Rollicking tale of local strongman

Rhonda Dredge

A new book has everyone talking in Queensberry St about the feats of a local strongman known as the Mighty Apollo.

This is a truly local story with a pinch of tragedy, a touch of fame and a stolen fortune.

Locals love their history, and the Mighty Apollo grabbed the limelight back in the ‘50s.

He ran a gym called the Mighty Apollo in Hawke St, West Melbourne and the building is still there with its faded letters asking for someone to tell its story.

Broadcaster and columnist Jon Faine has taken on the task with graphic black and white pictures of the strongman pulling a tram with his teeth and supporting the weight of an elephant on his stomach.

The book reveals that the elephant punctured the Mighty Apollo’s bowel, but this did not stop him from claiming to be the world’s strongest man.

The tragic underscore to this story of ambition, as told sensitively by Mr Faine, is that the man behind the façade abandoned his three sons to state care.

Local businessman Ray Walters remembers Apollo sitting outside the town hall, a rather tragic figure.

“By this time, he was ageing. He had a bad heart,” Mr Walters said. “The tram was at the corner, and I went over and gave him a bit of rope.”

It was a different era, Ray said of the showmen who trained up in gyms. Ray was one of them. “Gyms in those days were run by people like that. Now they are social. I used to train in the police gym. They played volleyball with medicine balls.”

Apollo & Thelma tells the tale of the man behind Apollo, Paul Anderson, and his sister Thelma through the eyes of the young Jon Faine when he handled Thelma’s estate as a novice lawyer for Barker Harty & Co in Collins St.

Like the feats of the strong man, the tall story was an art form and Faine has fun with his rollicking account of an ambitious small man who wanted to be larger than life, and his wayward sister.

“I simply could not reconcile the diminutive man in front of me with the claims of incredible strength photographically portrayed on the walls,” he wrote.

“In every meeting at his gym, Apollo was totally self-absorbed. He loved talking about himself. He was not just the embodiment of vanity – he transcended it.”

His sister, equally colourful, ended up running a pub alone in the Top End and when she died in 1981 police found more than $50,000 in cash on the premises, just one of the stashes she was hiding from the tax department.

Unfortunately, the young copper on duty could not resist temptation and stole the money with an accomplice. He was charged but just half was recovered.

Jon Faine is a smooth talker and tells this tale well. He was sent to Darwin to sort out Thelma’s estate and had moved into broadcasting before it was finally resolved.

He never gave up his interest in the case, however, and in this book he finally has a chance to do a character study of Apollo.

He finds that the small strongman’s ambitions overrode his duties as a father, but Faine is delicate about protecting the feelings of the sons and was keen to see they got their rightful inheritance from their aunt.

The boys’ mother Rondahe was the beautiful female accompaniment to the Great Apollo’s act. She disappeared early in their lives.

“They were a kind of Tarzan and Jane performance with the lady in a leopard skin,” Mr Walters said. “It was an era than came out of the circus.”   

The last words on the issue must go to the Mighty Apollo himself who explained in a news broadcast why he got into body building: “I was sick and tired of being called a peewee and a nugget.”

Apollo & Thelma, Jon Faine, Hardie Grant, 2022 •

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