Harry Rickards, proprietor of the Tivoli Theatres was a very generous man. Every year he would present a charity performance at the Sydney theatre. The aim of the performance was to raise money for Christmas dinner for the poor of Sydney. In 1909, that charity performance included Mr and Mrs Bob Fitzsimmons.
Bob or Fitz, was best known as a boxer. He had been born in England, but had spent most of his early life in a town called Timaru in New Zealand. He had fought in numerous bouts in Australia and New Zealand before winning his first championship in 1891. In that year he defeated Jack Dempsey in New Orleans for the MiddleWeight Championship of the world. By 1909, he was 46 years old and had won three world championships in the course of a very successful career.
Bob and his wife, Julia Gifford Fitzsimmons, had worked for Harry Rickards before. In 1908 they had toured New Zealand with a Tivoli vaudeville company. By the end of 1909 they were in Sydney with two goals. Performances for Rickards and a fight for Bob organised by Hugh McIntosh.
On Saturday 4th December 1909, Bob and Julia attended a play called "The Wedding Ring" at the Palace Theatre in Sydney. They sat in a box and their presence was noted in the gossip section of the Referee newspaper.
On Monday December 13th, Mr and Mrs Bob Fitzsimmons appeared on stage at the Tivoli theatre in Sydney. This was their first stage appearance in Australia, and it was for the Tivoli charity benefit. Julia planned to sing, and both of them were to perform a sketch, called ‘A man’s a man for a’ that.’
Julia came on stage first. She was wearing so many diamonds that she glittered in the lights. She was an accomplished singer and had performed in the United States. Her performance that night surprised and delighted critics. Her first song was "Se Saran Rose", a waltz. She sang in a ‘very beautiful’ voice that was described as having ‘bird like charm.’ Her singing was so charming that the audience enthusiastically cried for more. Julia obliged by singing "Tell Me" and "I cant just make my eyes behave’. The latter song was sung with sweetness and grace according to The Referee Newspaper. The newspaper described Julia’s voice as having a beautiful quality and a carrying tone. Julia’s performance was greeted with loud cheers from the audience.
The cheers grew louder when the world famous boxer, Bob Fitzsimmons, joined his wife on stage. Fitz was wearing a white flannel yachting suit and a broad beaming smile. His bald pate added to his charm. The couple then began to perform the sketch, ‘A man’s a man for a’ that."
The sketch was autobiographical. It had two characters. Vivian Wainwright a fictitious interviewer played by Julia, and Bob Fitzsimmons played by himself. It was based upon an interview that Fitz had done with an American journalist.
During the sketch, Bob, in his Cornish, Kiwi accent described his first fight in Australia, for a purse of 500 dollars. He won the fight and then told the audience how he had disposed of the winnings.
‘I knew the poor fellow had a sick mother, and after the fight, I said, take the money to your mother, I’ll not touch a penny of it.’
Vivian Wainwright then asked. "What did your own mother say, Bob, when you told her that you had given the 500 dollars to the beaten man’s mother?’
Fitz, with ‘one eye on the sentimental ‘gods’’ replied
"My mother said, Bob my boy, there are twelve of us, and we wanted that money. Still I think all the more of you for what you have done.’
The sketch continued in this manner as Vivian Wainwright posed a series of interesting questions to the champ. The centrepiece of the scene was an elaborately mounted punching ball. This gave Bob the opportunity to reply to a question by giving the bag several strong punches. One punch was so hard that it sent the ball spinning into the stalls. Much to the delight of the audience sitting there.
After the performance, Bob gave a small speech. He thanked the audience for their warm applause, and added that he had turned actor because there seemed to be no age limit to that profession.
"Not that I look an old man or feel like an old one. In my new profession, I am playing juvenile leads and lover parts. I have tackled Romeo and I have won the fairest Juliet in the whole wide world.’
With that, Bob kissed Julia on the cheek and both retired from the stage. They returned to receive even more cheers and several floral tributes from the audience.
Two weeks after their performance, on December 27th 1909, Bob fought Bill Lang, the Australian Heavyweight Champion for the title. The fight took place at the Sydney Stadium at Rushcutters Bay and was organised by Hugh McIntosh. McIntosh was later to become the proprietor of the Tivoli after Rickards’ death.
A huge Sydney crowd of twelve thousand gave Fitz a loud ovation when he entered the ring. Bill Lang, the local boy, did not receive a similar response. Lang overcame the crowd’s distaste and being younger and fitter than Fitz, gained the upper hand towards the eleventh round. In the twelfth Bob hit the canvas and was unable to get to his feet. Lang won the bout via knockout.
Lang subsequently presented Bob with a gold case as a sign of respect. Bob invited Bill to visit his hotel room. Whilst there, Bob entertained him by telling stories of past glories.
Bob and Julia remained in Sydney for some time. Julia performed at the Tivoli in late January to early February 1910, and continued to receive warm praise for her singing efforts. Whilst in Australia, the couple met Houdini. Bob scared Bess, Houdini’s wife, by staging a mock fight with the escapologist. Once again, Fitz’s ability to tell a yarn proved valuable and he and the world famous magician had an amiable meeting.
Bob Fitzsimmons died in Chicago in 1917, he was 54 years old. He and Julia had separated many years before. Julia said that his whiskey drinking had ruined the marriage. Although Bob’s acting abilities have not been highly regarded, his abilities as a boxer were undisputed. He continues to be remembered for his famous pugilistic endeavours and his legendary stories.