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Rooklyn, Hyman (Harry) (1904–1992)

by Charles Pickett

This article was published online in 2021

This is a shared entry with:

Israel ‘Jack’ Rooklyn (1908–1996), vaudeville promoter, gambling entrepreneur, yachtsman, and criminal, Hyman ‘Harry’ Rooklyn (1904–1992), vaudeville entertainer and amusement machine entrepreneur, and Maurice Rooklyn (1905–1992), magician and illusionist, were brothers, children of Russian–born Jewish parents Abraham Rooklyn, tailor, and his second wife Rebecca, née Levyn (sometimes spelled Levin, Levine, or Lavine), also a tailor. The three boys were born at Blackburn, Lancashire: Harry on 9 January 1904, Maurice on 1 April 1905, and Jack on 11 March 1908. In 1912 the family migrated to Sydney, living in the suburb of Haberfield before moving to the Hunter Valley in about 1920. The parents opened a general store at Greta and Rebecca later ran a drapery store at Singleton while Abraham became a hawker.

At a young age Maurice had been bewitched by a magician visiting his school. After years of practice he gave his first professional performance in his early teens. He left home at the age of fourteen, sleeping secretly at the Australian Society of Magicians’ club rooms before being hired by a troupe of travelling magicians to tour rural New South Wales. He concentrated on ventriloquy and juggling, by 1922 receiving approving notices in the Sydney theatre press. At some point around this time he left the travelling company and began performing with Theodore, a Sydney magician. By 1925 he and Harry, often billed as the Rooklyn Brothers, appeared regularly in vaudeville concerts, with Harry performing on violin, while Maurice expanded his magician’s repertoire. These roles became their careers, and they were joined by Jack who—after brief stints as a miner and a jockey, among other jobs—became the producer, sketch writer, and publicist for ‘Jack Rooklyn’s Vaudeville.’

On 23 May 1926 at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Maurice married English-born Ethel (Ettie) Weinstein, a cashier, who appeared as one of his stage assistants. The couple would have one daughter; twins born to them in 1936 were stillborn. Struggling to find work during the Depression, he searched for an act that would stand out: ‘you had to do something really different to make a living’ (Cameron 1974, 19). His solution was the ‘Human Target’ stunt, in which he appeared to catch in his teeth a bullet fired at him; the act was a sensational success, but he was twice wounded on stage. By this time Harry was performing as the ‘Musical Bandolero,’ playing a variety of instruments and ranging over a number of musical genres while wearing Spanish costume; he also featured regularly on radio.

Maurice was the star of the family, travelling to England in 1936 for three successful years on the vaudeville circuit. Returning to Australia, he worked for the Tivoli circuit and other promoters, headlining as ‘The Amazing Mr Rooklyn.’ Now able to abandon dangerous stunts, he focused on card and billiard ball illusions as well as tricks, including the ‘Dancing Handkerchief,’ ‘Vanishing Canary,’ ‘Coffee, Milk and Sugar from Confetti,’ and many others. He also attracted attention by placing audience members in a sleeping spell, and predicting the next day’s headlines. Increasingly elaborate illusions included levitation and sawing through a woman on stage. His daughter, Vivienne (d. 1975), succeeded her mother as a stage assistant.

From 1954 Maurice reduced his performance schedule owing to his wife’s ill health, although he responded to invitations to perform in Vienna, Singapore, and elsewhere. In Vienna in 1958 he won the title of world champion prestidigitationist at the International Magic Convention competition. For some years he was international vice-president for Australia of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Ettie died in 1970 and on 2 June 1980 Maurice married Sydney-born Connie (Konnie) Reynolds, née Maddison, his stage assistant, in a civil ceremony at their home. He received the John Campbell fellowship award in the 1989 Australian Variety Artistes ‘Mo’ awards. During 1990 he suffered a severe fall at his home at Wahroonga, and he was almost entirely paralysed until his death on 22 July 1992 at Hornsby; his wife survived him. He was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery.

Jack had continued as a variety promoter, agent, and sketch writer—including briefly in the United States of America—during the 1930s and 1940s, while Harry remained a presence on the variety circuit. The brothers had also begun importing and operating amusement machines, in 1938 describing their business as ‘Australia’s largest operator of coin-machines’ (Mercury 1938, 8). Harry managed the Happy Land arcade, Pitt Street, one of a succession of amusement venues he owned and operated; these included the Big Top arcade—also known as ‘The Happiest Place in Town’—in Lower George Street, which traded into the 1980s.

With variety entertainment in decline following the 1956 arrival of television, amusement machines became Harry’s main business. He made several trips to the United States during the 1940s and 1950s to view the latest machines and place orders. As the importation of complete machines was restricted, he imported parts for assembly at his workshop and showroom at Redfern. He also manufactured department store children’s rides, which became ubiquitous across New South Wales. Interviewed at the Big Top arcade in 1983, he recalled that ‘parents left their children in there and asked us to keep an eye on them. When I had my factory at Redfern, the local kids were my test riders’ (Clare 1983, 16). On 10 June 1968 at Temple Emanuel, Woollahra, he had married Ukrainian-born Liana Marcinkowsky, née Nechajenko, a manageress. Survived by his wife, he died on 25 October 1992 at Rose Bay, and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery.

During World War II Jack had opened the American Centre in Brisbane. His plan was ‘to provide home amusements to the US troops’ (Telegraph 1943, 3). The centre featured bowling alleys, billiard tables, and dining rooms, as well as a dance floor, bar, and jukebox. It also featured poker machines, illegal in most States but common enough for a small manufacturing industry to spring up during the 1940s. Poker machines were legalised in New South Wales registered clubs during 1956, and Jack became a powerful force in the gambling industry, having in 1952 become the Asian agent for the Bally Manufacturing Company of Chicago, which manufactured amusement machines. He lived in Singapore for some years, expanding his Bally franchise throughout Asia. On 27 August 1956 in a civil ceremony at the Singapore Marriage Registry he married Joan Helen Johnston, a secretary.

Forming Electronic Amusements Pty Ltd in the late 1960s, Jack distributed Bally machines in Australia. By 1972, after Bally bought his company, he had become manager of Bally Australia Pty Ltd. Despite competition from Australian-made machines, Bally’s products quickly became prominent in New South Wales clubs, provoking claims that intimidation or bribery were behind their success. These allegations were among the factors prompting the 1973 appointment of Justice Athol Moffitt to head a royal commission into the existence of organised crime in clubs in the State. Moffitt was frustrated by conflicting New South Wales police reports, the first of which concluded that Bally ‘was clearly Mafia controlled’ (New South Wales 1974, 7). Further reports contradicted this conclusion, refuting Mafia links with Bally Australia or Jack Rooklyn. Moffitt’s report described Jack as an unreliable and dishonest witness, but was more critical of the New South Wales police. Evidence of Bally’s international connections with Mafia businesses and the narcotics trade led Moffitt to recommend that the company be banned from trading in Australia, owing to the risk of importing these practices. No Australian government acted on this recommendation, and Jack purchased advertising space to declare that it was ‘based on hearsay, innuendo and fiction’ (Secretaries and Managers Journal 1974, 20). Although Bally Australia Pty Ltd survived, he resigned as managing director, and was replaced by his secretary; it was later claimed that he received $8.25 million in compensation from Bally. In 1977 he purchased the company back.

By this time Jack was well-known beyond the world of gambling because of his exploits as a yacht racer. He began racing during the 1940s with his sloop White Wings, taking part in the Brisbane–Gladstone and other races. Having resumed racing after his return to Australia, he won in Asian, European, and American waters with the sloop Apollo and the conspicuously named Ballyhoo. In 1976 he won line honours in the Sydney–Hobart race in Ballyhoo; Apollo would repeat this triumph in 1978 and 1985.

Jack was at his peak of wealth and fame during the 1970s, reputedly worth $50 million, and his reputation suffered little from the revelation he had paid for New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Bill Allen’s hotel during Allen’s 1981 visit to Las Vegas. In 1988 G. E. Fitzgerald’s commission of inquiry into corruption heard evidence that Jack had for years paid bribes to Queensland Police Commissioner Terry Lewis. Poker machines were still illegal in Queensland when Jack had begun franchising an ‘in-line’ machine, a primitive gambling device which looked like a pinball game. By 1978 Lewis and other senior police were accepting regular payments from Rooklyn to tolerate these machines while enforcing the law against other gaming machines. To protect this racket he also paid Lewis to advise the government against legalising poker machines.

Although Jack dismissed the allegations, in 1992 he was found guilty of two counts of corrupting officials. He was recovering from a heart bypass operation and collapsed during the trial; because of his age and ill health he was fined instead of gaoled. His conviction resulted in him selling his Asian and other gambling interests, frustrating his plans to have his son, Warwick, replace him in charge of his business empire. On 10 July 1996 he died at his Vaucluse home, survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery. The first boat through Sydney Heads during the Sydney–Hobart race is awarded the Jack Rooklyn memorial trophy.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Brasch, R. Australian Jews of Today and the Part They Have Played. Stanmore, NSW: Cassell Australia, 1977
  • Cameron, Bob. ‘Magician Keeps Vow of Silence.’ Sun Herald (Sydney), 24 March 1974, 19
  • Clare, John. ‘Harry’s Was the Happiest Place in Town.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December 1983, Metro 16
  • McLean, Philip. ‘Human Target Dies … Taking His Speeding Bullet Secret to the Grave.’ Sunday Telegraph, 24 July 1992, 48
  • McNicoll, D. D. ‘One Man Who Won on the Pokies.’ Australian, 15 July 1996, 13
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Amusement Machine Bargains.’ 26 November 1938, 8
  • New South Wales. Royal Commission. Report of the Honourable Mr Justice Moffitt Royal Commissioner Appointed to Inquire in Respect of Certain Matters Relating to Allegations of Organized Crime in Clubs. NSW: Government Printer, 1974
  • Queensland. Report of a Commission of Inquiry Pursuant to Orders in Council. Qld: Government Printer, 1989
  • Rooklyn, Jack. Interview by Neil Bennetts, 15 October 1984. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Rooklyn, Maurice. Spherical Sorcery and Recollections of a Pro’. Sydney: Emmar Investments, 1973
  • Secretaries and Managers Journal of Australia. [Advertisement.] 15, no. 9 (September 1974): 20
  • Sydney Jewish Museum. M2007/077, Maurice Rooklyn collection
  • Telegraph (Brisbane). ‘Bowls Alleys at USA Club.’ 15 September 1943, 3
  • Whitton, Evan. The Hillbilly Dictator: Australia’s Police State. Rev. ed. Sydney: ABC Books, 1993

Citation details

Charles Pickett, 'Rooklyn, Hyman (Harry) (1904–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rooklyn-hyman-harry-31259/text37850, published online 2021, accessed online 18 May 2021.

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