many musical instruments, including guitar and mandolin, and made all the advertising hoardings for his show.  A keen fisherman, he built himself a yacht.  Survived by his wife and two of their three sons and an adopted daughter, he died on 17 December 1990 and was cremated.  The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, holds a collection of photographs and memorabilia relating to Paulsen and the touring stadium.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Adam-Smith, Tiger Country (1968)
  • N. Kearney, Tasmania’s Greatest Sportsmen (1977)
  • K. Pink, The Carnival (1986)
  • J. Cassidy, 'Harry Paulsen', Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 53, no 2, 2006, p 64
  • People (Sydney), 4 November 1953, p 20
  • P3, item T1966/0768 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jill Cassidy, 'Paulsen, Alexander Henry (Harry) (1906–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/paulsen-alexander-henry-harry-15035/text26232, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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