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Humbert James Pugliese (1884–1955)

by Bill Crowley

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Caroline Frances Pugliese

Caroline Frances Pugliese (1865-1940), theatre proprietor, and Humbert James Pugliese (1884-1955), film producer and shop proprietor, were mother and son. Caroline was born on 17 February 1865 at Five Dock, Sydney, second daughter of James Donaldson, an Irish-born gardener, and his wife Mary, née Vidler, from England. On 16 October 1883 at St John's Church of England, Ashfield, Caroline married Antonio Pugliese (1853-1916), a labourer from Viggiano, Basilicata, Italy, who had arrived in New South Wales about 1881 and had two children by an earlier marriage. Antonio was soon working as a watchmaker and jeweller in Sydney; reputedly, he was later a successful racehorse owner and trainer. The eldest of their seven children was born on 14 February 1884 at Park Street and registered as Umberto. He later claimed to have been connected with the moving picture business 'ever since a mere boy'.

Described as a cinematograph operator, Humbert married Elsie Beatrice Harvey, a vocalist, on 22 December 1910. The family had taken over the 'somewhat despised' Alhambra Theatre in George Street, Haymarket, a few years earlier. A music hall from 1884, then a waxworks venue, it was never in the theatrical mainstream. Here the Puglieses began to show the new cinematograph. In 1916 Raymond Longford, having no other outlet for his A Maori Maid's Love, described it as 'an obscure theatre'.

'Pugliese Enterprises' ran the Alhambra, the Star cinema at Bondi and a cinema at Leichhardt. It was a family business, with Caroline controlling the purse strings and other members (such as Humbert's sister Rita) acting as projectionists and ticket collectors. They tried to make each presentation an 'occasion' for patrons, whether at a film screening or a variety show. Sunday night concerts at the Alhambra were popular, while at the Star cinema, twice a week, the Pugliese family, from mama to grandchildren, sat in a reserved section. Humbert, a handsome man with a flourishing moustache, was described as a 'charmer', floating down the aisle of the cinema, saying 'This way Madam, careful Madam, comfortable Madam'. By 1922 the Star had been sold and the Alhambra, under different ownership, was known as the Melba.

The Pugliese family had been involved in the production of three early Australian films. Caroline was the driving force behind, and wrote the script for, The Church and the Woman, produced by Humbert and directed by Longford, which opened at the Theatre Royal on 13 October 1917 to good reviews. It was then the subject of a plagiarism suit that helped publicity but delayed its release in Melbourne until 1921. Judgement had been given against Humbert and if he wanted the film exhibited he had no choice but to come to a financial agreement with the plaintiff Edward Finn.

The Waybacks, billed as 'Australia's Sweetest Comedy', produced by Humbert, opened at the Sydney Town Hall on 18 May 1918 and was an instant success, continuing to be distributed in 1925. His third film, the old stage hit Struck Oil, was directed by Franklyn Barrett and, like the others, shot mainly in exteriors; it opened at Sydney Town Hall in October 1920. Featuring an ageing star—Maggie Moore—it was not a success. The Pugliese family, which had always experienced difficulty competing with Australian Films Ltd's monopoly, abandoned film production.

In 1920 Humbert, a 'theatre ticket collector', had petitioned in the Supreme Court for an order for restitution of conjugal rights—his wife had refused to live with him, citing his strong dependence on his mother. Elsie died in 1925. On 7 May 1932 in St Jude's Church of England, Randwick, Humbert married Mary Margaret 'Mabs' Wilson, née McGuirk, a divorcée. In partnership with her, he became a shoe-shop proprietor, owning a chain of high-quality shops known as 'Mabs McGuirk', in such city addresses as Elizabeth and King streets and the Imperial Arcade.

Caroline Pugliese died on 4 May 1940 at Arden Street, Coogee, and was buried in Randwick cemetery. Three sons and four daughters survived her. Humbert died on 28 May 1955 at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, and was buried in the family vault at Randwick. His wife survived him, as did his son by his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Pike and R. Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977 (Melb, 1980)
  • Lone Hand, 1 July 1918, p 352
  • Historical Waverley, vol 7, 1983 (whole issue)
  • Sun (Sydney), 8 Sept 1958, p 23.

Citation details

Bill Crowley, 'Pugliese, Humbert James (1884–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Pugliese, Umberto

14 February, 1884
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


28 May, 1955 (aged 71)
Camperdown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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