Denis Dease was born in 1869 in Port Sorell, Tasmania, to a family of Anglo/Irish descent. Arriving in Perth in the late 1800s, he immediately set about a career in photography. Dease worked for a company named Clark and Sons located at the Royal Studio in Hay Street, but also produced at home.
In 1897 he was able to acquire a lease over the newly constructed Smith Chambers Building at 117 Barrack Street. A four storey building, the ground floor and part of the basement became the location of his first business - “Dease Studio”. The building, at various times during Dease’s tenancy, also hosted a gambling establishment, a sports massage parlour, the Perth Branch of the International Socialist Party, and the headquarters of the League of Western Australian Wheelmen (WA’s first peak cycling advocacy organisation). Part of the basement was shared between a boxing gymnasium and sports bookmakers; another of his many business ventures. Additional photographic studios were opened in Victoria Park, Northam and Bunbury, and with the proceeds of his businesses he purchased several farms in Chittering and an orange orchard in Cannington.
Besides his skill as a businessman, Denis also proved to be an adept publicist and organiser. In 1900 he established an open air cinema in Perth, projecting short films from a balcony at the Grand Hotel (later the Perth Hotel) across Barrack Street onto a nearby building. Alongside these showings, Denis further illustrated his business savvy by including paid advertisements. This apparently drew the ire of the local police, and he was charged with unlawful obstruction, but the matter was taken to court and he was ultimately acquitted. This was not his only encounter with the constabulary. In 1921 he was fined 30 shillings for the dastardly crime of failing to register a dog with the City Council!
Later, Denis opened the first official cinema in Perth at the Esplanade Gardens. The cost of entry was a single silver coin, and films and comics were shown on Sunday nights. Sound effects had to be created by either banging coconuts or waving a sheet of metal, but a machine to generate such noises was later acquired, though it had to be activated by the physical turning of a handle. In addition to this, he was President of the Perth Boxing and Wrestling Association and head of the Perth Promoting Co, where he arranged a wide variety of events. This would often involve bringing in athletes from overseas. One wrestling match saw a Russian-Canadian competitor by the name of Savelieff face off against an Australian opponent at the Luxor, a theatre that used to be located at 49 Stirling Street.
This was not the only type of entertainment he encouraged. There were rodeos, scooter boat rides on the Swan River and moving picture shows that toured the North-West. It was during his time as a promoter that Denis would meet his future wife, Harriet Hogan, albeit in the most interesting fashion. Both he and a boxing associate, Jack Cullen, observed a woman about to be robbed at the Theatre Royal on Hay Street and quickly jumped to the rescue. This turned out to be Harriet, and this served to be the start of a relationship that saw them marry at Fremantle in 1901.
Those who knew Denis Dease described him as clever, intelligent and possessing a strong personality. He carried himself with an air of authority and was deeply respected by friends and family. Although not much of a drinker (which was something of a surprise for one so active in sports and entertainment), he was noted as having a strange sense of humour which led him to pull practical jokes on others. Such was his energy that he was still physically active in his 80s, including riding horses.
Denis Dease during World War One
At the start of 1914, Denis Dease had lived in Perth for several decades and his photography business was flourishing. From the 15th of August 1914 Denis advertised a discounted price for any soldier departing for the front wishing to have their photo taken and from the 20th of June 1915 began providing coupons in The Sunday Times to have the portraits done for free. On the 27th of June the following week this became a formal arrangement between the newspaper and the Dease Studio.
The offer was eventually extended to veterans of previous conflicts such as the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny. As this was going on Denis would occasionally find himself in an epic contest with bartenders trying to push beer on him when he'd ask for Sasparilla or Lemonade.
Besides this, there were a variety of other projects. October 21st 1915 saw the Dease Studio donate some prizes to raise money for a War and Unemployment Distress Fund, and on the 18th of April 1916 the business was involved in a luncheon for the veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, producing an image which shows the assembled officers and troops at the Perth Town Hall. Later in September the studio was enlarged with a branch dedicated specifically to photographic art, and the very next month the Sunday Times officially congratulated Denis on the pictures he took of the Royal Agricultural Show. It was also during 1917 that, as he was learning to drive, Denis had an unexpected encounter with a verandah post.
The very next year in 1918 a boxing gym was opened in the basement of 117 Barrack Street with the intent of making the sport popular once again, whilst Denis himself purchased a hunting dog and spent time either tracking game at Bullsbrook or failing to run down rabbits in his car in Armadale. The conclusion of the war saw the return of a large number of troops to Perth and, with a fitting sense of closure, a photographer from the studio was sent there on the 7th of March 1919 to capture their image.
The Dease Family
Denis Dease died on the 16th of April, 1959, at Edgar Reid Hospital three years after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. He had lived to the age of 90 and had fathered four children, one of whom passed away whilst still a baby. His eldest son Desmond eventually went to work at the Dease Studio as a photographer. During World War 2 he joined the Volunteer Reserve where he captained a boat called the Maxine Rose which patrolled the Swan River. Desmond carried on the family business; later located at 81 Barrack street under the name of the Dease Lafayette Studio until 1972, when a fire at the Liberty Theatre next door destroyed the photographic equipment and caused the family business of 75 years to close.
His second son, Edward, had a love of animals and dedicated his life to farming. He worked on the family property at Chittering, which he cleared with a friend using a team of Clydesdale horses to pull up stumps and carry logs. The farm itself hosted a variety of livestock including sheep and cattle, but also grew grain and oranges for export. The youngest son, Lionel, won the Amateur Lightweight Boxing Championship of Western Australia and, like Desmond, also worked at the Studio before journeying to the farm at Chittering to live in 1944 - 45.
Desmond's daughter Loretta and and Edward’s daughter Fay have both been instrumental in assisting the Museum of Perth with this exhibition.