NotesJack Rooklyn (1908-1996) attracted public attention in two disparate fields: he was a leading racing yachtsman, who won the 1976 Sydney-Hobart race in his sloop Ballyhoo. He was also a successful gaming entrepreneur, whose activities were a focus of Royal Commissions in New South Wales and Queensland.
However Rooklyn's extraordinary life and career was not confined to these fields. Rooklyn was born in London, a child of Russian-Jewish tailors. His family migrated to Australia in 1921, and after working briefly as a miner in the Hunter Valley, Jack joined his two brothers in the entertainment business. He wrote comedy sketches for his bother Harry, a Tivoli performer, as well as others including Roy Rene. He worked in Hollywood as a scriptwriter during the late 1930s.
Rooklyn's career flourished after his return to Australia during the 1939-45 war. He organised entertainment and social facilities for US troops, including Australia's first bowling alley. This was part of Rooklyn's American Centre in Brisbane, which also featured restaurants, pool tables and poker machines. This experience alerted him to the popularity and profitability of poker machines and after the war Rooklyn visited the US, securing the licence to import Bally machines to Australia. He also gained the import rights to Asia, and spent much of the 1950s creating a poker machine empire in Singapore, Malaya, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Rooklyn's business also flourished in Queensland, although poker machines were illegal there - apart from those suppled by Rooklyn, who gained the connivance of the the police Licensing Squad to have a basic type of poker machine declared a legal entertainment machine. This subterfuge involved substantial bribes paid by Rooklyn to policemen including Inspector Don 'Shady' Lane and Commissioner Terry Lewis. Other poker machines remained illegal.
In New South Wales Rooklyn's Bally Australia profited through the registered clubs boom of the 1950s and 1960s. However allegations emerged during the 1970s that the parent Bally company had gained a strong influence in Rooklyn's subsidiary, that Bally USA was Mafia-controlled, and that it encouraged the use of intimidation and bribery against clubs who had not purchased Bally machines. These allegations were given credence by the visit of the Mafioso Joseph Dan Testa, allegedly to advise Rooklyn. (The 2002 feature film Dirty Deeds is based upon these events.)
The Moffitt Royal Commission recommended that Bally be barred from trading in Australia, but found only that Bally's presence had created the 'risk' (rather than the reality) of corruption in clubs. No governments acted on this recommendation, although Bally terminated Rooklyn's Australian franchise in 1977, reportedly paying him $8.25 million compensation. However Rooklyn's secretary was made managing director of Bally Australia.
Despite this controversy, Rooklyn's reputaton was at its peak during the 1970s, partly due to the exploits of his racing yachts Ballyhoo and Apollo. His brash public persona, exemplified by an ostentatious cigar, was more buffed than threatened by revelations that he paid for the notorious visit to Las Vegas by the corrupt NSW Police Commissioner Bill Allen.
However Rooklyn was unable to shrug off allegations that he bribed Queensland Police Commissioner Lewis to recommend the continued illegality of poker machines in that state, thus ensuring the continued profitability of Rooklyn's machines. The 1988 Fitzgerald inquiry into police corruption confirmed the allegations and in 1992 Rooklyn was tried and convicted of making corrupt payments. Rooklyn had undergone a heart bypass operation before the trial and was a shadow of his former ebulient self, collapsing in the dock on one occasion. In deference to his poor health, Rooklyn was fined rather than jailed.
Uncharacteristically, Rooklyn later admitted his guilt, claiming 'I shouldn't have done it'. Yet his Queensland scam alone had earned him millions, and his belated conviction did not threaten his wealth or his standing in Sydney society.
Charles Pickett, curator Design & Society.