Page 1: Biography
Singer, theatrical company manager
This biography, written by Peter Downes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
John Fuller was born at London, England, on 26 June 1850, the son of Mary Walter and her husband, Benjamin Fuller, a cabinet-maker. After leaving school he worked as a compositor for various newspapers. On 7 October 1871, at London, he married Harriet Jones; they were to have three sons and two daughters.
Shortly after his 23rd birthday John Fuller rescued a man from drowning in the River Lea in London. It happened that the man was a singing teacher, and learning of Fuller's interest in singing, out of gratitude he offered to train his voice. After four years Fuller had gained enough confidence to give up compositing to become a professional singer in the London taverns and music-halls. In 1882 he was invited to join the celebrated Mohawk Minstrels as a chorus member and soloist, and remained with the troupe for about five years. He also sang at the famed London Ballad Concerts. He became a great favourite in London, being strongly built with a commanding appearance, dashing good looks, fair hair, a moustache, and a tenor voice which was described as being 'of remarkably sweet and sympathetic quality'.
After the death of his wife, Harriet, John Fuller married Emily Matilda Cryer, at London on 22 July 1888. There were to be a daughter and a son of this second marriage. The following year he joined the London Pavilion Company to perform in Australia. The projected tour of six months ended after only four and he was left stranded with little money and owed £50, which he was never paid. After obtaining engagements around Australia he was able to bring Emily and the two youngest children of his first marriage out to join him.
In 1893 Fuller accepted an engagement to tour New Zealand as tenor soloist with the Albu Sisters. He discovered an opening in Auckland for promoting and singing in ballad concerts like those in which he had appeared in London, and decided to remain there when the tour ended. With the shrewd intuition of a showman he began a series of what he called 'People's Popular Concerts' in the City Hall theatre. He was soon reunited with his wife and all his children, the five oldest of whom immediately joined their father in taking part in the concerts; the younger members were included as soon as they were old enough. Such was their success that by 1895 tours were being taken to Waikato, New Plymouth, the Bay of Plenty and Northland. These led, in 1896, to the formation of the Myriorama Company, which opened in Auckland and over the following three years travelled around New Zealand as far south as Dunedin. The programme featured coloured 'magic lantern' pictures projected onto a large screen, accompanied by a spoken commentary and appropriate songs and instrumental items performed by Fuller and his family, assisted by occasional guest artists.
From the end of 1898 the Myriorama was slowly replaced by a waxworks show, which was first staged in December that year at the Auckland Industrial and Mining Exhibition. The main musical entertainment was given only after the audience had had ample opportunity to examine the especially imported Australian waxwork figures of famous and infamous international personages assembled in the foyer. Under the name of John Fuller and Sons Melbourne Waxworks and Vaudeville Company, the touring show became so popular that four were opened simultaneously in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. As well as regularly changing the waxwork impersonations, Fuller engaged artists outside the family to augment and eventually take over the vaudeville entertainment. At this time he handed the day-to-day organisation over to his son Benjamin. The other sons soon also abandoned performing to concentrate on the administration of the ever-growing company, including the eventual purchase and management of the theatres in which the company performed.
Anticipating changes in public taste, over the next two years the waxworks part of the show was phased out and the live entertainment component expanded into John Fuller and Sons Vaudeville Circuit. With an uncanny instinct for knowing what would appeal to their audiences, the Fuller brothers and their father adopted a policy of bringing to New Zealand a constant stream of the best variety and music-hall entertainments from other countries. By alternating these artists between their four theatres, new shows were presented every week, while Benjamin and his brother John regularly travelled overseas signing up acts for the circuit. Fuller's vaudeville was to attract enormous audiences and became widely known and loved throughout New Zealand over the next 20 years and more. With an eye to the newest trends, short motion pictures had early been introduced as items in the vaudeville entertainment, and by 1908 were attracting so much attention that the vaudeville theatres were transformed into full-time picture theatres. However, the continuing demand for live entertainment was such that it soon proved necessary to bring back vaudeville in a separate circuit.
John Fuller had by now settled permanently in Auckland, where he managed the theatre and contributed to the running of the company as well as periodically appearing as a top-of-the-bill artist. He was also a soloist in oratorios and concerts given by the Auckland Choral Society and contributed solos at church services. In 1911 he withdrew completely from the management of the company. He formally assigned the administration to Benjamin and John, who were assisted by their brother Walter and half-brother Raymond and other members of the family circle. Further rapid growth saw the extension of the vaudeville circuit to Australia. Eventually the headquarters was moved to Sydney, where the company was to become one of the leaders of Australasian public entertainment until well into the 1930s.
When he died at Auckland on 9 May 1923 – survived by Emily Fuller and all his children – John Fuller's name was highly respected throughout New Zealand. Such was his vision and theatrical skill that the small family concert party he founded had grown into the largest live entertainment enterprise the country had known. The name Fuller was synonymous with all forms of public entertainment but none more so than vaudeville.