The Melody Inn breathes history

Once upon a time, the Historic Melody Inn, 3826 N. Illinois St., was a place, people wrote, where you could “let your hair down” and “tickle the ivories on the piano.” It says so right there in the article from 1988, mounted on a plaque on the back wall. That was from back in the days when the late Louise Munch owned the place. She also opined that if the right people didn’t take over, “the place would go to hell.”

We’ll leave it to future historians to decide that one.

These days the place is owned by Rob Ondrish and Dave Brown, who are only the sixth owners since the Mel was founded in 1935. Rob Ondrish started working here in 1990 when Munch was still in charge. Much later in the decade, after Munch had passed away, Ondrish recruited his buddy Dave Brown to work the door, and in 2001, they bought the bar from then-owner Gary Neumann. “We’ve been working our asses off ever since,” Ondrish said.

They expanded the Mel’s hours to include every day of the week, opening up at 4:30 in the afternoon weekdays, and instituted a policy of booking both talented local original acts and touring groups from around the country. The Mel has several theme nights every week, including Punk Rock Night Saturdays, Devil’s Night Out Sundays, Drum and Bass Tuesdays and Hellbilly Happy Hour Fridays.

“The main thing we did here was be open, continue to book great bands and be on-site owners,” Ondrish said. “We both loved the place before we had the opportunity to buy it. I was a Melody Inn person way back. Either you come in and love it and you stay forever, or you come in and you’re disgusted and you never come back. And we’re OK with that.”

Continuity of staff certainly has something to do with it. Aside from occasional fill-in employees, the Mel is staffed by just four people: Brown, Ondrish and bartenders J Moss and Nichole Cummins. This creates a certain reliability and sense of security. They love the community, and it loves them back. When Cummins broke several teeth in a fall last December, several punk bands threw a benefit show that paid off a good chunk of her medical bills.

“We have a fantastic clientele,” Ondrish said. “We have so many people who really stand up for us. The reason we can have a full house with only two bartenders and a doorman and a crazy rock and roll show is because people appreciate it and want to help protect it and keep it going. People watch out for us. They help us keep the peace, keep the law, keep the dipshits out. They help keep the friends in check.”

The entire structure bleeds and breathes history. A tree-root chandelier hangs above the floor in the same place it’s been for as long as anyone can remember. The thick, solid cherry bar customers lean on is the original from 1935. Hundreds of band stickers line the walls, along with numerous signed cymbals and busted-up guitars from near-legendary final shows of bands like The Mighty John Waynes.

“We totally embrace the history of the place,” Brown said. “Louise Munch started as a waitress in 1950, and ended up buying the place. She was there until 1994 when she died. She was a fixture there for 44 years. We still get old timers that stop in to this day. We’ll have a couple come in that’s maybe in their 60s and they’ll sit at the bar and say, ‘My wife and I had our first date here when we were Butler students in 1961.’ And that is so cool that they had this place that they feel they can come hang out … We don’t like to look too new. We like the lived-in feel. I hope someday to still be behind that bar, with gray hair, two or three days a week. I want to be a fixture, where 20 or 30 years from now people can come in and say, ‘Damn, Dave Brown, he’s still there.’ The Melody Inn is something that is and always will be something very special to me.”

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