To some a night out at the movie theater qualifies as a pleasant diversion, a place to take your date after dinner, an easygoing way to kill a few hours. To others, however, going to see a film can be an almost religious experience—quietly sitting enveloped in darkness, the outside world forgotten, these true movie lovers find themselves consumed by the action on the screen. Acolytes such as these, paying homage to their favorite actors and directors, make up a small but very passionate percentage of the moviegoing public—and these are exactly the people for whom Dayton’s Neon exists.

“I love that it is small,” says local novelist and Oakwood resident Molly Campbell, author of the books Keep the Ends Loose and Crossing the Street and a regular at the Neon. “The selection of movies is terrific. The seats are comfy. And it is ours ... I support local businesses!”

Brian Holsten, a self-described film buff from Kettering whose walls are covered with signed film posters and an amazing collection of Lone Ranger memorabilia, agrees. “It’s a nice little theater,” he says. “I like the selection. The Neon is more affordable than the big chains, with delicious popcorn, and it shows movies the big theaters don’t. And it’s near restaurants and bars to make it a complete date night. I would’ve had to wait for the Blu-ray to see movies like Colossal or The Hero if it wasn’t for the Neon.”

The Neon has been a local institution for more than 30 years now. Located at 130 E. Fifth St., near the western end of the Oregon District, the theater has been a beloved attraction for Dayton filmgoers since it first welcomed movie lovers through its doors on Aug. 22, 1986, with a showing of the 1939 Civil War classic Gone With the Wind. At the time it was called The Dayton Movies and not only was it the first motion picture house to be built in downtown Dayton in 64 years it was also the first downtown theater in more than 20 years to have been built in a major city anywhere in the United States.

Since that time, the Neon, as the theater is now known, has continued to be a focal point for Miami Valley residents to gather together and celebrate the beloved art form of motion pictures. General Manager Jonathan McNeal, a Salem, Ohio, native who graduated from Wright State University in 2000 with a degree in motion picture production, keeps the theater going and keeps film buffs coming back by providing a steady schedule of interesting, sometimes offbeat, and often hard-to-find films for the local community.

“I’ve been here since 2001 when the theater was undergoing major renovations to become two screens instead of one,” says McNeal. “I’ve been general manager for all of that time.” 

McNeal’s love of cinema is obvious, and when I refer to the Neon as a “repertory theater,” he is quick to correct my mistake. “I wouldn’t call it repertory,” he says. “Repertory kind of indicates you’re showing older films. We call ourselves an art house and we feature foreign and independent films.

“One positive aspect of what we do is that we bring quality films to the community, films that many may not have ever heard of,” he says. “I do get that a lot when I’m out and around, people saying ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of that one before.’ But being able to go to places like the Toronto International Film Festival and see 30-plus films over the course of a week and a half and then bringing back the ones that I think really will perform well and that our core audience will respond to, that’s certainly a big perk in my job.”

As McNeal states, the Neon can always be counted on to provide discriminating viewers films which are a bit more off the beaten path, so to speak, than the fare usually offered at your local Cineplex. While the local mega-chain theaters are filling their seats with computer generated imagery-laden superhero blockbusters and shoot-em-up action flicks, the Neon quietly marches to its own beat. The schedule of coming attractions at the Neon recently included acclaimed documentaries such as Pope Francis - A Man of His Word and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a film about beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers, along with little-known but well-received indie films such as Beast, American Animals, and The Rider, which was nominated for Best Picture at the 2018 Independent Spirit Awards.

“We have a lot of support from the local community,” says McNeal. “In fact, we’ve been growing steadily over the past decade. The theater sometimes found it a struggle to keep the doors open, especially back in the ’90s, but we’ve been in the black for several years now.”

For many Dayton residents the theater will always be the home of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and its attendant craziness, but other special events and presentations have also helped to define the Neon over the years. For roughly three years back in the ’90s, from 1996-1999, the theater was the only American movie theater in decades to show films in full three-panel Cinerama, thanks to the efforts of Dayton projectionist John Harvey. The experiment, while never intended to be permanent, drew national attention to the theater and eventually attracted such legendary film critics as Leonard Maltin and directors Joe Dante and Quentin Tarantino to Dayton. The theater also hosts an annual event where viewers celebrate and enjoy the Academy Awards—made extra special during this past year’s awards show when Dayton native Allison Janney won an award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Tonya Harding’s mother in the film I, Tonya.

Ultimately, however, while the special events are welcome it is the films and the theater itself that draws moviegoers back week after week and film after film.

“I just love the atmosphere,” Fairborn resident Lisa Trimble says. “It’s interesting and eclectic selection of films and moviegoers. It has a big city feel for a small town theater… just an awesome place.”



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