Culture Q&A: Dan Wakefield, Telling Tales at the Red Key Tavern
Dan Wakefield graduated from Shortridge High in 1950 and left Indianapolis to pursue an Ivy League education. What followed is a literary career highlighted by Going All the Way—his explicit and sharply funny bestselling 1970 novel about a bright but directionless young veteran returning home to suburban Middle America after the Korean War—and marked by decades of critically acclaimed fiction, journalism, and television and screenwriting.
He never looked back until 2011, when a warmly received visit to Indianapolis prompted him to return and take up residence in the city that once bore a grudge over his honest (but really not that bad) depiction of young adulthood here.
Now a visible and lively figure around town, Wakefield, 84, presents Uncle Dan’s Story Hour at the Red Key Tavern, the bar Going All the Way helped immortalize in print and with an on-location shoot for the 1997 movie adaption starring Ben Affleck. Tickets for the August 15 storytelling program, which includes writer and humorist Will Higgins and saxophonist Sophie Faught, sold out within a few hours of going on sale—and there’s a waitlist for tickets to the next installment. WFYI 90.1 FM is taping the show for broadcast (September 16, 1 p.m.).
Wakefield shared his thoughts on storytelling—and a preview yarn—with IM:
You’re best known as a writer. Is live storytelling something you practice as well?
Not in any formal way whatsoever. I figure when you write novels, you’re telling stories. When you write stories in journalism, you’re also telling stories, but they’re factual stories.
How would you describe your approach to live storytelling?
Well, let me just say doing it on paper is a lot harder. A lot harder.
The only training I had in storytelling was at Shortridge High School. We had a great public-speaking teacher named C.C. Shoemaker. I was on the debate team one year with [former U.S. Senator] Dick Lugar. He was a classmate. In fact, we wrote rival sports columns in the Shortridge Daily Echo.
Mr. Shoemaker was a real natty guy. He always wore double-breasted suits in a gray pinstripe. And white hair. He told us the basics of storytelling, which are: Know what your beginning is and what your ending is. Because you don’t want to get up there, and you’re sort of finished, but you don’t know how to wrap it up. So I’ve always tried to have that in mind.
Did you perform well in the class?
That was the only time in any of my schooling, high school or college, that I got an A+. So, the way I’ve really interpreted it is that I’m a natural ham. I like to get up and tell stories. That’s really what it’s all about.
I think what got me my A+ was, we had to give an epilogue, and I gave mine on the Notre Dame football star George Gipp. There was a famous movie, Knute Rockne, All American, and what became a cliché almost, “the Gipper,” as he was called, played by Ronald Reagan, he’s dying of pneumonia. And the coach, Rockne, goes to see him, and Gipp says, “Someday, Rock, when the chips are down, tell the boys to go out and win one for the Gipper.”
That was the great line, so I gave my epilogue about that. Every boy in the class knew that story inside and out, and I was really telling it with great drama. And one guy in class, I remember, he thought it was so corny, he was laughing, but he was trying to keep from laughing, so the tears started rolling down out of his eyes. And at the end, Mr. Shoemaker said, “The best thing I can say about Dan’s speech—” and he pointed to this guy, and he said, “is that it moved that boy to tears!”
That was my big triumph, based on a false interpretation
Since you came back, it seems like you’ve really embraced the cultural and social life of Indy, and the city has embraced you in turn.
It really has.
What does that mean to you?
First of all, I’m surprised. And I’m very grateful. I feel like I’ve always been lucky in going to the right place at the right time. When I went to Columbia, and then moved to the Village, it was New York in the ’50s, which was a great time to be in New York.
And by the way, my friend Ted Steeg, who went to Shortridge—that was the only person for which a character in Going All the Way was really based on somebody, was the character of Gunner. And I sort of imagined Ted—although what nobody will believe is that he and I never did any of that stuff [in the book]. I mean, we never lived in Indianapolis one summer at the same time.
In fact, I met him the Christmas vacation of my senior year in college. I was home for Christmas, and a Shortridge teacher called me up and said, “Hey, Ted Steeg is home from Korea, and he wants to go to Columbia on the G.I. Bill, so I told him he should get in touch with you.” Ted called me up and said, “Lets have a drink at the Red Key.” So that was the beginning of the legend with Ted and me. And then we shared an apartment in the Village until he got married.
I went back to New York in 1992, when [my book] New York in the Fifties came out, and I was there for two years. And then out of the blue, I went to speak at a bookstore in Miami, and I ended up getting hired to teach in the graduate writing program at Florida International University. I lived in South Beach beginning in 1995, and that was the prefect time to live in South Beach, before it became huge and overrun.
And then coming back here—really what started it was, I edited and wrote an introduction to a book of Kurt Vonnegut letters and was asked to be on a panel at the Vonnegut Library [in Indianapolis]. And a friend had a dinner for me and invited some of my friends. After that dinner, a friend was taking me back, and I said, “Listen, could you take me around Sunday to look at apartments downtown?” It was really just out of the blue. And it’s all turned out great.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.