Tom Battista: Venture developing with panache 

click to enlarge Tom Battista at R Bistro, located in a section of Mass Ave that he helped revitalize.
  • Tom Battista at R Bistro, located in a section of Mass Ave that he helped revitalize.

Tom Battista is sitting in the courtyard of Bluebeard, the new restaurant that he helped found on Virginia Avenue. It’s a sunny early autumn afternoon. The lunch crowd has departed and the lull enables Battista a brief respite for a sandwich and a little reflection.

Battista is quick to point out that he has nothing to do with running the restaurant — that job belongs to his son, Ed. “I’m the maintenance guy,” he says. But Bluebeard, along with adjoining bakery Amelia’s, are the latest in a series of local endeavors Battista has been instrumental in getting off the ground.

Have you eaten at R Bistro or Black Market? Purchased something sweet from The Best Chocolate In Town, or a bottle from Mass Ave Wine Shoppe? Perhaps you’ve had occasion to peruse the artwork in any of the various galleries that have found an address along the 800 and 900 blocks of Mass Ave.

You could call Battista a venture developer. He’s what all these businesses have in common — the one who acquired and rehabbed buildings no one else wanted, then leased spaces to creative entrepreneurs, giving these folks the chance to take root and make Indianapolis a little more hip.

Even through dark glasses, Battista’s eyes have a twinkle. At the moment, he’s comparing himself to the title character in the 1994 Italian film, Il Postino. “Here’s this postman in a little town in Italy who’s always in the right place at the right time. That’s kind of how I feel,” he says with a bemused smile. “This building was available. A lot of people looked at it, didn’t want anything to do with it. Too much work. I made the offer at the right time.”

If there’s one thing Tom Battista’s not afraid of, it’s hard work. When others have fallen by the wayside, he’s kept going. In a world where, as Woody Allen once famously said, 80 percent of life is showing up, Battista is the guy who’s there, ready to deliver the goods.

A 'C’ student

Battista’s career is, at once, unlikely and extraordinary.

Battista was born in Indianapolis, at St. Vincent’s hospital, Fall Creek and Illinois Street on June 28, 1950. He was one of seven kids; his dad was a pharmacist who owned a drugstore located at 24th and Illinois.

Battista was taught by Jesuits at Brebeuf. “That was back when all the classes were totally separate,” he recalls. “”You never intermingled — and there were no women.”

The Jesuits, he says, “made you inquisitive.” But, by his own account, he was a lack luster student. “I always put everything off until the last minute,” Tom says of his C-student days. “I didn’t mind school, I just never thrived at it.”

It’s not that Battista was lazy. He was otherwise occupied: you could find young Tom helping his grandfather tend the family vegetable garden. Or else he was helping his father at the store. The Battista pharmacy was part of a building the family owned with multiple storefronts and apartments. “We were always remodeling them ... I would help. Of the seven kids, I was the one who was always going with Dad to work.”

When it was time for Battista to graduate from high school, Brebeuf wouldn’t give him a college recommendation. This was serious; the war in Vietnam was in full cry and, without a student deferment to attend college, Tom was almost certain to be drafted. “I had to get that 2-S deferment.”

Battista and his mother went to Bloomington and pleaded for him to be admitted to Indiana University. “They let me in on probation.”

At first, Battista was a business major. But that soon went by the board. “I didn’t think anybody in business interested me. The people that were asking the questions and talking about how history was written by the ruling class, that there was another whole group of people that never got writ- ten about — that interested me.”

When he could, Battista continued to make improvements to his dad’s building. In the meantime, he was also working for “an old concrete guy” named Finn Thornton. “He had a third-grade education but was smarter than most people I’ve ever met. I was working for $2.50 an hour, but I was learning.”

Among the lessons Thornton was imparting were how to set up a job, the importance of being prepared, and the habit of thinking ahead and anticipating next steps.

Foghat at Bush

It all came together during the summer of 1972. Tom was home from college and, as he puts it, “getting ready to drop out from society” on some land he and a friend had recently purchased in southern Indiana.

He had just finished a job for Thornton and was looking forward to a long weekend off when the phone rang. It was friend from high school calling to tell him a rock festival that was supposed to happen west of the city had been pushed to Bush Stadium because the folks in the suburbs decided at the last minute they didn’t want a crowd of hippies descending on them. “He said they got screwed by the establishment. Can you come and help?”

There was no money. Battista wouldn’t get paid. But, in exchange for helping to set up the stage, he and the other workers would get free tickets to see a bill that included Foghat, Chuck Berry and It’s a Beautiful Day. Battista says he wasn’t that into music, but he did want to see how a rock and roll show worked. It turned out that he would be learning from one of the best hands in the business.

Bruce DeForeest was in charge of the production crew. DeForeest had run sound at Woodstock. “He was the greatest guy in the world,” says Battista.

DeForeest was quickly drawn to Battista’s work ethic — that Tom actually knew what he was doing. Battista could set up scaffolding and use a level. Best of all, he could work all day and through the night without a break. “I was way ahead of all these other people who were there for the music. I was there because I knew I could produce what needed to be done in order to have a show.”

Once everything was set up, tickets were handed to Battista and the other workers. “They said to come back tomorrow and we’ll take down the stage and everything else. Well, at noon on Sunday, nobody else showed up. None of the kids that had worked for free to get into the show came back,” says Battista. “I did.”

DeForeest couldn’t believe it. He told Tom he couldn’t pay him, but he offered something even better. He asked Tom if he would help him build a nightclub in New York City. That club turned out to be the legendary Bottom Line.

“Having never been to New York City, I said, 'Sure!’” says Battista today.

He agreed to work for $4 an hour and a place to stay — at the intersection of Bleeker Street and the Bowery. “It’s the hippest area in New York now,” he says, shaking his head. “When I was there it was all bums. I carried my hammer home from work because I was kind of afraid.”

The job took six months. Afterward, the club’s owners flew Battista back to New York from Indianapolis for the opening. “There was Mick Jagger and Edgar and Johnny Winter, James Taylor — all these names I’d known about. They were all in this little 500-seat club that I built.”

Deforeest then asked Battista if he’d sign on as his assistant for David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour. “I didn’t know who David Bowie was,” laughs Battista.

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