Social Media: Historic Photos from the Indianapolis Press Club
The closing of the Indianapolis Press Club marked the end of an era when journalists openly caroused with politicos, celebrities, and one another. Ten years later, photos recall an institution that for all its off-color moments—the copious consumption of liquor, the scantily clad women—brought together public servants and the people who covered them in a way that is rarer today.
On an April night in 1934, in a basement beneath the Pennhoff Grille at 23 North Pennsylvania Street, seven newspapermen formed the Indianapolis Press Club over beers, baloney, and poker. It would promote “social enjoyment and fellowship among its members” and “foster the ethical standards of the newspaper profession,” as set forth in its articles of incorporation. Annual dues were $5.
Prior to that, publishers in the city’s fiercely competitive print media, crowded with the Indianapolis Star, News, and Times dailies and the United Press, International News, and Associated Press wire services, feared that reporters would share scoops—or worse, drinks. “One publisher let it be known that it would have his approval only if the club served no alcoholic beverages,” The Star ’s James E. Farmer wrote in Dateline: Indiana, a history of the group’s first 25 years. “The club idea was dropped.” Instead, newspapermen met in each other’s houses and home-brewed beer.
When Prohibition ended, the boozy, bawdy days of the Indianapolis Press Club began. Patrons favored a martini “so potent that on the third sip” their tongues would be “paralyzed,” as the 25-year history notes. At their peak, club rolls boasted nearly 1,000 members, bolstered by officeholders, lobbyists, and PR professionals. Harried reporters could finish stories while eating at a “Deadline Table” with expedited wait service, while candidates politicked and state Supreme Court justices lunched on vegetable soup and chicken potpie. At night, parties and events might include skimpily dressed ladies, illicit gambling, or one in a procession of celebrities, from Jayne Mansfield to Gene Autry to Liberace.
By the 2000s, the Times and News were gone, and membership dwindled. Seventy years and four buildings after its first meeting, the club closed the doors at its final location in the Indiana State Teachers Association basement in 2004. All that remains are the charitable Indianapolis Press Club Foundation, photos, and surviving members who fondly recall a fun-loving journalists’ haunt near the epicenter of the city’s political and social life.
Bob Hope, Governor Henry Schricker, and Press Club president and AP bureau chief John Jameson were among the participants at one of the annual press–radio baseball games at Victory Field (later renamed Bush Stadium), a tradition that began in 1948. Before 1960, broadcasters could only attain “B” membership in the club, which came with lesser status than “A” members who held editorial jobs with a newspaper or wire service. Lobbyists and politicians held “C” memberships.
As the story goes, in the 1950s a visitor signed the Press Club’s white-painted piano, on which Hoosier songwriter and musician Hoagy Carmichael had once played “Stardust” during a performance at the club’s Monument Circle location in 1946. Decades later, the piano was covered in celebrity signatures from the likes of Red Skelton, Phyllis Diller, and Wayne Newton. When the club closed in 2004, prominent publicist and longtime member Myra Borshoff Cook acquired it at auction for $2,000. Today, it sits in the office of her public-relations firm at 47 South Pennsylvania Street—just a couple of blocks from the club’s original location.
The Press Club hosted its inaugural Gridiron Dinner in 1947, based on the National Press Club event of the same name, where politicians were roasted—or “taken over the griddle”—by journalists. The first roastee, Governor Ralph F. Gates, was said to have “fidgeted like the writing finger of an over-worked lie detector machine as his ‘sins and errors’ were portrayed in skits featuring press and radio actors,” according to a later account. Heavy-hitters continued to headline and hobnob at the dinners over the years. The Gridiron skit became a tradition, complete with costumes (and, evidently, male actors in drag).
Early on, Indy’s organization of journalists was as much a boys’ club as it was a press club, complete with a separate “stag room.” Women weren’t granted full membership until 1969, and skin-baring “Gridiron Girls” were a trademark of the club’s annual Gridiron dinner and roast. “We’d recruit models from a local department store,” says Joe Young, a former News photographer who used to help organize the event.
At the Pennhoff Grille (original menu above), “friendly Irishman” Mike Hanrahan sold Old Fashioneds for 35 cents and offered up the basement as a rent-free meeting place for his friends in the press, earning himself a lifetime honorary membership. Maurice Early, a political reporter and columnist for The Star, and Robert Hoover, a reporter and photographer for The News, were the club’s first and second presidents.
The club later moved to the Pretzel Bell Tavern at 117 North Illinois Street and then to Monument Circle. In 1941, Indiana State Police Superintendent Al Feeney became the first non-press member to gain access; earlier, as Marion County Sheriff, he had looked the other way when the club ran slot machines and gambling nights. He campaigned successfully for Indianapolis mayor from a phone booth at the club.
Two fires in 1953 forced another relocation, to 136 West Market Street. By 1958, the club had a penthouse (right) in the Indiana State Teachers Association building at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Market Street, and a veranda with a sweeping Statehouse view.
Members looked for any reason to organize a fete. “It’s no dog’s life, the life of the Press Club,” according to an account in the book Dateline: Indiana. “At least five times a year, the club rooms are packed with happy, laughing people.”
Surviving photos seem to depict a diverse staff and a whites-only membership, more a reflection of Indy society and media than any club policy. ”I would go over there from time to time,” says Reginald Bishop, an African American and a News columnist from 1972 to ’83. “There wasn’t any kind of problem. There just weren’t many black journalists [in the city]. And there still aren’t.”
One of the earlier female Press Club members, Donna Mikels Shea, was a political reporter for the Times during the 1940s and ’50s, interviewing such luminaries as Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Adlai Stevenson. “Gender-wise, I never felt unequal or discriminated against,” says Shea, a club regular long before joining. “In practice, they welcomed anyone who would walk in—because they were chronically impaired or in debt.”
All photos courtesy Indiana Historical Society, Collection M0625, unless noted otherwise.