Scene75 mastermind fights through the storm to bring back entertainment

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

In 2012, Jonah Sandler, a Chicago native raised in Cincinnati, opened what would become an epicenter of fun for families across the Miami Valley and beyond.

“At a young age, my family, friends and teachers taught me the importance of hard work, to be respectful of others, and to always try to contribute more than one takes,” said Sandler, founder and chief entertainment officer at Scene75.

The future entertainment guru graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2004, and The University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 2009.

“I ultimately chose to move back to Ohio in 2009 to try to help my family, build something unique for a community and to follow a career path of deep, personal meaning," Sandler said.

The vision was at first murky, but Sandler’s dream was to help his father convert a building that his father and partners owned into an entertainment center. That center would open as the first Scene75 in 2012.

Extensive damage from the 2019 Memorial Day Tornadoes that tore through the Miami Valley closed Scene75′s first location at 6196 Poe Ave. in Dayton for over a year. But later this month, the entertainment center will reopen, and the public will get to see the hard work Sandler and the rest of the Scene75 team have put in for 18 long months.

Here’s more from Sandler — our Daytonian of the Week.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

🎠 What first gave you the idea to start a project, a business like Scene75? Was it more daunting or exciting to start building the business?

The vision at the time was murky, the dollars scarce, and the plan, at best, undefined. Nevertheless, my father and I both firmly believed that there was a void of entertainment options in Dayton, and I was energized by the prospect of not only helping my family during a financially challenging time but also of building something that could be meaningful to a community.

As I began the research process, we encountered many naysayers locally and within the entertainment industry who said that Scene75 could not and would not work. They offered many reasons at the time for their doubts including, but certainly not limited to: Dayton cannot support a project of such size, the building is simply too big for an entertainment center, the columns are not spaced out adequately for the activities within, and that the venue would be located on the wrong side of the highway.

Yet the vision formalized with each day of research and planning; I attended dozens of industry seminars, read virtually every related publication, visited more than 100 entertainment centers near and far, and spent countless evenings putting pen to paper to try to solidify the plan. Short on capital yet long on ideas, we worked with vendors to create unique partnership opportunities within the building, ultimately giving birth to the original Scene75.

Starting any business, no matter the size or perceived difficulty, requires a great deal of grit, determination, and hard work. While creating Scene75 was daunting given we were building, at the time, the largest indoor family entertainment center in the country (our Columbus location has since claimed that title), I was so entrenched in the project and in complete flow with the work itself that hours spent working seemed to pass by in minutes. I loved what I was doing, and frankly, continue to feel similarly to this day despite the challenges we face.

🎠 When the Memorial Day Tornadoes hit the Dayton Scene75, what were some of the emotions you and the Scene75 team were going through?

The morning of the tornados, my mom called me at 4 a.m. from Cincinnati to tell me, and I quote, “Scene75 is gone.” Not quite following, I asked her, ‘What do you mean Scene75 is gone?’. She cried hysterically, ‘It is gone. It is gone. The tornado destroyed Scene75.’ I quickly said goodbye, hung up the phone, jumped into my car, and drove to the site.

As I drove south on I-75 to the Poe-Wyse Connector, I breathed a very short sigh of relief upon noticing from a distance, that in fact, Scene75 was still there. But as I continued down the road, I quickly realized that our neighboring business, 84 Lumber, was virtually non-existent — the entire shed was annihilated. And then as I continued and ultimately pulled into the Scene75 parking lot, I navigated my car around piles of sheet metal, a broken Ruby Tuesday restaurant sign that had landed on our lot from across the highway, and more debris than I care to recall.

In complete and utter shock, I parked the car and noticed that our vestibule had caved in and our volleyball fencing had been destroyed. As I exited the car, several team members already on site came running to me, tears in eyes, to give me a hug. I did not yet fully understand the damage until I progressed into the building. At that point, my heart felt hundreds of pounds heavier. Water, ranging from 3 inches to 2.5 feet deep, filled the building, carrying with it hundreds of pieces of drywall debris. In disbelief, I continued through the building to find entire sections of roof missing from the building, flooded attractions, games full of water, mangled columns that took a direct hit from the storm, and walls that once stood 36 feet tall missing entirely.

We still do not know what happened to our air conditioning units that sat on top of our building — five units, each weighing several tons, remain completely unaccounted for to this day.

As I assessed the extent of the damage, I realized that I did not know what to do other than be with my team. Together, as a collective support unit, we started to share stories, tears, and hugs while picking up the debris of a place that once brought so much joy to us and to millions of guests over the years. For me and for my team, Scene75 was our second home, and to see it in shambles brought us all deep feelings of sorrow. None of us knew how long it would take to rebuild; we only knew that we would.

Now, 18 months after the storm, our team is so proud of what we have collectively rebuilt and what awaits for our community to enjoy. We are coming back bigger, better and stronger — and with the same team that experienced the damage, assisted with the clean-up, pushed through the downtime, and spirited the rebuild. Together, we are all Scene75.

🎠What has the Dayton community’s support been like since opening in 2012, but especially throughout this rebuilding phase?

Since Before the Doors Opened — which is also the name of the book I wrote in 2013 that highlights the opening of Scene75 — this community has embraced us wholeheartedly. They have experienced our passion, our drive, our commitment, and our desire to continually improve, to deliver the absolute best in entertainment, and to give back to the community that gives so much to us. In truth, the community has celebrated with us from the beginning in the form of date nights, family reunions, birthday parties, team outings, and company events, and most recently, cried with us through the downtime.

And as we prepare to reopen, they remain steadfast in their support and are eager to create new memories with us in the bigger, better, stronger Scene75. My team and I have been approached by community members almost daily for the past year and a half to find out how we are doing, when we are reopening, and how they can support us. They have shared their own personal stories of Scene75 with us, as well as how much they miss having us in town. Dayton is truly an amazing community; we are eager to bring back the fun.

🎠What have been some of the best memories you and your family, Scene75 family, have made since opening the business?

I have so many amazing memories to share, but here are a few of my favorites:

· Halloween: It is a perennial team and community favorite. Each year, we host a free indoor trick-or-treat event. In 2012, for our very first trick-or-treat event, we created, announced, planned, prepared, and hosted the trick-or-treat on the same day with no prior preparation — it was the weather that day and the desire from the community that led us to host such an impromptu event. Within minutes of the start of the event, only hours after announcing it, we had 50 people in costume. By the end of the night, we had a full-parking lot, a line of traffic waiting to pull into our parking lot from Poe Avenue, and dozens of cars waiting to turn off the I-75 exit ramp. We hosted nearly 3,000 trick-or-treaters that night on six hours notice. And the event, HalloScene, has continued at each of our locations with similar results since originating in 2012. Thousands attend this event at each location every year.

· Weddings: We have hosted many weddings, including the marriage of team members and guests who have met and wed within our venue. With the brand new banquet center opening in our facility, we are thrilled to be able to offer an even bigger and better space that will allow for our community to celebrate some of the most important days of their lives.

· Birthdays: While we have hosted nearly 10,000 private birthday parties since we first opened in 2012, I believe one of my favorites was the surprise party my team hosted for me the year after we opened! Let’s just say that laser tag throughout a 124,000 square foot facility (now 164,000) is pure awesomeness! I recall team members that night were literally hiding in storage bins to try to avoid being tagged.

· Special events: While participating barefoot in a special event luau on our outdoor sand volleyball courts, I was asked mid-event to help our team inside the building. I quickly put on my shoes to assist, only to learn ten minutes later that a guest on the courts informed our staff that someone had stolen his shoes. Little did I know that I was the culprit — unknowingly, I tossed on his shoes instead of mine! Oops. I now like to explain that I wanted to see our venue from a guest’s perspective and thus needed to walk a mile in his shoes to truly understand.

· Awards. We have been so fortunate to win many local, regional and national awards. I will always cherish taking the stage with my dad (with mom and team in the audience) in Orlando upon Scene75 being named IAAPA’s Top Family Entertainment Center in North America in 2016. While being named the winner was the crowning moment, it was also the first time in the award ceremony’s history that two of the top three family entertainment centers were of the same brand (Scene75 Dayton and Scene75 Cincinnati).

About the Author