FULLER, Sir Benjamin John
Theatre owner, impressario and entrepreneur, philanthropist.
Sir Benjamin Fuller, the best-known member of the theatre family, was born in London on 20 March 1875, the eldest son of John and Harriet Fuller. He was educated at Board School and Birkbeck College. Fuller started his stage career at the age of nine as a member of a troupe of nigger minstrels and, later, as a young man, sang in the chorus of grand opera at Covent Garden. In 1895 he worked his passage to Australia, where he joined his father's touring variety show. The show afterwards toured New Zealand, where the Fuller family settled, and John Fuller senior began in business himself by organising popular concerts in Auckland. This in time led to the formation of a small family concert and drama company which toured New Zealand in the nineties and the early twentieth century with such success that the firm of John Fuller and Sons established permanent vaudeville theatres in all four centres. Thus was established the Fuller circuit which, expanding as New Zealand's cities grew, eventually spread to Australia. At one stage Dowling Street, Dunedin, where the “firm” had two theatres running simultaneously, was jestingly known as “Fuller's earth”. Sir Benjamin succeeded his father as governing director in 1911, and thereafter guided the firm to new and greater successes. Besides vaudeville, he presented revues, drama, pantomimes, and even ventured into the domain of grand opera, although this latter (1934) cost the firm £30,000.
By 1927, he and his brother John controlled 13 theatres in Australia, in addition to their New Zealand holdings. With the advent of “Talkies”, the firm, in association with Henry Hayward of Auckland, went over to pictures, and these interests were maintained until the complete Fuller holdings in New Zealand, 64 theatres, were sold to Kerridge-Odeon in 1946. The firm, however, is still active in Australia.
Sir Benjamin made large donations to many Australian educational institutions, and in 1921 he was knighted for his gifts to the University of Sydney to help young doctors. He interested himself in many public and private institutions, and at the close of his life was president or patron of the Australian Branch of the International Migration Service, the Australian Art and Educational Guild (Melbourne), and the Arts Council of Australia (New South Wales division).
In 1900 Sir Benjamin married Elizabeth Mary, daughter of Henry Thomson of Auckland, and by her had one son and two daughters. He died suddenly on 10 March 1952, in a London tube train.
A musician himself and interested in the theatre, Sir Benjamin controlled an organisation which for many years in Australia and New Zealand dominated the world of entertainment. Much of this success was undoubtedly attributable to Sir Benjamin's uncanny knack of knowing what the public wanted. In his considerable philanthrophies, Sir Benjamin especially favoured education institutions, a fact for which many students owe him deep gratitude.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Melbourne Herald, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Mar 1952 (Obits)
- Dominion, 13 Mar 1952 (Obit).