"Nostalgia is kind of a funny thing," says the man next to me. He tells me his name is Karl — "with a K" — Scharnberg. He is drinking a beer and so am I. The best conversations happen over a beer. "When you look back, no matter if an experience was good or bad, you always think it was good. It's easy to always think, those were the good ol' days."
The Red Key Tavern is the embodiment of nostalgia. The English landscapes on the walls have decades of residue covering them. The various model airplanes dangling from the ceiling (a tradition started by the current owner's brother) are remnants of an older time. The floors are so well worn, you find the points of interest just by looking down. The newest song on the jukebox (consisting of the original owner, Russell Settle's personal 45 collection) was recorded in the '50s. It's easy to feel like you've come unstuck in time — like in a Vonnegut novel — and made your way into the past. Any trip to this watering hole is like stepping back into the good ol' days.
If you've driven through the College Avenue and 52nd Street intersection, you've undoubtedly seen the famous (currently defunct) Red Key Tavern neon sign. The classic Manhattan glass (their signature drink; my favorite in the city) and the musical notes that represent the first four notes to a classic Prohibition song, How Dry I Am (you won't be wondering this when you leave), are the perfect symbols to represent this piece of Indianapolis history.
Russell and his brother-in-law purchased the Red Key in 1951. It had originally been a Piggly Wiggly before changing into the Old English Pub in 1933, and quickly becoming the Red Key Tavern in 1935. Russell was fresh out of the military and ready to start his career. He first opened The Corner Crossroad Tavern, a short lived bar on the city's Southside; and when the spot opened on College he moved his operation to SoBro. Ever since then it has been a neighborhood staple, garnering business from people from the area and more recently people looking to step into a part of history.
Jim Settle — Russ' son and the current owner — and I sit in a booth by the front entrance. Jim is drinking out of a coffee cup and I'm drinking a Warsteiner — this is the only place I drink Warsteiners, I don't know why, but it seems to fit the ambience. "Honestly not much has changed since 1951 other than adding the ATM; and that was out of necessity," says Jim. "Over time, less and less people carry cash and I was losing customers ... We also stopped serving any fried foods because a fryer almost burned the place down at one point. We still serve our burgers out of the same cast iron skillets that have always been in the kitchen though." Their burgers have been voted best in Indy by multiple outlets and one bite will show you why.
Jim tries to keep the place as similar to his father's vision as he can. Russ passed away in 2010. So it goes. But he left his mark on the place with his infamous Russ' Rules. Even the most regular of regulars have had run-ins with the rules.
"I was sitting at the bar, it was my first time here and I think I said 'Fuck'," Karl tells me. "Russ came down and warned me. Not five minutes later, not thinking about it, I said it again and he came down and said 'You've gotta go'. I asked if I could finish my beer and he said 'No' and so I got up and left, thinking I'd never come back." Yet, here I am sitting next to Karl, and he has been coming back for over twenty years. This time he finishes his beer.
If you've heard of the Red Key Tavern, then you most likely have heard of Russ' Rules. You probably know someone that was tossed out at one time or another for cussing, or putting their feet on the furniture. But they still go back time and time again, because the place has a magical quality. It has charm and wistfulness and integrity; character traits that are missing from most modern bars.
"I never realized how often he did kick people out," Jim says of his father. "But I have more and more people tell stories of it, and I'm always surprised." The rules live on despite Russ' passing. "I'm a little more lenient, but I see why he had them. They're really just rules to live by. You go to your grandmother's house, this is the way you act. You go to Russell's house, this is the way you act; and this basically was his home. I think he spent more time here than he did at home."
In his home away from home, Russ saw an opportunity to help his community. Russ' father had died when he was ten, and so he and his siblings were raised in the Franklin Masonic Home. "Having been raised in a children's home, I think my dad wanted to give back and to help children in his same situation. It started with the trick of sticking the money to the ceiling." Jim motions to the only white tile with a few bills on it, including a crisp $100 bill. "He would take all of that money and give it originally to a children's charity through the police department, but then for years he gave to the Pleasant Run Children's Home. Once that went out of business, my sister-in-law, who works for the Children's Bureau, suggested we go with them, and so now that's where all the donations go." In all, the Red Key Tavern and its patrons have donated over $250,000 to charities in the Indianapolis area.
"I think my Dad's generosity and his desire to give back is what really set this place apart and made it what it is."
What it is, is a piece of Indianapolis' history. While giving back to its community is a wonderful part of the Red Key (and something you can still help them do today, just hand the bartender cash and they'll stick it to the ceiling) it holds a place in people's hearts for more reasons than that; it has thousands of stories to tell through those that have made their way into the comforting tavern. One such member of our community is author Dan Wakefield. Wakefield used the Red Key as a backdrop in his novel, Going All The Way. Scenes from the 1997 film, starring Ben Affleck and Jeremy Davies were also filmed in the bar.
"If you ever want to talk to Uncle Dan (as they call him), just walk over and start chatting with him," says the Red Key's in-house photographer and website designer, Michael Thierwechter (Mike T). Wakefield still visits the Red Key and he is always happy to chat with patrons and to tell stories.
Another famous Indiana author and one of Dan's friends, Kurt Vonnegut is also said to have been in the tavern. However, Jim tells me, "There's always been a debate on whether Vonnegut ever came in here, due to the timeline of his life. But now we have photo proof of a Vonnegut in here." He points to a photo above us that features Kurt's eldest son, Mark, sitting with Dan Wakefield in the very seats we are in. While Dan, Kurt (allegedly), Mark and many others that have had a drink here are professional storytellers, there isn't a person that calls The Red Key their neighborhood bar, that doesn't have a story to tell. It is a place to listen, to allow yourself to be pulled back ceaselessly into the past and to let a stranger give you a history lesson.
"Dad had originally planned to open the place on April 1, but he got superstitious about opening it on April Fool's Day, so he pushed it off until April 2." The Red Key Tavern is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year on April 2. There will be plenty of regulars around that day telling stories. You can have a conversation over a special beer being created for the event by the local Bier Brewery. The beer is called Sixty Five and it is — fittingly — a red ale. The can will feature its own set of rules, paying homage to Russ. So, come in, have a drink or two and feel a little nostalgia.
"If I came back in 65 years, all I could hope for is that it was still in my family's hands (Jim's daughter Leslie is set to take over after him) and even though I know it will change a little, I really hope it won't change much. I hope it stands the test of time." Jim says, answering my final question. Sitting in this booth, my glass of Warsteiner now just a glass, I can't help but think that this place will always be here, that I will be coming back for its 100th anniversary. It is a part of our city's history. It has and will always stand the test of time.
If you want to help light the Red Key sign back up, go to: gofundme.com/redkeytavernneon