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Legendary Melody Inn Celebrates 17-Year Anniversary with Dave and Rob

By: Amy Foxworthy (foxy at indyintune dot com)
Thursday, October 11, 2018 7:00:00 PM


It’s 9:30 on a Thursday night in Indianapolis and local band Breakes are taking the stage.  The guitar rings out and all chatter stops and everyone zones in on the band.  No one is thinking about the job they have to go to tomorrow, no one is thinking about the traffic they were stuck in earlier, no one is thinking about Donald Trump or the struggles of the world.  Everyone is thinking about how the band sounds and what drink to order next.  Everyone is having a good time and talking with friends, ordering drinks and enjoying music.  It is the purest, most genuine moment in time for everyone here.  There are people taking photos and videotaping.  The walls are covered with fascinating pieces of memorabilia and band stickers.  There is an enormous wooden “chandelier” that sort of looks as though it is made out of large beast antlers and it is covered in Christmas lights.  There is a giant screen where you can watch the band playing regardless of your location inside the bar, and Hubert is running the sound like a total pro, as always. Dave is behind the bar talking about the new sound board to a local musician who frequently performs at the Mel.  The sound is pleasantly amplified but not too loud, there are old people, young people, punk rockers, hipsters, college girls, aspiring filmmakers, and other local musicians just showing up to support.  The Melody Inn is literally a rock and roll family.  But you don’t have to be a “regular” to walk through the door and be taken right into the “family.”   More people start to come in through the door and there are hugs and smiles all around.

Out back in the Smoker’s Garden, just past the PBR Lounge, there is a couple sitting closely to one another, holding hands and having a conversation about their new cat.  There are members of other bands, smoking and debating about music and drinking PBR-- probably the most frequently-ingested beer at The Melody Inn.  There are stickers covering just about everything in sight, there are strings of lights, there are heat lamps turned on in the winter, and in between bands, this is the absolute best spot in the city to make great new friends.

History of The Melody Inn:

Nestled comfortably among the barber shop and the drycleaners at the corner of 38th and Illinois Streets there exists a little bar with a big heart, and a fascinating history to tell.

Prohibition had ended only 2 years prior when the Melody Inn first opened its doors as a piano bar in 1935.  Fast forward 83 years and about 5 owners later and you have The Mel that we know and love today, where music lovers from all over Indy and beyond can see and hear live music every night of the week.

When Robert (Rob) Ondrish worked at The Melody Inn part time after college, he did not have any idea that he would one day own, and along with his friend David (Dave) Brown, transform it into the staple of the Indianapolis music scene that it is today.

Rob and Dave met and became friends when they worked at BMG Music together. Rob told Dave that they needed a door guy at his part time job at The Melody Inn and asked if Dave would be interested.  Fast forward to 2001, together they bought the bar from its previous owner and this month marks their 17th year owning and running The Mel.  In honor of their 17th anniversary of successfully bringing music to Indianapolis, I wanted to celebrate their success and talk with Rob and Dave to share the story of The Melody Inn.

Amy:  What made you want to buy the Melody Inn and how did that all come about?

Dave: The opportunity arose to purchase the Melody Inn because I was working there part time when the former owner decided to put it up for sale.  He asked if I'd be interested in purchasing it, and I jumped at the opportunity.  I didn't have the means to do it on my own, so I asked Rob, who had originally introduced me to the Melody Inn, if he wanted to partner with me.

Rob: When I worked at the Mel after college, it was an old man bar, there was no music.  It had a fully functioning kitchen, and it was a lunch and dinner place that closed every night by 11:00.  The neighborhood was different.  It’s been on a gradual upswing for 20-30 years.  I quit, went on, got married, got divorced, went back to the Mel, and they were booking bands at that point.  There was no PBR Lounge or smokers garden at that point.  After we both quit and went on to other things, Dave calls, “Want to come over?  I have a business proposition….” I was concerned he was trying to get in on some sort of pyramid scheme.  Dave said the owner wanted to sell the bar and he wanted to know if we should buy it.  I had just gotten laid off, and thought, “Might as well, I don’t have anything else going on.”  We had some money saved and jumped into it.  At first it was such a fine line.  We had one employee, and Dave and I worked all of the shifts ourselves.  We did that for a while and business improved and we gradually grew from there.  I always knew I wanted to be self-employed, but never in my wildest dreams thought I’d open a bar.  It never was a goal of mine before.  But, I was familiar with the place, I knew what was going on with it, it was a good opportunity, and we could afford it.

Amy:  Do you remember the first band that you booked/first show at the Melody Inn with you organizing it?  How did that go?

Dave:  I'm not 100% sure if it was the first show I booked, but I think it might have been 2 local bands, The Hundredth Monkey and Monkton.  I remember being very excited that it was so successful.

Rob:  One band called Spite played a lot.  Spite was a hardcore type of a band.  So many people today have so many names for genres and sub-genres, (scream-o, hardcore, whatever) so I don’t know what they’d be classified as today.

Amy:  Over 17 years of booking bands and having concerts at the Melody Inn, can you describe some of the changes have you seen in the Indianapolis music scene?

Dave:  Over the last 17 years, I've seen the local music scene go through several peaks and valleys.  I've seen venues come and go, and bands come and go.  It's pretty strong right now, but we never seem to have quite enough people in Indy who are adventurous enough to come out to see a band they've never heard of.  I can't tell you how many hundreds of times an unknown touring band has passed through the Melody Inn and absolutely blown my mind.  We still need more people in Indy to come out to support these random bands that pass through town.

Rob: The city had gone from where there were a handful of venues at the time-- Locals Only and Birdies--that’s all there was.  We are kind of a victim of our own success. Other people want to have a venue and book bands, now there are a lot more places having shows so it is harder to get local bands to fill slots on a Wednesday.  On the same token we have been of the mindset that the better the music scene is, the better it is for everybody.  We never look at other bars as competition necessarily.  If there are several cool bars that do shows, it grows the music scene and that’s a positive.  With the growth of Fountain Square--there are a lot of people, younger people, in that Fountain Square kind of. They really don’t want to go too far outside of that area, or don’t want to make a trek up to the Mel.  We are a destination; in Fountain Square you can go see a show, walk over to get food, etc.  That is the change. Between the decline of Broad Ripple and the rise of Fountain Square.  I don’t think anyone involved was too upset to see Broad Ripple get kind of displaced.  It was kind of stale, rent was high, and it makes it so the only places can survive are the bro bars.  That doesn’t work well with a live venue.

Amy:  How has owning a venue changed over that time?  How have you adapted from a marketing and promotion aspect as social media took hold?  Were you early adopters of that, or did you hold out?

The Mel:  In a lot of ways, owning the Melody has been the same over these 17 years.  Our biggest challenges are still figuring out how to find enough original bands to fill our calendar and how to attract enough patrons to bring in enough revenue to keep the doors open.  I guess the biggest change that we've had to adapt to was the smoking ban that was forced on us by our Fascist City/County Council.  Our revenue dropped by 20% overnight.  And anyone who has ever owned a small business will tell you, that a 20% drop in revenue will close you down.  It was quite a struggle to stay in business during the year immediately following the ban.  We lost some customers who never came back...particularly the after-work crowd.  Fortunately, we were able to keep our heads above water long enough for people to adapt to the new ordinance.  If we hadn't had the patio out back, I don't know if we would have made it.

As for marketing and promotion, we've done a lot of print advertising over the years and tried to promote to our captive audience in-house with printed events calendars and posters.  We also compiled an email list over the years that we'd advertise to, but I unfortunately lost all those contacts a few years ago when I had a computer meltdown.  And of course, the best form of advertising is when bands aggressively promote to their fans and friends.  I was personally very late to join Facebook, which was a mistake.  We've been working hard over the last few years to figure out how social media could help us promote our business.

Rob:  It’s changed a lot.  The whole method of reaching customers has changed.  7-8 years ago, you had people still advertising in newspapers; now we are seeing the death of newspapers.  At one point that was the way you contacted people: you ran ads. Then with newspapers losing their footing, it was the wild west for a minute.  No one really understood social media yet.  Facebook used to allow you to build up your friends and pretty easily push stuff out to them. Now you can’t just (for free ) make posts that are going to reach the people that you want.  You have to pay for that now.  Advertising has always been kind of a nebulous and murky field.  You can’t really tell who you are reaching, or if you are at all.  It’s difficult for small businesses; we have to be on the Internet, and it is time consuming. We used to long ago print flyers and put them under windshield wipers in broad ripple, and we would advertise in Nuvo. Ultimately it is getting a little more predictable as far as our turnout and reaching people.  Advertising on social media and paying for it, it is so untrackable.  We are better suited for a very targeted narrow approach. We can only fit so many people in here, and a very narrow slice of people are into going to bars and seeing bands that they haven’t heard of.  It is hard enough to get people out on a Monday-Wednesday to see a band they know and like, and really hard to get them to see bands they have never heard of.

You can’t just lean on your friends; bands also have to promote, and people get so much crap on their social media now you can only take so much.  Basically, you have as much time as it takes people to be on the toilet to hope you reach them on social media.

Amy:  How do you go about booking the best bands, every single week?  Do you seek them out, do they come to you and ask to play, a mixture of both?

Dave:  I work with promoters sometimes, but other than Punk Rock Night, which was booked by Greg Brenner for 10 or 11 years and is now booked by Rich Barker, I do most of the booking.  Typically, what happens is a touring band or their management will contact me about a date when they'll be passing through Indy.  If the date is open and I like the band's music, I'll schedule them, then I'll start pounding the pavement locally to get some bands to play with them.

Amy: Can you describe some of your most memorable events/occurrences that have taken place at the Melody Inn in your time there?

Dave:  We've had so many memorable events over the years, that it's hard to single some out.  We're so fortunate to have had guitar legend Dick Dale perform here several times.  And bands like Peelander-Z and Daikaiju who pass through from time to time are incredibly entertaining.  Our anniversary show and the Punk Rock Night Music Awards are highlights every year.  And our annual Halloween tribute nights that we do on back-to-back nights on Halloween weekend are always an absolute blast.  This year on Halloween weekend on Oct 26 and 27, local bands will be performing as Weezer, New Order, Rod Stewart, They Might Be Giants, Soundgarden, Willie Nelson, AC/DC, Nine Inch Nails, Mudhoney, Nerd Herder and The Groovie Ghoulies.  It's gonna be amazing!  Not to mention The Cars and the Guns 'n Roses tributes who will be performing on our anniversary show on Oct 12th.

Rob:  We have seen every technical or human error there could be.   A band that just blew everyone’s head off and left you standing with your mouth hanging open--the first time Peelander Z played there, a Japanese band that dresses up and do crazy theatrics, that is a deal that I don’t think people would forget.  They were running around the bar climbing on things, human bowling, all kinds of crazy stuff.  Ten years or more ago, there was this band called “The Human After Taste”, and they were entertaining.  We had to make them promise not to do a bunch of gross stuff.  The singer was this big beer belly dude with a long mullet thing going, like a Joe Dirt mullet, and wore stonewashed jean tights, a cod piece that was like an elephant’s head, cowboy boots, Nascar hat, aviators, and was very raunchy.  They were vulgar and gross and hysterical and smelled bad; It was ridiculous.  That was one of those like “What the fuck was that?”

They would pick on people in the audience.  Count Jabula was the singer’s name.  They were from Quad Cities.  And they looked like it.  Imagine the worst thing you’d find at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere, next to a porno store.  Every horrible thing you could conjure up in your brain.  So many great bands have been through, from all over the world, from everywhere you can think of.  All manner of shenanigans, we have seen.

Amy:  You have a big anniversary show coming up.  What can we expect to see/hear at The Melody Inn that night; how did you decide who would play that show?

The Mel:   As I mentioned, our anniversary show is always one of the highlights of our year.  We always like to bring in an eclectic mix of some of our favorite bands.  Booking the show this year was quite challenging as we had some strange circumstances arise that ended in 3 disappointing cancellations.  But, we were still able to put together an amazing bill with Minneapolis power pop superstars The Melismatics, local Guns 'n Roses tribute band GnFnR, local tribute to hall of fame rock band The Cars called The Rental Cars, Portland's always entertaining boogie rockers Black Pxssy, and everyone's favorite comedy lounge act The Leisure Kings.

Rob: Every year, we rent tuxes, and have a lot of fun.  Those shows are always a blast.  It brings out a lot of people that don’t come out quite as often.  We have enough people to work that night so we can hang out and party with friends, and not have to worry about too much.  It’s crazy it has been this long.  Other times it feels like 100 years.  Somedays I am exhausted.  Other days it’s like we just started here.  It’s hard to believe we are pushing 20 years.  So many bars have come and gone, and we are still here.  5 years is a lifetime in the bar business.  17 is forever.  At times it is daunting.  We have got our routine down, and we know our place in the mix.

What makes it is the kind of people who come to the Mel, to see live bands, these are people who don’t want to go to a strip mall bar. Or just a generic bar like anyplace else.  It’s the type of person.  We’ve made friends-- people traveling through Indy, people will Uber in from downtown and we have made friends coming through on business, they come see a band, bullshit with us, and we don’t see them for a year.  Also, people who are from here but have moved, and come back for holidays and come back to visit the Mel.  The cool thing about being around so long, there are so many people you come in contact with.  People have met future wife there; it’s a very unique place.  We can’t take credit for starting that.  We just tried to nurture that.  It was a weird place when we got there.  We have tried to grow it instead of make it into something else that it’s not or won’t be.  We are lucky we came into a situation like that; it grew organically.  Our clientele is diverse. We have regulars who are biochemists, attorneys, construction workers, you name it.  It is a ridiculously wide range of socioeconomic and diverse people that have felt at home there and continue to feel at home and keep coming, We are looking forward to seeing a lot of old friends.


Amy: One of the things the Melody Inn is known for, and one of my favorite things about it, is how phenomenal the sound quality is.  Some places it is way too loud, some places the acoustics just aren’t as great, some places seem just a little off in one way or another, but every time I see a show at the Melody Inn the sound quality is perfect.  Is there a secret behind that?

The Mel:  I appreciate your compliments on the sound at Melody Inn.  It really is a strange thing...the room is awkward, the stage is awkward, the speaker placements are awkward, and even the spot where the soundboard is located isn't ideal, but somehow it usually works.  Our sound guys do a great job of setting up and dialing in bands they often have never heard before.  I don't think people understand how challenging that can be.  And of course, the bands play a role in that too by understanding their gear and the room and adapting to our unique set up.  We are also very excited because we coincidentally just purchased a new soundboard last week in Oklahoma City.  This board is an upgrade from the one we had, offering more inputs, mix options, and features...and it sounds great!

Amy: If you could run a venue at any time in history when and where would you choose?

Dave:  You know, as crazy as it sounds, if I could run one rock venue at any time in any location in history, it would still be the Melody Inn from 2001 to now.  I wouldn't trade the bands I've seen, the people I've worked with and the people I've met for anything.  Fate brought me here and it's exactly where I'm supposed to be.

Amy:  If you could book any 4-band lineup from history for a show at The Melody Inn, who would some of the contenders be?

Dave:  Oh my God...for my dream 4-band line-up at Melody Inn, I'd reunite The Smiths, talk Rush into one final show, and bring in The Afghan Whigs and The Cure.  Of course, we'd have to suspend the corn dog service that night for Morrissey, but MAN WOULD IT BE WORTH IT!

Amy:  One of the magical things about the Melody Inn is its ambiance.  From the lighting, to the sound, to the Feng Shui of the setup, to the décor.  What went in to the building of the vibe inside?  The décor, especially.  I feel like every time I come in, I see something new on the wall that I never noticed before.   Tell me about that chandelier, the guitars, the cymbals, and the artwork pieces that cover the walls.

Dave:  Well, the ambiance is definitely one of the cool things about Melody Inn...from the vintage orange bubble lamps on either end of the bar that were donated by my dear friend Marshall Moon, to all of the guitars and cymbals that were broken on our stage and then signed and hung on the walls, to the busted Indycar parts that were donated by buddy Michael Crawford and others...there is definitely a lot to look at.  So many talented people, like Alena Abernathy, have even donated their own original artwork too.  One of the coolest things we have is a signed cymbal from Blue Oyster Cult founder and drummer Albert Bouchard.  I'm still kicking myself for not having him sign a cowbell!  As for the root light, that came from Raccoon Lake 50 years ago.  The former owner Louise Munch put some lights on it and hung it on the ceiling...GENIUS!

Rob – The first thing we put up was a broken guitar.  Someone broke it on stage and we thought it was cool that they destroyed it and we hung it up.  We didn’t seek out any of it.  It just took on a life of its own.  People want to see their stuff, their drum head, cymbal, etc. on the wall.  The bed pan was from a band with some connection to Mojo Nixon made weird shit they sold for merch.  That was something they had decorated and made.  People keep bringing us stuff, and when someone new comes, you can see them walking around and looking at all of it.

Yeah, word on the street is that the chandelier is a driftwood chandelier from Raccoon Lake from the 40’s.  I don’t know when it got there.  There used to be 3 of them.  Louise Munch owned it from 1955-1990 when it was a restaurant bar, and there were 3 of those.  When Gary bought it, he took 2 down, but we have them in the basement.  The PBR lounge has a root thing on the back wall, that one used to be hanging up front.


Amy: One thing people should know if they’ve never been to the Melody Inn?

The Mel:  Someone who has never been to the Melody Inn should know that it's a safe place where everyone is welcome.  It's often said that when you're at the Melody Inn, it feels like you're at a party at a friend's house.

Rob:  When you come, you will make a friend, hear good music; it’s a catch-all.  We like that.  It’s the kind of bar I would want to hang in if I didn’t own it.  Our cover is reasonable, we put good shows together, and if you want to see bands you can pay 5 bucks and see something you like.  If it’s not a band you like, you can get a cheap beer and go out back and bullshit with people.   it is truly a friendly and comfortable place.  It is also a very diverse place; all age groups and lots of walks of life. It’s just a cool place to hang out and see a band you like.

Amy: Any ghost sightings from the diner club days?

Dave:  I'm not sure if there are ghosts at the Melody Inn, but it sure seems like it sometimes.  Man, if these walls could talk...

Amy:  The jukebox at the Melody Inn is award-winning.  How do you assemble an award-winning jukebox selection?

Dave: Our old award-winning jukebox is a mix of famous bands, local bands and some touring bands that have passed through over the years.  She's temperamental, but we just love her.

Fun Quotes About The Melody Inn

We've been playing the Mel annually for a few years now, and it's always a good time. Dave and the staff are the kind of good people that there aren't enough of in the rock and roll world.  My favorite shows were our tour kickoff in 2017 when we met Amy, and the one before, in 2016 when Ricky Rat showed up and we waxed nostalgic about the old Detroit days over endless shots and beers!  - Jeremy Porter (Jeremy Porter and The Tucos)

The Melody Inn has always been a blessing and a home for us!   When Chris Sarber, Joe Hunter, Josh Spellman and I founded a fledgling band there called Sugar Moon Rabbit, we wanted this wonderful venue to host our first show.  The first show was on a blizzardy December evening in 2010, I believe, and the crowd was small but mighty, with hula hoopers in attendance and smiles all around.   Over the years, Sugar Moon Rabbit was blessed to find success, touring regionally and headlining shows at The Vogue, HiFi and others, but our true home has always been The Historic Melody Inn -- and it's there that we wanted to play our final show together last year as we passed the baton to a new generation after ten years together.   

"Dave and Rob have been like family, like slightly mad older brothers always there to support new ideas, musical experiments and fundraisers.   They have brought to town massive national acts to play with local upstarts, always with an eye on the music and community.  One of the best compliments we ever received was from a music critic/observer who noted that the Indianapolis music scene can be segmented by artificial lines and sounds -- but that our crew, "The Mel Crew," was the one that always sought to cross musical boundaries, and who carried with it a true spirit of giving back.  It was always about more than the music. The Mel has been our family and our home, and we can't thank Dave and Rob, Kelsey, Lisa, Hubert, Michael, Stephanie and all the others of their staff for being so kind to us ne'er-do-wells over the past 17 years; they are all gems.   

Dave and Rob's friendship goes well beyond The Mel as well. Dave has been so kind as to pick us up from the airport in Florida when we were in a pinch, then to share a terrific evening of cocktails and reggae on the Gulf Shore. Rob has been there for my bachelor party, my wedding to my gorgeous wife Stephanie, and for the birthday parties of our little men each year, always with a smile on his face and kindness in his heart.” Thanks for the memories, and here's to a thousand more, Dave, Rob and "The Mel!"  You are the simply the best.”  Trevor Potts (Sugar Moon Rabbit, Papa Warfleigh’s Funk Revival)

Russ from the band Bomb Cats:

For me the Mel is important because they support local music like no other local venue. They give new bands the same fair shake and 45-minute set they would give a band that has toured for 40 years. And unlike most of the venues in town, they understand that music lives and breathes with original artists, not tired cover bands and poser singer-songwriters. Long live the Mel.” Russ, The Bomb Cats

Jeff Byrd

Years after woodshedding in my basement, I finally drew enough courage and decided I needed to play my songs and my music before an least once!! Then I could say I tried! So, after some searching I found an opportunity. I played a demo tape for a guy named Zorba Rose who liked to book Singer/Songwriters to open for his band the Drunken Deacons. The Deacons hosted a Friday night showcase at The Melody Inn called the Hillbilly Happy Hour. When I entered The Historic Mel, it was everything I dreamed of in the first venue I’d every play.  Some would call it a dive bar, but I called it “the Mother Church of Local Rock-n-Roll”! It was covered in old pictures of musicians and band logo stickers that said, “yeah I played The Mel”, busted cymbals and guitars from nights of local music glory, seedy characters huddled in booths, the smell of decades of decadence, and the glowing jukebox against the bar with a selection of something for everyone. The night I first took the stage at The Mel was a blur of nerves and a desperate effort to make it through a shaky 45-minute performance for a few family and friends. From the looks on the members of the Drunken Deacons Faces, I was horrible!! There was a lot of upset looks between them and whispering, and I had a sick, sinking feeling that I had embarrassed and humiliated myself up there on stage! What I found out later in the evening was the band had broken up moments before I played my first song!! It wasn’t me, but I had been a witness and part of a historic moment in local music history, the last performance of the Drunken Deacons! With my confidence restored, I have played The Historic Melody Inn numerous times over the years and finally had a bucket list dream come pink SG guitar that I smashed at a “Clash Tribute Show” now hangs above the pool table by the deer’s head!! Check it out the next time you enter the “Mother Church of Local Rock-n-Roll” ...The Historic Melody Inn!”

In closing, the guys at the MEL have impeccable taste, and they know the scene well enough to know what will “work” and will not.  Their booking is stellar, and there is never a disappointing night.  Between the phenomenal, hard working locals, and the touring bands passing through, Dave and Rob always put together the perfect night of music, regardless of the mood you might have been in when you entered the bar.

I’ve met some of my best friends just by being at the Mel at the same time. I’ve seen some of the best bands I’ve ever seen there, I’ve made friendships and lasting bonds that will never fade; none of which could have ever happened without the Melody Inn.

Every big city has their own version of the “CBGB,”(The Crocodile in Seattle, The Cavern in Liverpool, The Mudd Club, The Fillmore, The Troubadour, The Whiskey a Go Go, The 40 Watt Club), where all of the bands want to play, and where the various cultures and countercultures come together to celebrate live music and the occasional adult beverage.  Indianapolis is no exception. Thanks to Dave Brown and Rob Ondrish, Indy has our own legendary live music spot where all are welcome and accepted, every night of the week.

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