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John Mervyn Jones (1916–2003)

by John Farquharson

Canberra’s ‘Mr Movies’, Mervyn Jones, who, in a career spanning some 48 years, probably entertained more of the city’s population than anyone else could claim, has died of leukaemia complicated by pneumonia, aged 87.

During those years devoted to the cinema business he entertained royalty, governors-general, prime ministers and many others, including grubby little kids going to Saturday matinees and rolling jaffas down the aisles. And, after probably seeing more films, or parts of them, than anyone else in Canberra during his day, his favourite, was Gone With The Wind. Appropriately, this was the film chosen for showing on the night of the closure of the old Civic Theatre in 1972, pending its rebuilding.

Apart from his cinema activities Mervyn Jones could also lay claim to having been the ‘best-dressed compositor the Canberra Times ever had’. This was because in the paper’s struggling Depression years, Mervyn, as manager of the Civic Theatre, would come into the old Mort Street office, immaculately turned out in suit and tie, and set his own advertisements. And in those hard times, it was the cheque that came in for the theatre advertisements at the end of the week that ensured the wages of the Canberra Times staff.

Born in Moonee Ponds, Victoria, on March 13, 1916, Mervyn came to Canberra aged 11 in December 1927 when his father, Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Edward Jones, was transferred from Melbourne as Director of Investigation, covering security and the Commonwealth Peace Officers. He also became the first chief officer of the Federal Capital Territory Police Force. The family lived in the Hotel Acton before moving to a house in Balmain Crescent, opposite the entrance to University House. Their final move in 1935 was to a house in Melbourne Avenue, Forrest.

Mervyn attended Telopea Park School in 1928, then Canberra Grammar School where he was enrolled on its opening day, as No 29 on the roll, in 1929. (Jones House at Canberra Grammar was named for Mervyn’s father). His first job, after leaving school halfway through 1932 as the Depression began to bite, was with Canberra solicitor W. H. B. Dickson, with whom he lasted 18 months. Realising that the law was not for him, during 1933 he enthusiastically took up an offer of part time work at the Capitol Theatre, Manuka. This became full-time in September 1934 when he was taken on as assistant manager at the Capitol to Malcolm Moir, who was also a well-known Canberra architect. He learnt to do everything from ushering to working as assistant operator on the old carbon rod projectors. The job change cemented his love affair with movies, which had been first sparked by school outings to the Capitol Theatre and continued throughout his life.

The Capitol Theatre was the only cinema in Canberra until 1936 when the Civic Theatre was built and Mervyn Jones became its first manager. He remained in that position until 1960 when he became general manager of both the Capitol and Civic Theatres, after Malcolm Moir retired as manager of the Capitol. Mervyn himself retired in July 1981 after giving almost 48 years to the entertainment industry.

When he started in the cinema business there were only three shopping centres in Canberra – Kingston, Manuka and Civic – and the population was around 7000. There remained only two cinemas in Canberra until 1958 when a drive-in was built some distance beyond Civic on Northbourne Avenue. In the early years, and even into the immediate postwar years, entertainment in Canberra centred mainly on the two theatres. Most people went to either one of the theatres on Saturday nights, and many had permanent Saturday bookings.

In reminiscing at various times about his long career showing films, he had many tales to tell. In the early years the use of the Capitol was not confined to screening movies. The ABC Sydney Symphony orchestra used to perform there, including a memorable concert in 1934 when world famous tenor Richard Tauber was the star artist. Mervyn recalled it being the first ABC broadcast in Australia on a nationwide hook-up. That night while the audience waited on the bell to ring the start, the boiler let out an unearthly scream because the cleaner had forgotten to turn on the boiler pump. Richard Tauber walked off, but then walked back on again.

During Mervyn’s time the Capitol was also used for other live performances and conferences. At one conference for the RSL, Mervyn remembered accidentally bumping into Vivien Leigh who, with Laurence Olivier, was attending as guest of honour. In his inaugural address as 48th president of the Cinema Pioneers in 1988, Mervyn said, ‘bumped’ was the right word. I opened the door to let her in and she bumped right into me.

During the visit of the Queen in 1954, the Governor-General, Viscount Slim, approached him to run a film for her at Government House. During the week beforehand they ran through 10 features trying to find the most suitable one. But on the night in question the film chosen was ‘Knock on Wood’. Mervyn recalled, ‘We showed it cold – the late Nip Clark, our operator, and myself using full-size equipment provided by Sir Norman Rydge [of Greater Union Theatres]. While putting the equipment together we accidentally went through the floor. However, nothing daunted, the show went on and it was obvious the Queen and Prince Philip, obviously enjoyed it all, Danny Kaye being one of their favourites. Meeting the Queen later, she referred to the accident as “just one of those things”.’

Over the years the two cinemas, which became part of the Greater Union group in 1958, enjoyed regular vice-regal patronage. In the early days of the Capitol, Lady Isaacs was a habitual filmgoer, but the most regular patrons at the Civic were the Slims. As technology developed, both theatres were kept up to date, with screen sizes being changed several times. Mervyn presided over the rebuilding of the Civic as well as the pulling down, to much protest, and rebuilding of the Capitol in 1980. Although sorry to see the old Capitol go, as it had been so much part of his life, Mervyn had to face the reality that it cost an enormous amount to heat and would have cost more than half a million dollars to bring it up to modern standards at a time when smaller theatres were becoming the vogue.

While the cinema remained a constant pre-occupation, he had many outside interests, particularly in golf, which was his other great love. At the Royal Canberra Golf Club he was a committee member for 14 years – firstly on ‘House’ then ‘chairman of House’ and finally president for four years from 1971. In retirement he gave much time to the National Film and Sound Archive where he helped in the restoration of old films. He was also a guide at Lanyon and for many years a keen Rotarian. He was a past president and life member of Canberra Grammar School Old Boys’ Union and a member of both the Canberra and Commonwealth Clubs.

An unassuming man who brought quiet competence to all he did, he was not easy to get to know. However, once he knew where you were coming from and trust was built, his friendship and loyalty were unwavering. Canberra has lost one of its most dedicated entertainers.

His wife, Helen, whom he married in 1943, two daughters (Rosemary and Patricia) survive him. A sister, Beryl, and brother, Alan, predeceased him.

John Mervyn Hamilton Jones, born 13 March 1916; died 29 June 2003.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Jones, John Mervyn (1916–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 June 2024.

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