GEORGE AND JO: A LOVE STORY
Act One, Scene One.
Newcastle Maritime Museum, Fort Scratchley, early 1990s. Interior (office). Day.
GEORGE, a young American with a thatch of black hair, is being shown the sights of Newcastle. He appears at the door. JO, a young blonde Australian woman working in the office, looks up.
JO: (thought-track) He has an enormous smile.
GEORGE: (thought-track) She is gorgeous! She’s out of my league…
… And so begins the story of George Merryman and Jo Smith, whose partnership has the joy and laughter of a romantic comedy. Their lives may not actually be a movie, but movies takes up a good chunk of their lives.
For there is a plot twist in the love story of George and Jo. The couple join the community to battle the odds and race against time to save another character, a faded but still glamorous beauty, who has helped so many escape the clutches of boredom by offering excitement, adventure and romance – if only for a couple of hours. The Regal Cinema at Birmingham Gardens.
Before they know it, the movie lovers are cinema managers and tradition upholders. The Regal’s screen shines on, the audiences cheer, and George and Jo kiss. Everyone loves a happy ending.
“I call ourselves accidental exhibitionists. Because it wasn’t the design,” Merryman says.
WE meet for lunch at Awaba House at Booragul, a stone’s throw from where the couple lives, and where Jo Smith grew up. She was born in …
“Oh, I’m not saying that!,” Smith says of her birth date.
“We don’t do age,” Merryman adds.
“He’s younger than me, so we don’t do age!,” she explains.
Smith points to the shoreline and says as a kid she swam there every afternoon in summer: “This is such a wonderful place to grow up.”
She can’t remember the first film she saw. Perhaps it was because she couldn’t see it from under blankets. When Smith was about five or six, she was smuggled by neighbours into a drive-in. The first time Smith recalls sitting in a cinema was with her parents, watching the 1976 Australian film, Caddie.
“That’s when I realised films really meant something, and seeing Australian films really meant something,” she says.
As a student, she loved watching films with Australian actors telling Australian stories, such as “The Love Letters from Teralba Road” and “The Singer and the Dancer.”
“Suddenly it felt accessible to work in the screen industry, it wasn’t something that was out there that belonged to Hollywood,” Smith says.
On the other side of the world, sitting before a screen in Columbus, Ohio, young George Merryman had his cinematic introduction to Australia. The Ohio State University student attended an Australian film retrospective. Among the films was the one that had such a formative effect on his future partner, “The Singer and the Dancer”.
“They had nothing to do with my existence, or that I possibly would have understood, but I felt really moved and connected by those films,” recalls Merryman.
As a boy living in a steel town, Canton, Ohio, George was fired by film and television, especially comedies: “I was a TV kid, I didn’t spend much time outside.” He followed his passion to university, studying English and drama.
In Newcastle, Jo Smith followed her passion to university as well, studying for a master of theatre arts. While still at Booragul High School, she had directed a play on nuclear disarmament, much to the shock and awe of some parents.
“That was me being political,” she says. “I’d learnt you could be political through film, through the arts. I thought the arts was important in shaping society,” she says. “So I saw it as a way of contributing to society.”
For about 20 years, Smith has worked for the Australian Guild of Screen Composers, where she is executive director, advocating for those creating music for film and television.
Before all of that, Jo Smith was working at the Newcastle Maritime Museum in its former home at Fort Scratchley, when George Merryman walked into her life.
Merryman was lured to Newcastle by his brother, who was living here with his Novocastrian wife. George planned to study for his Diploma of Education at the university. He loved the city he arrived in: “Newcastle, for me, is like Canton - only with water views!”
Then, on the third day in Newcastle, he met Jo Smith. Which immediately placed him in a dilemma.
“When I left home, I promised my Mum - because she’d already lost one son to Australia - that I’d only date American women,” he explains.
“But then I arrived in Newcastle, and there weren’t any American women - amazingly!”
Jo was surprised by the arrival of this American with the engagingly big smile.
“I found it hilarious that an American ended up in Newcastle,” she says. “It was so unusual back then.”
George broke his promise to his Mum. George and Jo became a couple, sharing their love of film, seeing movies at the little old cinema near the university, the Regal. When they moved to Sydney, they turned their interests into combined work, organising conferences and hosting the Travelling Film Festival, taking movies to small communities. Yet they remained connected to Newcastle, including visits to the Regal. But the cinema was shut in 2006 when the building was declared unsafe.
“I think we visited the last weekend it was closing down,” recalls George. “We realised how really special The Regal was, and we were really sad to see it closing, but then we went on to the rest of our lives.”
The couple was shuttling between Sydney, the Blue Mountains and Newcastle. Merryman was teaching screenwriting at UTS and working on the “great Australian screenplay”, and Smith was working at the screen composers’ guild.
While walking in Wallsend, Smith passed a membership stall for The Friends of the Regal, a community group fighting for the cinema to be reopened. More than join, she got active. When Newcastle City Council was deciding the fate of the building, Smith sent out an email to 25 influential figures in the film and TV industry. They all replied, offering their support. One respondent, Rabbit Proof Fence screenwriter Christine Olsen, urged Smith and Merryman to travel to Newcastle with her to address the meeting, which was happening in a few hours.
They spoke. The councillors listened, Merryman says, and the building was given “a stay of execution”.
“That’s when the hard work began, because there was a lot of negotiating and diplomacy needed to get everyone on board. It just felt like single-screen cinemas were a thing of the past, no one would go back to Birmingham Gardens because it had been closed too long. ”
But in 2014, the cinema reopened in the hands of a community trust. The building had been restored, and state-of-the-art digital projection equipment bought at a big discount from George Miller’s Happy Feet 2 production was installed. An army of volunteers helped Jo, as the Regal’s manager (and marketing guru/kitchen coordinator), and George, as its programmer (and box office person/MC/sweeper). And the audiences returned, hungry for movies and the Regal’s sense of community.
“It was almost like a miracle,” says Merryman, of the cinema’s resurrection. “The building itself was built by volunteer labour in 1932 and was converted to a cinema in the ’40s, and it was a cinema for all those years. But that volunteer spirit has continued right through, in the battle to save it, and also in the cinema’s operation, how the cinema’s run today.”
The cinema has about 100 volunteers, and each weekend, they do everything from clean the toilets to cooking food, which is provided to the patrons for free.
“So it’s a cross between a cinema and the Country Women’s Association,” Merryman laughs.
The Regal remains almost like something from another era, which is why movie lovers seek refuge in there, and film-makers frequently attend to talk about their movies. Acclaimed director Bruce Beresford was at the Regal last weekend, introducing his recent film, Mr Church.
“The Regal has been my community arts training in practice, but it’s also been a party for the past four years,” says Smith. “I feel as though I’ve been at a party every weekend all weekend for the past four years.”
The couple initially intended to stay for only a short time, “but what happened was we obviously fell in love with it”. Both have plans to pursue their interests outside the cinema, but for now, the Regal, and the community that it holds, remains Smith and Merryman’s weekend world.
“We don’t think about the cinema as work,” George says. “We talk about it as going to the movies at the weekend. So we don’t think of the cinema as work.”
“That’s our hobby,” Smith adds. “And it isn’t work, we enjoy it, we love it.”