When Dayton Went to the Movies
Downtown Cinema Theaters
As was mentioned before, movies began to change with the introduction of ‘talkies’. Lights of New York was an amazing hit, and a taste of what was yet to come. Before long every major theater in Dayton had jumped on the bandwagon, installing expensive sound equipment to show the new talking movies. Theaters that refused to do so soon found themselves closing.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, theaters weren’t affected at first. By 1932, however, admissions had dropped by over 25 million patrons a week and theaters across the country were forced to close their doors. Radio became the main source of entertainment. Who needed the movies when you could listen to Jack Benny or the Lone Ranger?
"I can remember... when Amos and Andy were on the radio, it just killed the business," says Paul Roth. "Everybody stayed home... you might as well have closed the theater."
The movie houses turned to promoting their business. Dish night was introduced. Patrons could build an eight piece setting by collecting a free dish every week when they went to the theater. SCREEN-O, an on-screen version of Bingo, gave the audience a chance to win money and prizes. (Drive-in theaters would later offer a similar version of this, called WAHOO, in the 1950’s). The Classic theater, on West Fifth Street, once gave away a new car a week for six weeks during a promotion.
But what seemed to help the most was the introduction of the double-feature policy, which allowed patrons to watch two movies for the price of one. The second half of a double bill was usually a ‘B-movie’. B-movies were usually low-budget films that were done in a short period of time. Shorter in length than their ‘A’ counterparts, the Depression audience enjoyed them immensely.
"The hero always won, the good man always won." remembered Ted Manos. "When people went to a movie in those days they always left inspired. The bad people were always punished. The cowboy always kissed his horse, he never kissed the girl."
In 1935 Becky Sharpe was the first feature-length movie to be entirely filmed in Technicolor. Even though the film wasn’t a four-star movie, Daytonians filled the theaters to see Miriam Hopkins in this remake of Vanity Fair. Just as it was when sound had been introduced, people began going to any movie that came out in color. Before long, classics such as Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Disney, and The Wizard of Oz had changed the face of movies forever.
As America entered WWII, people were put to work and the theaters were once again the top form of entertainment. Nothing could stop the movie business now...
Little Playhouse (1936-41)
28 South Main Street
The Apollo motion picture theater threw open its doors to the public on April 30, 1914. The man responsible for the new theater was Theodore C. Chifos, a street candy merchant who, at the age of twenty-two, became the youngest theater owner in Dayton.
Architect Gustave A. Niehus redesigned the first floor of the Burkhardt building to produce one of the more comfortable theaters at the time. Patrons no longer had to tolerate kitchen chairs that were thrown haphazardly into a room. The 200 seat Apollo had two wide aisles running the full length of the building. The mouldings on the ceiling were done in ivory and gold, the ceiling itself was colored a light tan. The top half of the walls were painted a dark tan, the bottom half a dark brown. Side wall ornaments of blue, green and gold complimented the colors.
"First Run-First Class" movies from Biograph, Vitagraph and Universal, as well as other studios, led to the Apollo being the place to go during the silent era of film.
In 1923 the theater was purchased by Homer Guy, Benjamin Wheeler and Wendell Pfieffer. While under their management the Apollo began selling popcorn and candy, being the first in Dayton to do so.
In 1936 W. A. Keyes leased the movie house and renamed it the Little Playhouse. The Playhouse provided patrons with films of "classic" movies of the past. It operated quite successfully until 1941, when the owners of the building acquired a new tenant and changed the theater into a store. The location later became the Joy Shop.
The building has since been razed. A center for the RTA now stands on the site.
32 East Fourth Street
The Auditorium theater was located in a four-story brownstone building originally constructed to house the YMCA. The cornerstone was laid on July 7, 1886. A foot-long copper box was sealed within the red sandstone block by the governor of Ohio, J. B. Foraker.
"I do not know all that may be in the box, but I understand we have the Bible, as we ought to have." Foraker was quoted to have said at the ceremony. "And, I trust, when the building is destroyed, and somebody in the future looks into this, he will be acquainted with it."
The $82,000 building was deemed "the finest west of the Alleghenies" by David A. Sinclair, who founded Sinclair College there in 1887. The new structure was supposed to take care of the YMCA’s needs for the next hundred years, but the organization grew rapidly and abandoned the building for a new home in 1908, as did Sinclair College.
Leopold Rauh purchased the property that same year and installed two movie houses. The first floor was taken by the Auditorium, the second floor became the Annex theater (See Annex).
An unusual tale about the theater comes from the early days when it played both movies and vaudeville acts.
"There’s the story of the woman who was killed...in the sewing room." Marianna Hunt told a reporter in 1970. "And then there are the things that are supposed to go on at night when nobody’s here - like the lights going on and off by themselves."
Those in the know blamed it on the ghost of "Headless Hattie", who took her final curtain call in the sewing room at the Auditorium...
One of the first managers of the theater was Ben Wheeler, who offered ‘talking’ pictures many years they were actually available. Wheeler would have ‘talkers’ stationed behind the movie screen who would speak the lines of the actors in the movie. After he left in 1912 Wheeler continued to offer this unusual attraction at his next theater, the Jewel.
By 1915 the Auditorium was being managed by the flamboyant Gilbert Burrows. Previews of coming attractions were acted out on stage by Burrow’s son, Dickson, and a ticket taker, who would perform a synopsis of the next film.
Burrows sometimes took his promotions too far. In 1915 theaters were not allowed to be open on Sunday. This didn’t sit well with Burrows, who decided to open the Auditorium anyway. He was immediately arrested. He again opened the following Sunday and was again arrested. The same thing happened the third time.
By now the law enforcers had had enough and ordered Burrows to appear in court. Afraid of fines and a facing a possible jail sentence, Burrows hired a gospel-singing family to perform the following Sunday, followed by a movie with a religious theme. The judge was impressed and allowed Burrows to remain open on Sundays.
The Auditorium would later be renamed the State Theater in 1923 when the B. F. Keith chain began managing it. Keith later became part of RKO in 1932. The first showing under the new merger was a B movie by Paramount called Young Man of Manhattan, starring Claudette Colbert. This was typical fare for the RKO State, which ran the overflow of movies from the RKO Keith’s during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Unfortunately, attendance to the State began to drop off in the late 1950’s. RKO decided to move on and dropped its lease on October 28, 1964. Hearing of this, H & K Enterprises offered to pick up the lease and reopened the theater the following day. Their first attraction was A Hard Day’s Night starring the ever popular Beatles.
It didn’t take long for the new operators to realize they were in trouble. Lawrence Rauh, head of Auditorium Realty, stated that the State was a losing proposition almost from the very beginning.
"They didn’t have the financial backing they needed and really didn’t give it a chance."
H & K closed the State on January 18, 1965.
A year later the Dayton Community theater moved in and began performing plays. They did well, but the city of Dayton had other plans. In 1970 the building was razed to make way for an urban renewal plan that included a hotel and convention center.
"We opened here with Carousel and we had (the theater) all spic and span." said Marianna Hunt, who had been with the Dayton Community theater since it had moved into the State. "We passed petitions...to save the building and that didn’t work. We tried to save it because of the tradition it carries with it."
"I’d have loved to stay here, if we could have, because of the oldness and the distinctiveness of the building." said Morris Bailey, managing director of the Dayton Community Theater, while the group of actors began to prepare for their final roles in Wonderful Town. "It’s got a lot of tradition to it and the character of a theater to it, and sometimes that helps a performance."
Gary D. Schuman, director of the Montgomery County Historical Society at the time, was there when the building was razed. Using a photocopy of the July 8, 1886, edition of the Dayton Journal newspaper, he was able to determine where the foot-long copper box had been placed all those years past by Governor Foraker. The seal on the box was broken and most of the contents were matted together underneath the leather-bound Bible. The box and its contents were sent to the Document Preservation laboratory at the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus for a more careful study. Most of the items inside the box were records of the old YMCA, as well as several newspapers and books from the time period. Several coins and fractional currency and a picture of Governor Foraker were also said to have been included in the copper box.
Headless Hattie’s haunt is now, itself, a ghost. Nothing remains on the site of the old State theater. It is now a grass covered lot alongside the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Cinema International (1970-71)
Cinema X Twin (1971-90)
205 South Ludlow Street
Bill Mazas’ Swinging Safari Club was located in the old Pryor building on South Ludlow Street. When a fire gutted the club’s interior, Mazas decided to build what he called an "adult shopping center" on the site. The center included two movie theaters, joined by a common marquee front. Called the Cinema International, the theaters featured full-length adult feature films on each side. One side sat 175, the other 90. The building also had studios above the theaters for body art painting of nudes, plus a model studio where amateur photographers could take pictures of nudes.
Mazas decided to turn the building into an adult center because the area around the location had deteriorated. "No one wanted to help me clean it up, so I have to use my property the best way I can so I can survive financially." he said at the time.
Patrons were lined up for tickets when Cinema International opened its doors for the first time on August 12, 1970. Although the first movies shown were considered mild, owners of the theater promised that within the next few weeks they would be showing films such as Man & Woman, I Am Curious Yellow, and films from Sweden and Denmark that had caused court suits and raids in New York and California. One local paper claimed that business was drummed up by the use of revealing photographs "...the kind which might have sold under the counter a few years ago".
As the years passed, the building began to show signs of its age. The theater was finally shut down in April 1990 by Dayton city inspectors due to faulty electrical wiring.
In 1994 Reynolds and Reynolds Co. stepped in and bought the Pryor building for $155,000. Although the five story structure was built of poured concrete to support heavy printing industry machines, the building had a leaky roof and was declared a public nuisance by the city. A private group had wanted to convert the old building into loft apartments, but they couldn’t get a clear title before time ran out on the financing.
After razing the building in 1995 Reynolds and Reynolds spent over $425,000 to build a thirty-two space parking lot, screened in by a handsome fence. The company agreed to a city request that vertical sections of the facade be saved. Five sturdy pillars from the structure were used as posts for the wrought iron fence that surrounds the parking lot.
B. F. Keith’s (1916-21)
141 South Ludlow Street
Anticipation was high when the announcement was made that the Colonial Theater would be open on November 1, 1912. From the very beginning when Edward W. Hanley bought the entire 92’ x 127’ corner lot at Fifth and Ludlow streets for the purpose of building, no expense was spared. Architect Albert Pretzinger personally traveled to several theaters in the East before he began planning the Colonial.
Hanley wanted the Colonial to become Dayton’s premier vaudeville playhouse. Pretzinger obliged by using cantilever trusses to support the balcony, thereby eliminating the use of posts, so that the stage could be seen from each of the 1,810 seats in the house.
The theater had no gallery, only a first floor and balcony which was divided into two sections by an aisle that ran parallel with the row of seats. This arrangement allowed the charging of two different prices, separating the upper row from the more desirable seats, which were reserved.
The comfort of the actors was also taken into account. Located under the 40 foot wide stage were twenty individual dressing rooms and two chorus rooms.
By 1915 the Colonial had abandoned its vaudeville policy and began showing ‘photo plays’. Fox attractions were shown, as were offerings from the Vitagraph-Lublin-Selig & Essanny combination. The daily program usually consisted of a double feature, for which patrons were charged ten cents. When this didn’t work, the theater was leased to the Keith’s circuit. Vaudeville again became the main attraction.
In 1921 the theater’s name was changed to Liberty. The Liberty began advertising that it played the "same pictures shown at the Columbia" theater, but by 1923 the management was desperately trying to stay open by presenting a number of different programs. One week western movies would be shown, the next week burlesque would head the ticket.
New management took over toward the end of 1923, renaming the theater Gayety. "At Last Something Different" was the theater’s motto, but the program offered anything but that. Tired old burlesque shows and motion pictures did not bring in the patrons, and the Gayety closed in less than a year.
As 1924 came to a close the theater was managed by the B. F. Keith’s circuit. The Colonial began offering more popular stage shows and motion pictures. This period, from the mid 1920’s to the early 1940’s, was the height of entertainment at the Colonial.
The Colonial was the first Dayton theater to regularly feature ‘talkies’, which were often referred to, and rightly so, as the ‘squawkies’. On September 22, 1928, the theater presented Dayton’s first all-talking, full-length picture, Lights of New York. Although neither the plot nor the acting was of high quality, this did not deter the people from attending.
The stage acts were also of the highest quality. Goodie Sable, former manager of the Colonial from 1937 to 1950, had fond memories of the big shows and name acts that graced the stage of the theater.
"In those days you could see a stage show and talking pictures for 35 cents." said Sable. "Sunday was the best draw day. People would be lined up from Ludlow Street down to Fifth waiting."
Constaine Zahars also remembered the Colonial, having worked there since the theater first opened.
"I was just a dishwasher there then, fresh off the boat from the old country." said Zahars, better known as Gus to his friends. "I remember so many of the great ones (entertainers). Ozzie and Harriet Nelson used to sit at a table in the corner and sneak kisses. Martha Raye made chili every time she came to town. She would have me set up a stove and a soup kettle in her dressing room and she would make chili for the cast. It was good chili, too."
During its heyday, the Colonial even had its own house chorus, the Colonialettes. Mrs. F. A. (Jinx) Fensel was a member of that elite group.
"There were twelve of us and it gave us our introduction to show business," she recalled. "We put on an opening and closing number in addition to a production number in the middle and we met some amusing people, like that silly old Red Skeleton."
"Many production shows were booked into the Colonial." Sable stated. "I remember a fellow who had a pony act along with dogs and monkeys. He put the ponies outside the stage door so they could have fresh air until the show started. The ponies ran off and by the time the Dayton police had rounded them up the act was over."
Sometimes the acts were really big.
"We had an elephant act coming in, so I called to have the stage shored up so they wouldn’t fall through. I advised Joe Goetz to have the same thing done at Cincinnati’s Shubert theater. He paid no attention to me and an elephant went right through his floor."
During WWII Dayton school children were invited to see the Disney movie Fantasia and at the same time do their part for the war effort. For the price of four old phonograph records children were allowed inside to watch the movie. It seems that the phonographs were needed for the shellac that was used on them, since shellac was unavailable during the war.
When the Colonial became part of the RKO circuit in 1930, the theater began showing second-rate movies from RKO Keith’s overflow of bookings. By the 1940’s the program usually included a double-feature of grade B mystery, war and western movies.
Schwind Realty Company purchased the Colonial in 1964. Schwind immediately resold the property to St. John’s Lutheran Church, who made plans to raze the property and build a new church on the site. Reverend Willard H. Borchern stated that the old church at 27 North St. Clair, although it had served them well for the past 100 years, now had inadequate Sunday school and counseling facilities to take care of their growing congregation.
The church still stands on the site of the old Colonial theater.
121 South Jefferson Street
The song, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" inspired the owner, Charles Gross, to name the new theater the "Columbia", the gem of the moving picture world in Dayton, the Gem City. And it was a "gem" of a theater. Erected at a cost of $30,000, the five hundred seat theater was thought to be the most beautifully decorated motion picture house in Dayton at the time. The panels on the beam ceiling were finished in a cream color with gold lines. The beams and all the ornamental plaster work were white and gold. The upper walls were of a golden tone with Renaissance decorations in the style of 15th century art. The lower walls were decorated with a beautiful Spanish leather effect which was brought out through overglazes of different colors.
The outside was constructed of ornamental imitation stone with a marble base. A large horseshoe shaped entrance, lit by a number of electric bulbs, helped protect patrons from the weather.
The grand opening picture was The Princess of Bagdad, an eight-reel film, starring Helen Gardner. Admission was five and ten cents, children five cents at all times. A Wurlitzer Automatic Orchestra provided music during the silent movies.
As the years passed, the Columbia slowly began to decline, due both to neglect and the B movies it would later begin to show. By the mid 1940’s the theater rarely advertised at all, depending on patrons to look at their marquee and choose them over their other competition in the area, the Rialto and the Ohio. By then, all three were showing B movies, their only drawing power being the fact that they were cheaper than the other downtown theaters.
Marcus Enterprises of Indianapolis purchased the theater in 1948. Several thousand dollars were spent on modernizing the theater, but it was too late. Children were warned by their parents to stay away from the ‘rathole’ theaters on Jefferson Street. By the mid-1950’s it wasn’t unusual to see patrons buying tickets in order to have a place to sleep and keep warm in the winter. What was once one of the most beautiful theaters in the city was by then considered by many to be gaudy and outdated. The Columbia shut its doors in 1959. The site where the theater stood is now part of the park located behind the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Loew’s Dayton (1924-30)
125 North Main Street
The Dayton Theater welcomed the public into its beautifully decorated auditorium on May 4, 1918. Advertised as Dayton’s first "Deluxe motion picture house", the 2,208 seat theater was owned by the Dayton Theater Co., which had been formed by Frederick H. Rike, Irvin G. Kumler and Frank Wright.
"The new Dayton theater is probably as elegant and ornate a playhouse devoted exclusively to motion pictures as there is in the country." reported the Dayton Daily News the day following the theater’s grand opening. "The very entrance gives the patron a feeling of welcome."
It was an elegant theater, with heavy carpeting, sweeping stairways, and a mezzanine area where you could look down at the people seated below through a hole in the center of the floor. Two ramps, on either side of the mezzanine, led up to a balcony.
The first feature picture shown was a war picture entitled The Remaking of a Nation. Advertisements claimed "Our Dayton and Montgomery County boys are back" in the film and described it as showing the "complete activities of solder-making at Camp Sherman." Men from Montgomery County had been sent to train at Camp Sherman near Chillicothe in that World War I year, and many of Dayton’s newly enlisted soldiers appeared in the film. This was largely a charity affair with the proceeds divided between the Camp Sherman fund and the Dayton Federated Charities. The morning after the theater opened the Daily News reported that hundreds were turned away that night.
Howard Whyte was a 15 year old Boy Scout when he went to work at the Loew’s as an usher in 1918.
"It was a real gala opening", he remembers. "The film was a documentary on life in an Army camp. One of the soldiers in the film was Fred B. Patterson, son of (NCR founder) John Patterson."
Stanley Dunkelberger was Loew’s original organist, and remained in that position until ‘talkies’ eliminated his position in the early 1930’s.
Many of the silent films came with written musical scores for the organist, Dunkelberger remembered, "but I usually just improvised - I made it up as I went along and never played exactly the same pieces for the same scenes although each film stayed for a week."
He recalled the escape scenes especially well. "I would play excited music until they got to the edge of the cliff. Then I would stop suddenly and the whole audience would yell" in the sudden silence.
In 1919 Marcus Loew visited the Dayton area and was so impressed with the theater that he acquired the building. Under Loew’s management vaudeville was also offered to patrons. Then in 1924 the theater was renamed Loew’s Dayton and special orchestra stage shows were conducted by Nelson Anderson. The idea was an unsuccessful one, so the theater again introduced a straight movie policy.
Eventually the theater dropped the Dayton part of its name and became known as Loew’s.
Loew’s became one of the few Midwest theaters to be chosen for nationwide premiere presentations of important pictures. Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Good-bye Mr. Chips were among many of the great movies to premiere there.
As a projectionist, Earl Hayes had a chance to work in most of the Dayton indoor theaters. Hayes remembered when the Loew’s became air-conditioned.
"Loew’s was the first theater to install a cooling system, though its pioneer carbon-dioxide process was almost too much. Patrons would get so cold that they would sometimes faint when they returned to the blistering heat outside. There would be more than a 25 degree difference. Some would stay there in the theater and watch the movies over and over again, just to beat the heat. When it was extraordinarily hot outside, some of them would bring their lunch and eat it there."
William T. Burger was an usher at the Loew’s in the late 1930’s. He remembered the days when ladies would come to the theater wearing dress gloves on all but the warmest days, and would not be caught in public without a hat to adorn their stylishly marcelled hair.
"My days of tramping the aisles at Loew’s were, for the most part, happy, educational and, most importantly, remunerative. (twenty-five cents an hour and no deductions!)" wrote Burger in an editorial published in the Dayton Daily News. "My immediate boss had the title ‘chief of service’. He would have served well as a drill instructor at Parris Island. We had to attend weekly meetings presided over by this no-nonsense martinet. During the meetings he would read from a carefully kept log of derelictions, omissions, deviations from policy and other mortal sins committed during the previous week.
"We learned how to respond to a patron having a heart attack; an epileptic seizure or a mother with a crying baby. We were also directed to be aware of any incipient "heavy petting" and to nip such conduct in the bud. Amorous grappling was a no-no, and expression of affection more intimate than a timid touching of hands was considered "heavy" by Loew’s, Inc."
On April 27, 1968, Carl Rogers, then manager of Loew’s, planned to mark the theater’s 50th birthday with a handprint making ceremony in front of the theater.
"I am having a block of concrete torn out so the city leaders, including Mayor Dave Hall, can place their prints and names in the new concrete." stated Rogers.
Notables that showed up to memorialize their hands included city commissioner James McGee (who later went on to become Mayor of Dayton); Don Donoher, University of Dayton basketball coach; Congressman Charles W. Whalen, Jr.; one-time Dayton mayor Dave Hall; Loew’s manager Carl Rogers; WING radio personality Jack Wymer; David L. Rike; and comedian Jonathan Winters, a Dayton native.
Rogers also served birthday cake during the day and had Miss Southeastern Ohio on hand, who just so happened to be his own daughter, Velvet Rogers. During the celebration it was stated that more than 2000 films had been shown before more than sixty-two million patrons in the fifty years the Loew’s had been open.
As time passed, the theater’s profits began to decline. The building was sold to Third National Bank in April 1972, who in turn sold it to McClaren Investment Company.
Theater lovers were upset to find that the company had plans to raze the building. "It’s tentatively a parking lot with the possibility of the high rise building later on," stated Sol Friedman, President of McClaren at the time of the building’s purchase.
Fortunately, those plans were put on hold when James C. Burt, an independent theater operator, was able to talk the new owners into signing a lease allowing him to show movies in the old theater. Burt, who also operated the Victoria Opera House, reopened the theater on December 8, 1972, under its new name, the Palace. A new policy of family entertainment and lower prices was promised.
"We will be showing good family movies, most of which will be rated G or PG, with possibly an occasional R-rated picture, and then only if it is a genuinely outstanding film." stated Burt.
The theater showed more than just movies. Burt also ran concerts, stage shows and closed-circuit sports presentations (which included such events as the Joe Frazier-George Foreman heavyweight championship fight in 1973).
In 1975 Burt tried to put together a deal to have the 2,000 seat theater renovated with an idea to develop it into a first-run movie house. When the plans fell through the Palace closed for the final time in April 1975. The building was razed in November 1975. The site is now a parking lot.
Dayton Movies (1986-88)
Neon Movies (1988-92)
The New Neon Movies (1993-Present)
130 East Fifth Street
Larry Thomas, Phil Borack, Greg Dunn, and Norman Barron opened the Dayton Movies Theater on August 22, 1986, at the corner of South Patterson Blvd. and Fifth Street. It had been sixty-four years since a motion picture house had been built in downtown Dayton, the last being the Keith’s in 1922, and the first downtown theater in over twenty years to have been built in any major city in the United States.
The cost of the 300 seat theater was $483,000, consisting of a $324,000 loan from City-Wide, a $109,000 capital-improvement grant from the city of Dayton and $50,000 from the developer, Bill Chronis.
Dayton Movies opened with Gone With the Wind. Workers were still applying the final pieces of wallpaper to the lobby as the patrons filed in to watch the show. All movies on opening day were for free.
Although the repertory theater offered a mixture of foreign and independent films, classic revivals and first run art pictures, the theater was not successful. Phil Borack said that he and his partners had continually lost money since the theater opened. He blamed the theater’s failure on an inability to expand on a ‘faithful core audience’. Dayton Movies closed its doors on April 27, 1988. Larry Smith was hired just six months before the theater would close.
After being closed only one day to put in a platter system, the theater was re-opened by Bill Chronis as The Neon Movies. Within four months Larry Smith would soon be re-hired as manager of the theater. Under his guidance the theater began to prosper. One of his first acts as manager was to show provacative, new film on the life of Christ by Martin Scorsese.
"The Last Temptation of Christ was quite controversial, a show that nobody wanted to play. I talked the owner, Bill Chronis, into letting me play it. Basically business (at the theater) was so poor, we had to do something. I told him that ‘This will either make us or break us, either put you on the map or kill us’. I had seen the film, it wasn’t offensive. The people who were shooting it down were misrepresenting the film. They hadn’t seen it, they were refusing to see it."
After viewing the film for himself, Chronis agreed to show the film.
The day the film debuted, the theater was the number one lead story on all six of the Dayton and Cincinnati television stations. "We were front page stories on local newspapers in this part of the state. It was a huge hit. And, mostly, it was because 400 protestors came down the first day to say ‘Don’t see it.’"
It was the top grossing film for the Neon to that date. It has since been surpassed by the Rocky Horror Picture Show which has run as a midnight showing every Saturday night for a decade and is still going strong.
"Over a hundred people still come to sing, dance and perform each week," says Smith.
Another idea, one that didn’t work too well at first, was the showing of older classic movies.
" I had started playing old classic films the first six months I was there. It was just a passion of mine. But they were poorly attended. Then one day Leon Bey from the Dayton Public Library came to me. He liked old movies, too and he liked what I was doing. He told me about his co-worker Francesca Hary and how the two of them would like to volunteer to work with me on creating a film society. The way it worked, the theater gave us the slowest time slots so they wouldn’t lose any money. We would generate the membership and pay for the rent of the film."
FLICKS was formed in the spring of 1988. FLICKS - Film Lovers Idolizing Cinema Klassics Society - was a success. A general theme would be selected and a list of films that fit the theme would be made. Themes included ‘Reel Men’, ‘Hollywood Goddesses' and ‘Musical Series’. The audience would then vote for their ten favorites to be shown the following season.
"We also held contests. Costumes for The Wizard of Oz, a cooking contest of The Unsinkable Molly Brown recipes. It got to the point that on Monday evenings it was standing room only."
It was during this time that Larry Smith found out he had cancer. He left in 1990 for surgery and chemotherapy, then began working for National Amusements which provided him with health insurance. But he never forgot the Neon.
In 1992 Smith was given an opportunity to buy into the business if he could convince the landlords that he could keep the theater going. He was successful. Variety Cinemas, with Larry Smith as president, opened as The New Neon Movies on January 1, 1993.
FLICKS had continued to run during his absence. When he came back he thought of trying something completely different.
"3-D movies was something I had never seen done right. I’d go and see one and always get a headache from wearing those red and green glasses. I was telling John Harvey (a well-known Dayton projectionist) about it. He told me how we could do it right with polarized 3-D glasses."
FLICKS paid for the special silver screen needed to show two projector 3-D films. "We built this customized silver screen that flipped up against the ceiling."says Smith. This allowed the regular screen to be used to show modern films.
Patrons loved it, so much so that the theater had to turn away customers. In 1995, however, the film society came to a close as business began to wane.
"That year I was trying to raise money for the cancer unit (at Grandview Hospital) where I had gone for my treatment. When I was getting treated for cancer I would watch their old comedy movies to cheer me up. I was trying to buy them a VCR and a TV on a table that would roll around on a cart. Everybody liked the idea . We promoted it and worked real hard, but the series did not make enough money to buy all that stuff. It just made enough money to cover its expenses."
In 1996 Larry Smith and The New Neon became the main focus of a number of magazines both here in the United States and around the world. In order to explain how that came to be, we have to travel back to 1955.
Cinerama was a 35 mm process intended to lure people away from their televisions and back into the theaters. Cinerama required a three-camera assembly; the center camera shot the front view, and two side cameras shot the peripheral perspectives. When the three strips were shown side by side, they would produce an image area six times that of a normal 35mm frame with 25 times sharper focus. Three synchronized projectors would beam the image onto a 48’ wide, 18’ high, 146-degree curved screen, with soft-edged join lines used to meld the images together.
After the debut of This is Cinerama, came the travelogues Cinerama Holiday (1955), Seven Wonders of the World (1956), Search for Paradise (1957), and South Sea Adventure (1958). Only two features were shot in three-camera Cinerama: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) and How the West Was Won (1962). The movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was also scheduled to be filmed in three-camera, but instead it was shot using the single-lens 65mm UltraPanavision format. Although softer focus and less "you are there" peripheral vision, that process proved to be much cheaper, and less expensive to film and show.
John Harvey’s first experience with Cinerama was in 1953 at Cincinnati’s Capitol Theater. After experiencing a rollercoaster ride and a flight over the Grand Canyon, Harvey was hooked. In 1963, as a projectionist for the Dabel theater, he had the luck to get in some hands-on experience running original Cinerama equipment when the theater ran How the West Was Won for 38 weeks straight. It was then that he obtained his first piece of Cinerama film, the six minute preview reels of HTWWW.
He continued to collect what he could over the years, finally constructing a Cinerama system in the basement of his home in 1982, modifying three 35mm Century projectors and building a 16’ wide, 7’ high screen. It was here that he developed the "Wonderama" lens, which allows present-day films to be shown on a radical 146 degree curve while still maintaining a stunning focus without distortion.
In 1988 Harvey erected a full-size Cinerama theater on the main floor of his one-story ranch home. This included having to eliminate two bedrooms, most of the kitchen and part of the living room. The ceiling also had to be raised by three feet.
Larry Smith, a former Wright State University film student, began setting up field trips for other film students to Harvey’s home, where the projectionist offered free screenings of How the West Was Won and This is Cinerama. From his very first viewing in Harvey’s home, Smith wanted to somehow organize a way to present the Cinerama films to the public. "Cinerama was always something I had dreamed about because of John Harvey" says Smith.
"As I worked at the theater John and I would, in a sense work as partners, installing 3-D and 70mm."
Harvey was reluctant to pursue the idea due to the fact that Ted Turner, who owns the MGM library, might be upset to find out that he owned a print of How the West Was Won, even though he had
never asked for any money when he showed the film.
In 1996 Larry Smith was told that, due to low ticket sales, plans were in the works to possibly split the theater’s auditorium in half in order to draw in more patrons. Smith argued that showing Cinerama would be a way to keep the screen intact and boost ticket sales. The building’s landlord agreed to allow the movies to be shown, but only if Smith could get 1,000 guaranteed viewers by July 31, 1996. Smith began spreading the word, revealing his plans at a Cinevent convention in Columbus. He also sought support by using the internet, asking people who wanted to see Cinerama to write him. It wasn’t long before they had all the patrons they needed, and more. Leonard Maltin mentioned the campaign on his on-line movie column and even called personally to say that the New Neon had his support. Jimmy Stewart, who appeared in HTWWW, wrote to wish Smith and Harvey success in the venture. In the end Smith would receive over 2,000 letters of support from 38 states and five countries. When Turner Pictures agreed to the showing of the films for a percentage of the ticket sales, the final piece was in place, but the work had just begun.
The installation of the three sound-proof projection booths, the seven-foot tall, seven-track 35mm magnetic sound-track reader and especially the giant screen, required that 88 of the theater’s 300 seats needed to be removed. One third of the theater’s ceiling was replaced by an iron curtain track bolted to the roof and the side walls. About 980 special perforated vertical strips, each 3/4 inches wide, were hung to create a 18’ high by 46’ wide screen. Each strip slightly overlapped the next one, causing a continuous seven-degree angle so that the light from the projectors was reflected primarily at the center of the audience.
"We (John and Larry) had to pay out of our own pockets to build the screen and the (projection) booths." says Larry Smith. "And the plan was that when the people started buying tickets, and there was a flood of them when we first started, John and I were to be paid back out of the profits, and we were."
The transporting of all the Cinerama equipment from Harvey’s home to the New Neon took nearly a month, even with the help of 40 volunteers led by Smith’s father, Eddie Smith. Once there, Harvey set up the projection and sound equipment so that he could operate it alone, a process that originally took a five-man crew.
On August 29, 1996 film buffs from across the world lined up for the showing of This is Cinerama, the first time it had been shown in America in over 32 years. The films were successful beyond even Smith’s dreams. The Neon has since been the host to patrons form 38 states and 11 countries. Originally scheduled to run until May, 1997, Cinerama is still being shown in 1999.
"Harvey and I both are dedicated to keeping it before the public more than making money," says Smith.
The New Neon Movies succeeded because Smith listened to what the public wanted. "I tried to take all the good ideas and funnel them into one building. Everything people liked about the movies, I tried to make into a movie central.
"If somebody called the Neon and they were looking for a movie that was actually playing in Beavercreek, (our employee) would look it up in the newspaper and tell them what times the film was on. And if they’d ask how to get there, we’d give them directions. My employees would say ‘Why are we doing this?’ and I’d say ‘Because we want people to call here’, knowing that they are going to be treated well, even if they weren’t our customers. People would call us with trivia questions, for crossword puzzles clues, or while writing a paper on movies, and we’d help. We tried to be everything a good cinema should be."
In 1998, Larry left the theater. Although still a major stockholder, he now works for the Library of Congress Film Preservation Department at WPAFB. Mike Norton, a Neon employee, and former assistant manager of over six years, now manages the theater.
The New Neon Movies, Dayton’s last full-time feature film theater, is everything a good cinema should be. We should be proud that people like Larry Smith and John Harvey have chosen this city as their home. Dayton is the better for it.
Gebhart’s Opera House (1877-89)
22 East Fifth Street
William F. Gebhart’s Opera House opened to public acclaim on March 12, 1877. The elaborately domed and galvanized iron front opera house was heralded as the finest to have been built in Dayton at the time.
Gebhart had gone to a lot of trouble to build the opera house at its location on Fifth and Main Street. In June 1876, house movers began removing a group of old frame dwellings, known as Arnold Row, from the south side of Fifth Street east of Main. The location was chosen for several reasons, the main one being that plans were being made to build a new bridge across the Miami river, which would allow a horse car railway to run in front of the Opera House.
Construction began in September 1876. By mid October the walls were in place and the intricate sheet metal facade began to be placed on the building. The decorative sections were made in Gebhart’s shop on East Third and St. Clair, then moved to the site by wagon. By November the roof and the large dome were in place. A pedestal was placed on the top of the dome, with plans to eventually place a statue there, possibly one representing ‘Commerce’.
On December 8, 1876, over three hundred patrons perished in a theater fire in Brooklyn, New York. Construction on the Opera House was suspended while safety measures were added to the theater. Installation of sprinklers was the first of its kind in a public hall in Dayton. Large sheets of iron were suspended by chains and placed over the stage, which could be lowered at a moments notice in case of fire.
The galvanized front had been painted a soft cream color and then roughed sanded to give the appearance of sandstone. The building was 95 feet wide and 73 feet deep originally. Four storerooms were on the first floor, with offices above. The auditorium was on the second floor and was reached by a center entrance staircase. The stage was on the east end of the hall. The hall seated 1,200 patrons, 500 of these in the gallery.
In 1889 the theater was leased to George A. Dickson and Larry Reist and renamed Park Theater. Well known for its live entertainment, Park Theater also introduced Dayton citizens to the magic of motion pictures.
On September 21, 1896, exhibitor Harry Clark brought with him a Vitascope projector and several movie reels. Unsure as to whether the movies would be enough to attract an audience to the theater, Clark played it safe by hiring the American Vaudeville Company to provide live entertainment between reels. These short films would be the first movies to be shown in Dayton. (See list on page 67).
In 1906 the building was leased to Hurtig-Seaman Shows, Inc., who wanted to open a high-class vaudeville house in the Dayton area. They were granted permission to raze the old hall section, without disturbing the front, and construct the auditorium at ground level. After doing so, the theater was renamed the Lyric. The new building was extended farther back than the old Park Theater, going as far south as the alley adjoining the National Theater.
The $150,000 renovation included a new seating arrangement for 1,300 patrons. The decorations of the interior of the Lyric were chosen by W. H. McElpatrick, a noted theater architect at the time. Soft shades of green and gold were used, and the pillars of the theater were covered with green plush and fastened with brass bands.
After Max Hurtig began managing the Colonial Theater in 1913, he decided to promote the Lyric as a feature motion picture house. Recognizing the the theater needed something different to attract more patrons, Hurtig obtained exclusive rights to show Kinemacolor pictures.
Kinemacolor was one of several efforts over the years to bring color to the movies. Although very successful at first, the process required expensive equipment that was not compatible with conventional films, rendering them useless for anything but Kinemacolor movies. Exhibitors like the Lyric had very few films to choose from. Efforts were made to bring down the price of both the film and the equipment. But when this failed to occur, Kinemacolor faded into obscurity.
Still, the idea lasted long enough for the Lyric to establish a good repeat customer base. The trend of showing motion pictures continued successfully for a number of years, but as attendance began to slow in the 1920’s, burlesque began to make a comeback at the theater.
Howard S. Reeves recalled the burlesque shows.
"Burlesque in those days was a tremendous business. It was family entertainment, good comedy, good music, not the best, but good music, and the ladies loved it."
Reeves saw all the great performers like Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire and Red Skeleton after he began working at the Lyric in 1908. He also recalled that during the prohibition era thieves passed up the box office safe and blew open the one upstairs, thinking the money was there.
"The boss was madder than if he’d had his money taken because they blew up his bottle of whiskey." said Reeves.
In 1934 the theater again changed hands and became the Mayfair. Ann Corio, one of the great strippers of burlesque and star of several B-movies, such as Swamp Woman, remembered the time when Elliott Roosevelt, son of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, caught her act at the theater. Roosevelt was stationed at Wright-Patterson at the time.
"The theater was sold out for the show and when the manager told me the son of the President bought standing room, I was so elated I wired my manager in New York." said Corio.
The Mayfair went through several changes during the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s. In 1949 a lack of interest in burlesque led the management into changing the theater into a double-feature movie house. The first billing was Down to Earth with Rita Hayworth, and a B western starring Gene Autry. The movies didn’t pan out, however, and burlesque again filled the bill a year later. The theater almost closed for good in the late 1950’s, but the old lady got a reprieve at the last minute.
"I remember, on a dare, I went to the Mayfair with some friends in 1961." Leon Bey recalled. "We all went down and had a good time. This was the old-time vaudeville, the old East Coast comics. If you look at some of the old comedians, a lot of them had their start in vaudeville. They were funny without being dirty. Dayton was a hot bed for comedians. But they’re all gone now."
The Mayfair closed its doors for the final time in 1968. The last stripper to perform at the Mayfair was Morganna, (also known as Chesty Morganna) who made headlines for years as the "Kissing Bandit" who would run out onto the baseball fields and kiss the ballplayers. The opera house interior, strewn with debris and dirt, still held onto its tiered balconies to the very last.
On January 19, 1969, the day before the theater was scheduled to be torn down, the building caught fire. Nine fire companies spent almost two hours controlling the blaze. The next morning Laborers Local 110 picketed in front of the old building in protest against the demolition firm of Lowendick & Son of Columbus, claiming that the firm refused to use Dayton workers, bringing his own in from Columbus instead. The razing was completed February 10, 1969. Luckily the statue of the Goddess of Liberty that stood above the theater was saved. It now has a permanent home outside the Dayton Art Institute.
The Convention Center is now located on the site.
New Globe (1917-28)
Ohio Follies (1962-69)
144 South Jefferson Street
Peter Rayburg opened the Globe Theater in 1910. Doomsayers claimed that the theater was sure to fail since it was located south of Main Street and too far away from the center of town. Rayburg proved them wrong. Even with its reputation of showing second and sub-run movies, the theater was a favorite hangout for many children over the years, especially in the 1940’s and 1950’s after it had been renamed the Ohio.
"I spent most of my time at the little cinemas on Jefferson Street, watching Roy Rogers, the Dead End Kids, and Superman," says Bill Hinders. "Mom would give me fifty cents and I learned how to stretch it out by going to the Ohio or the Rialto, where the admission was only half of what other theaters charged. Then I’d have money left over to spend on candy or whatever at Kresge’s after the show."
In 1962 the Ohio was sold to Harry Einhorn. On April 6 that year the theater opened under a new name and new billing policy. Renamed the Ohio Follies, the theater began featuring adult films of an ‘art’ nature. The opening attraction was titled Unashamed, and was billed as a panorama of life in a nature colony.
By the 1960’s real entertainment was also added to the bill On November 26, 1966 the theater showed the movie The Secrets of an Undercover Model. Afterwards, Lynne O’Neill, the star of the movie, went up on stage. Stories of what happened next vary, as they do sometimes.
Police claimed that at one point O’Neill overdid her number and took her G-string off. She was arrested on charges of nudity and released on $100 bond.
O’Neill, on the other hand, claimed that the charge was a made up, "a political job pulled by the other place there" she stated, meaning the Mayfair. "This kind of thing happens all the time in the business and I’ll bet that’s just what happened Saturday night. They can’t stand the competition."
She also claimed to be "no Turkey", slang for a girl who has no finesse about taking her clothes off.
"I have never been arrested before" she claimed. "Why, I’m not like that. I wouldn’t take it all off. It takes away from the class. I studied. Northwestern, you know, and ballet and flamenco.
"The American public is beginning to recognize good art when it sees it. And people are beginning to develop artistic values."
Maybe O’Neill was right. Perhaps that’s why the Ohio Follies began losing patrons in the mid- 1960’s. The theater died a slow death, but finally closed its doors in 1969. A Greyhound bus terminal now sits on the site.
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