The sign on the window of the ticket booth at the Melody Cruise drive-in theater says closed. For the first in over fifty years, the theater really means it. The Melody has occupied these former Ohio corn fields since 1955 and was one of the few outdoor theaters left in the area; a growing victim of changing tastes in audiences more likely to stream a movie on Netflix or Hulu than fight mosquitos and raindrops in an outdoor theater.
Hollywood changed too. Theater owners have been dreading for years the threat they would have to upgrade to expensive all digital projection equipment, requiring tens of thousands of dollars in investment. Just like indoor theaters, the movie distributers would no longer mail out giant reels of 35mm movie film to drive-ins. All first run films would now have to be digital and essentially downloaded onto theater hard drives before being projected. This past year, the distributers made good on their threat.
Just across the street from the Melody, the weeds have obliterated whatever was left of the Showboat Drive-in-Once considered the most deluxe of the half dozen outdoor movie theaters just outside the city limits and big city lights. The Showboat closed in the 1980’s, but within a few years, the casual observer would never know it existed. Drive in’s in America reached their peak in the early 1960’s with over 4,000 screens and represented nearly a quarter of all theaters. Today less 350 drive in’s are still open for business in the United States, and most of them seasonal.
Although many drive in’s have upgraded to using the FM radio in the car to hear the movie, some still use the ages-old mono speaker that fits on your window sill. More than a few folks have accidentally driven off with the movie speaker still attached to their car at the end of the night.
Cars used to line up on either side of the concession stand and the booth with the giant and powerful film projectors. A playground for children and benches for those wanting a break from sitting in the car or in between shows.
“Let’s all go the lobby” and other vintage countdown clocks still were still shown between movies to rustle up business at the concession stand. The smell of popcorn through an open car window often too much of a draw to ignore. Eating was at least on par as watching the movie. “Herbie the Love Bug” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” didn’t require an uninterrupted attention span to follow the story line.
The Melody managed to attract more customers each weekend of the summer by offering two double-features. Cars faced one direction to see a more adult movie and an opposite screen to watch more family fare. When these photos were taken in 2010, Despicable Me was playing. Ironically, one of the last films to be shown last summer was Despicable Me 2.
The Melody put on a quite the light show after dark. Before Interstate 70, when Route 40 was the main highway going east and west-the Old National Road-the diners, motels, road-side attractions and drive-ins would pull in locals and travelers alike. Like it’s more famous cousin, Route 66, farther west, Old 40 as it now known is a lonesome backroad and well off the beaten path. Thanks to nostalgia and locals, a few places like the Melody Cruise beat the odds, but even that time has now passed.