A Night at the Red Key Tavern

This month, the city’s most iconic tavern turns 60—the first anniversary for which lovable owner and taskmaster Russel Settle won’t be there to raise a glass.

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THE RULES

Most people learned the hard way. If you wanted a beer at the Red Key Tavern—the bar Russel Settle bought at 52nd and College in 1951 and made his own—you were going to obey Russel’s Rules: No cursing. No dancing. No leaning back in your seat. No putting your feet up. No coats on chairs. No moving of furniture. No credit cards. No standing around. The slightest infraction, legend has it, and you might be shown the door.

Fred Glass, IU athletic director and customer since 1981
Russ wasn’t much for people who came into his place and stirred the pot. My dad owned a bar at 42nd and College called George’s Uptown Tavern, and he found his way over to the Red Key on occasion. I guess he was cantankerous in there, because Russ would decide he’d had enough of him and call my mom to come get him. So when I turned 21 and started going to the Red Key, I always felt like Russ kept an eagle eye out for me because of my dad.

Ben Shine, nonprofit communications manager and customer since the mid 1990s
I usually followed the rules, but I’ve taken a wet rag to the side of the face a few times. He knew who could take it. The truth is, Russ was a softie. He had a hard shell, but he was very sweet on the inside.

Bob Liederbach, retired graphic designer and customer since the 1980s
Russ was aware of his reputation, and he played it up when it suited him. I brought a friend to the Red Key once, and I told her, “You know, you really have to watch your behavior in here.” So she was nervous and fidgeting with the ashtray on the table. Russ saw that and immediately pounced on it. He walked over and asked her, “Do you smoke?” And she meekly said “No.” To which he said, “Then why are you f—ing with my ashtray?”

Don Weaks, housepainter and customer since the 1960s
People would read about this place and then come in and freeze, not knowing quite what to do. And Russ would say, “You can sit down. We have electricity, running water, waitresses. We’ve got it all!”

Tom Chiarella, Esquire writer-at-large and customer since the early 1990s
A friend introduced me to the place and told me I’d love the old man. Well, within the first five minutes, the guy chewed me out. And he was right to do it. I didn’t hang up my coat, I had my feet in the aisle, I had my elbows on the table. Taverns didn’t used to be places where you put on a baseball cap and threw out your manners. I always bitch at my kids about some of the same stuff.

Lana Seacott, Red Key server since the early 1990s
I remember Governor Kernan was standing up at the bar talking to me once, and Russel told him to go sit down. And he did.

Jim Settle, Russel’s son and current owner of the Red Key
Some would say the rules were silly things, but most of them had a purpose—these chairs are 60 years old. It’s not a good idea to lean back on two legs.

Maureen Cox, office manager and customer since the early 1980s
Mr. Dellen of Dellen Oldsmobile came in one night, and every other word out of his mouth was f—. So a couple of days later, Russ went into Dellen Oldsmobile and asked if the owner was there. The salesman said, “Yeah, he’s right over there.” And Russ started shouting “You tell that mother f—er I need to see him right now.” Mr. Dellen came over very alarmed and said, “What are you doing? This is my business.” And Russ said, “That’s what you did in mine.” Then he turned around and walked out.

Nora Spitznogle, NUVO columnist and Red Key server since the early 2000s
Most people didn’t even know what they had done wrong. Russ would bang an ashtray on the table and point at someone, and everyone in the bar would sit up a little straighter.

Chuck Borinstein, sales manager and customer since the early 1980s
I think he threw me out of there for life three times. Then I’d show up a month later, and he’d say, “Where you been?”

THE PERSONALITIES

With dusty model airplanes hanging from the ceiling, worn-out linoleum floors, and 1950s furniture, the Red Key strikes some as a dive (a term Settle vehemently opposed). But the tavern has hosted more than a few politicians and celebrities over the years. You might even call it a power bar—although Settle probably wouldn’t approve of that either.

Bart Peterson, former mayor of Indianapolis and customer since the early 2000s
It doesn’t surprise me that the Red Key has this reputation among power brokers. It’s in Meridian-Kessler, where a lot of community leaders live. Fred Glass and I did some of our best thinking there. And I have this vague memory: He and I were there to discuss dealing with the Colts on a new stadium. A beer bottle got knocked over and rolled off the table, but it didn’t shatter. That was considered a very good sign.

Fred Glass
When I was working as Governor Bayh’s chief of staff, I would bring him in there sometimes. And I convinced him of how important the place was. So when Russel was named Bartender of the Year by Bartender Magazine, they had a big party for him at the Red Key. I stood up and said I had another award to present, and pulled out the Sagamore of the Wabash. The crowd fell completely silent. After that, I was pretty good with old Russel. He even let me move an extra chair to a table on occasion.

Nora Spitznogle
I met Governor O’Bannon there. I met Governor Kernan there. Half of the business in the city is done at the Red Key.

Jim Settle
Larry Bird comes in sometimes, and let me tell you, that man can drink. He’ll put back 10 or 12 beers and he never changes—just the same quiet guy. Dad didn’t know who Kurt Vonnegut was, but everyone says he drank there. Frances Farmer was supposedly a regular. And John Hiatt used to hang out there in his free time. But every time he would play The Vogue and end the show with “See you at the Red Key,” everyone would flock there, and he wouldn’t show up.

Tom Chiarella
I took David Granger, the editor of Esquire, in there. He said the magazine had never had an Indy tavern in its “Best Bars in America.” Well, he loved the Red Key, and he especially liked Russ.

THE FILM

In 1997, a 35-year-old director named Mark Pellington and an unknown actor named Ben Affleck traveled to Indy to adapt local author Dan Wakefield’s 1970 novel, Going All The Way. Because several scenes in the book take place at the Red Key, the crew arranged to film there. And Settle made the ideal extra.

Mark Pellington, former producer of Cold Case
I don’t think we could have made the film without the Red Key. It’s such a predominant character in the novel. And we were shooting a period piece 40 years after the period. The Red Key was just about the only place that still had that vintage look.

Dan Wakefield, author and customer since the early 1950s
Mark invited me to come to Indianapolis a week early, and he and I introduced Ben Affleck to the bar. There’s a line from the movie when one of the characters needs another drink and says, “Hit me again, Russ.” And as we sat there, Mark said just that. I laughed and thought, Man, we’re living the book. We’re living my own history. I grew up at 61st and Winthrop.

Jim Settle
I remember standing out on the sidewalk with Ben Affleck, and I had no idea who he was. Five years later, everybody knew.

Don Weaks
Russ irritated the set people because he was so particular about the ashtrays being clean. They would put a couple of cigarette butts in them as props, and he would come right over and empty them out.

 

Dan Wakefield
He wasn’t crazy about having all the cameras and lights in his bar, but I think he understood the benefit of the publicity. And he remembered me from my younger days at the bar. He said, “I remember you! You’re that kid who was always in here wearing the porkpie hat.”

Mark Pellington
I remember sitting at the bar and listening to Russ spin stories. My dad was in the bar business, so I connect with those guys who hold tight to tradition. When it was time to film, I told him, “Just do what you do every day.” Directing guys like that is the easiest part of my job.

Lana Seacott
Russ attended a preview of the film, but he didn’t see himself. He said, “My name was in the credits, but I’m not in it!” So a couple of years later when it was on TV, we sat him down and pointed out the quick moments he was on-screen. He just smiled shyly and turned away.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD

South Broad Ripple wasn’t always the destination it is today. When the Red Key opened its doors, that name for the area didn’t even exist. Empty storefronts plagued the nearby intersections during the ’70s and ’80s. But Settle’s little bar saw the neighborhood—and its denizens—through good times and bad.

Nora Spitznogle
The Red Key has been the anchor of SoBro for a long time. And it was definitely part of the revitalization there. For a while, when you would hear someone ask where Taste was, the answer was usually “It’s next to the Red Key.” Lately, it’s the other way around. And to that I say, “Nooooooooooooo!”

Ben Shine
I lived in the neighborhood years ago, and the first night I came into the Red Key was its 45th anniversary. Almost before I could sit down at the bar, Russel leaned in and asked, “Are you a Shine?” He recognized me immediately from my dad’s years of coming there and my grandfather, whom he knew. I come from a big Irish Catholic family, so the neighborhood bar-owners love us.

Mike Webb, server, part-time bartender, and a customer since the late 1970s
I was 19 when I first came in, so I was nervous. But Russel had been a prisoner of war, and he always took care of guys in the military. He asked to see some identification, and I pulled out my military ID. He just smiled and said, “What’ll you have?”

Don Weaks
Russ supported a lot of people in the neighborhood. A few years ago, I had a bad illness. The Red Key had a benefit, and I got my rent paid for a year. The Red Key does stuff like that all the time.

Maureen Cox
My husband got sick shortly after we got married, and we were having trouble covering the bills. Well, I walked in one day and there was an envelope with $1,200 in it from Russ and the people at the bar. Some people meet that kind of community at church. We met them at the Red Key.

Lana Seacott
A kid named James Ivy grew up in the neighborhood, and he had cerebral palsy. His parents were gone, so Russ took him under his wing starting when James was about 12. Russ would sneak him cheeseburgers out the back door after James got off the bus. He bought James a bicycle one year, and a lawnmower. As Russ got older, we all had to take that up. James is 53, and he still spends Christmas with the servers.

Maureen Cox
Russ was very close with James, maybe because he himself had mostly grown up in a children’s home. James would ask Russ questions most boys ask their fathers. And because James talked differently, some people in the bar assumed he was loaded. And Russ would snap at that. He’d say, “That’s my son! He’s fine.”

THE MEMORIES

When a tavern survives for six decades, stories about the place accumulate like layers of smoke on the walls.

Jim Settle
I remember all of us kids coming in and sitting at the back table when we were in grade school. And Dad would say, “If anybody comes in, I’ll give you the sign.” Which meant we all had to run out back or downstairs, because we weren’t supposed to be there. In the basement was a walk-in cooler, and to this day, the smell of stale beer reminds me of my childhood.

Chuck Borinstein
If you came in on Christmas Eve, it was the most amazing piece of Americana you had ever seen. The Settle sisters were singing Christmas carols, and Russ was playing on his harmonica. The tree was hanging upside down from the ceiling. It was like walking into a 1940s movie.

Nora Spitznogle
My favorite times were when it was just the two of us in the bar. He taught me that trick of sticking dollar bills in the ceiling, all of which he donated to the Children’s Bureau. Although he said I threw like a girl.

Fred Glass
One of my favorite family stories is about my grandfather walking in front of the Red Key, seeing my uncle who wasn’t 21 through the window, and calling the police. My uncle spent a couple of nights in jail. Even before I was born, it was part of my family history.

Jim Settle
Dad used to tell a story about the Red Key getting held up. The guy came in, flashed a gun at my uncle who was working behind the bar, and said, “This is a holdup.” So my uncle put all the money in a paper bag. Well, right next to the robber was a guy getting a cheeseburger to go, and it was also sitting in a paper bag on the bar. When the robber turned to leave, he grabbed the wrong bag. To which the other guy said, “Hey, where do you think you’re going with my cheeseburger?” The robber apologized and exchanged bags.

Maureen Cox
One night a woman came in with a long fur coat, and Russ asked her to hang it up. She said no, and he asked her again. Well, she stood up and said, “We’re leaving. You’ll never make it in this business.” Little did she know the bar had already been around for almost 50 years.

THE LEGACY

Last April, the Red Key celebrated its 59th anniversary. Although he had retired several years earlier, Settle, who was 92, stopped in as he did every day. He had his usual hamburger and Coke, and then returned the next day for a visit.

Jim Settle
Anniversaries were always a big deal to Dad. People you wouldn’t see all year would come in around that time. He even relaxed the rules a bit.

Nora Spitznogle
One of my favorite things to do was walk Russel out the back door to his car. And for some reason, it occurred to me that I wanted a photo of him that afternoon. I can’t believe he waited for me to run back inside and get my camera. He didn’t like to wait. But I came back and snapped that last shot of him. Of course, he was grumbling “Spitznogle and that camera” the whole time. The next morning, they told me, he woke up, put his head down on the dining-room table, and died.

Don Weaks
If you could take Russ’s abuse, you had $20 when you needed $20. You had a ride home when you needed a ride home. If you never came to the Red Key when the old man was here, you missed a treat.

Lana Seacott
A few years ago, The New York Times did a travel piece on Indy. And the three places they said you shouldn’t miss were Shapiro’s, St. Elmo, and the Red Key. That’s the kind of business Russel created.

Dan Wakefield
Recently, I was a visiting writer at Butler and I stopped in at the Red Key. It hadn’t changed a bit in the nearly 60 years since I first stepped in there.

Jim Settle
Nobody has ever come in and tried to make us change anything. We talked about replacing the floors 15 years ago, and our customers talked us out of it. I’m probably the only person in America who still leases a phone from the phone company.

Leslie Settle, Russel’s granddaughter, bartender since 2007, and future owner
As all of us change, this place stays the same. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to get in here. And one of the first times I bartended, my grandfather was sitting at the end of the bar watching everything I did. Which was intimidating. I just wish he could see me back there now.

 

This article appeared in the April 2011 issue.

 

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