(b. Chippendale, Sydney, 14/08/1882 – d. Randwick, Sydney, 25/09/1939. Theatre owner, sports promoter, entrepreneur, gambler. Though Australian-born Rupert (Rufus/Rufe) Theodore Naylor had little formal education, this did not inhibit his entrepreneurial spirit. By the age of 17 he was a professional bookmaker, promoting sporting contests in Queensland and Western Australia. When he came to South Africa in 1908, he brought a number of Australian athletes with him and staged races between them and local runners. Not long after his arrival he opened a stadium where these contests took place, with heavy betting on their outcome.
Keen to branch out, in February 1910 he and Mark Prechner launched the first of their Tivoli picture palaces in central Johannesburg, alternating film shows with the usual selection of vaudeville acts. A 600-seater, its success resulted in the opening of additional Tivoli theatres in Boksburg, Germiston and Pretoria, and even an open-air cinema in his sports stadium on Main Street. Within a year the Tivoli Company was well established and Naylor decided to embark on the building of a ‘super-picture palace’. This was to be the 1500-seater Orpheum, on the corner of Jeppe and Joubert Streets. Unfortunately in this case he had underestimated the financial outlay and he and Prechner were forced into negotiations with the Union Bioscope Company, which owned the Vaudette chain of theatres. Towards the end of 1911 the two companies combined to form Africa’s Amalgamated Theatres.
The Orpheum opened on 1 December 1911 and the following week it and the Tivoli showed the first South African-produced ‘feature’, The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery, produced by the Springbok Film Co. It was filmed and directed by R.C.E. Nissen, a cameraman who had been working on ‘local scenes’ that were screened as supporting material in the new movie houses. They were the precursors of African Mirror, the newsreel that was launched when, in July 1913, the now financially struggling A.A.T. was taken over by I.W. Schlesinger’s African Theatres Trust. Though in her book Thelma Gutsche suggests that the Springbok Film Co. was an overseas company, it was actually financed by Naylor, who presumably regarded a locally produced film as an ideal way to launch the Orpheum. After the amalgamation with A.T.T., Naylor became the overseas manager of the new company’s interests and left for London, returning to South Africa in 1917.
Back in Johannesburg he started a weekly newspaper called Life, Sport & Drama (L.S.D.) and also opened a casino in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), running a train service between the two cities for his eager customers. During his first sojourn he had had minor altercations with the law, having been accused of overcrowding his theatres and being sentenced to pay a small fine, but on this occasion one of his enterprises resulted in him being charged with bribery and corruption. A split jury resulted in him being acquitted and, for a few months, he even served as a member of the Johannesburg Town Council. In this capacity he showed strong support for Norman H. Lee’s new School of Cinema Acting, which opened in June 1919. During this time he was also involved in an ongoing dispute with the Jockey Club of South Africa, which culminated in him opening his own racecourses. By the time a warrant for his arrest on charges of perjury and the contravention of the Lottery Law was issued, he had left the country.
After leaving South Africa, he is said to have gone to India and, in 1925, returned to Australia. Besides continuing his interests as a sports promoter, he also built Sydney’s prestigious Empire Theatre, at that time the largest in the country. As in South Africa, he was flexible as far as the legalities of business were concerned, prompting regular investigations into his bookmaking activities, selling ‘shares’ in lottery tickets, running a gambling club, etc. A dynamic personality, he also stood (and lost) as an independent candidate for a seat in Australia’s Federal Parliament and throughout his legal battles presented himself as the champion of the common man. He was eventually disqualified from attending all registered racecourses and died not long afterwards. (FO)
Gutsche, Thelma - The history and social significance of motion pictures in South Africa 1895-1940
O'Hara, John - Australian dictionary of biography
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