July 27: M.E.L.S. at the Starlite Drive-In Theatre, Thorntown IN

Drive-In concession stand and screen at twilight

Photo from the M.E.L.S.’ Facebook page

It’s Day 208 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. I went from a half hour southeast of Indianapolis (the Skyline Drive-In Theatre east of Shelbyville) to a half hour northwest of Indianapolis. Add in the time it took to drive the interstate loop through Indianapolis, and it was almost an hour and a half before I arrived at M.E.L.S. at the Starlite Drive-In Theatre, just north of Mechanicsburg, although the drive-in claims its home town as Thorntown nine miles away.

According to a July 1998 article in the Indianapolis Star, Harry Ziegler founded the drive-in in 1946, showing movies “on a 16mm projector he operated from a chicken coop.” Some sources say it was the Outdoor Drive-In at that point, but by the end of the decade it was definitely the Frankfort-Lebanon. By that time, projectionist Harry Boyland was running two huge Motiograph 35mm units in a job he held until a few weeks before he died in July 1988.

Ziegler put the Frankfort-Lebanon up for sale in 1970, and sold it to John Osborne in 1972. The screen used to sit on the south side of the property until a tornado came through; it was rebuilt on its current location on the west side. In 1986, Osborne told the Star that he treasured the remaining posts of that first screen, “watched by patrons who sat on benches.” At some point, Osborne changed the name to the Starlite. (It may also have been known as the Mechanicsburg Drive-In.)

Mike and Melanie Roth bought the place in 1994, fixed it up and named it Mel’s after Melanie. The 1998 article said that business was already booming. Rick and Elaine Dearduff bought the drive-in in 2003; that may have been when they added the periods to make it M.E.L.S. A Journal & Courier article from May 2017 said they were running a Kickstarter campaign to finance a digital projector, but since the drive-in’s been showing current movies all season, they probably found their new projector.

Maps and schedules conspired to make this Thursday a night off, my first since June 1. There are enough weekend-only drive-ins in central Indiana that I just couldn’t fit them all in those magic two or three days. At least I got a chance to turn in early to get ready for another long string of movie nights under the stars.

Miles Today / Total:  75 / 26009 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 123

Nearby Restaurant: As I’ve said before, a nice thing about relatively short drives is that I arrive in plenty of time for breakfast food. Flap-Jack’s in Lebanon (between Indianapolis and Mechanicsburg) is pretty much what you’d expect from the name, a restaurant that specializes in buttermilk pancakes. I enjoyed the Farmhouse Benedict with a pork tenderloin, plus some silver dollar flapjacks, just to stay on theme.

Where I Virtually Stayed: There are no hotels in Mechanicsburg or Thorntown. The closest are in Frankfort to the north and Lebanon to the south. I picked Lebanon, closer to my next stop, for its Holiday Inn Express. My room had the full set of amenities, breakfast was HIE standard, and the hot tub looked inviting.

Only in Thorntown: A few miles north of Thorntown on US 52 is an unusual roadside marker commemorating the first successful Caesarean section in Indiana. It reads, “On the kitchen table of this house, the morning of November 6, 1880, Mrs. Luther Lucas, a farmer’s wife, was delivered of a healthy infant son, after a mid-line incision made by Dr. Moses Baker, a pioneer physician-surgeon of Stockwell. Observed by six attending doctors who refused responsibility for its success or failure, it became the first in Indiana medical history in which both mother and child lived.” According to Roadside America, the house is gone, but the marker remains.

Next stop: Canary Creek Cinemas, Franklin IN.

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