Tag Archives | Red Key

Going All The Way (again) at The Red Key Tavern

Red Key Tavern

On Tuesday afternoon, August 18, we held a “socially distanced book signing” outside on the patio of The Red Key Tavern for the 50th anniversary of my novel Going All The Way. Twelve people signed up on my website to come at fifteen minute intervals from 5:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. My friend John Myers (a veteran of Korea) served as “Sergeant at Arms.” What a fine and appropriate way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the novel!

This is part of a history that began during Christmas vacation of 1954, my senior year at Columbia. My Shortridge history teacher and friend, Dorothy Peterson, called me to say that Ted Steeg was home from Korea and he wanted to go to Columbia on the G.I. bill and would like to talk to me. Ted was in the Class of ’48 at Shortridge, two years ahead of me; he had been a star fullback for The Blue Devils and was elected ”Uglyman” – the most popular boy in the senior class. He went on to play for Wabash, and was a “Little [small college] All-American” as a defensive back. I had been a sports columnist and editor of The Shortidge Daily Echo two years after Ted graduated, and I was friendly with the jocks in my own class, so I felt socially qualified to hang out with Steeg. He called me and suggested we meet at The Red Key.

Like several other friends who had been in Korea, especially those who’d spent time in Japan, Ted had changed. The former football star/frat boy had started thinking outside the box. He was asking questions, of himself and of me (as well as of Indianapolis, America, and the world.) We sat at the end of the bar and talked and played the juke box and drank our beers and had a few more. Ted said he was going to start the M.A. in Literature program at Columbia in the spring semester, and he asked if he could stay with me when he got to New York. I explained I was living off campus in a basement apartment on West 77th street with only a single bed, a table and a chair, but he was welcome to stay on the concrete floor. One freezing night in February there was a knock at my door and I opened it to see Ted. He had a knapsack on his back, and he was holding a sleeping bag in one hand and a suitcase in the other. Our legend—our lifelong friendship—began.

50 Years of GATW
Buy Going All The Way at Amazon, Nook, or the App Store.

That meeting was given a fictionalized version in the novel when “Sonny” and “Gunner” meet on the train back to Indianapolis after their time in the service. It was fictionalized for film in the 1997 movie in the same two seats at the end of the bar in the Red Key with Ben Affleck as “Gunner” and Jeremy Davies as “Sonny.” When Gunner wants another beer he says “Hit me again, Russ,” in tribute to the late Russ Settle, the founder and owner of The Red Key Tavern. Russ is not seen in the movie but he actually served that beer—in “real life” in ’54 as well as in the movie in ‘97. The Red Key is now owned and operated by Russ’s son Jim, usually the bartender, aided by Jim’s wife Dolly (who makes the legendary chili and potato salad in their respective seasons) and his daughter Leslie, who is either behind the bar or waitressing or both, with the welcoming spirit that seems to be built into the place.

My super website and social media experts, SuperPixel, arranged for fifteen minute time slots for each signing, and eleven people signed up—two were not able to make it, but two others arrived by accident, so everything worked out. It rained that morning but the sun came out in the afternoon and the day was fair and fine. My friend Susan Neville, who is Indiana’s finest writer, was the first guest to have her copy of Going All The Way signed. I had asked Susan to bring her own new book, The Town of Whispering Dolls, a powerful and entrancing collection of stories that won the Catherine Doctorow Prize for the “Best Book of Innovative Fiction in 2019.” [That’s a national award.] I got so excited about Susan’s book that I read one of my favorite passages to the next guests, after I signed their copy of my novel.

Everyone who came was a winner, but the prize must go to the man who came directly from the hospital where he had just had his pacemaker replaced. He pulled up his t-shirt to show us the new bandage.

For $25, everyone got the novel, the author’s signature, and a beer from The Red Key. All proceeds went to The Red Key Tavern, which we think should be the first step in its being declared a Historic Monument.

Our bargain deal reminded me of an ad for the William H. Block department store touting one of its own bargains. It was written by an advertising copywriter for the store named Phoebe Hurty, who in 1938 hired Kurt Vonnegut to write about Block’s clothes for teenagers in The Shortridge Daily Echo. Vonnegut dedicated his novel Breakfast of Champions to Phoebe Hurty, and he quoted her work that he most admired:

“She wrote this ad for an end-of-the-summer sale on straw hats: ‘For prices like this, you can run them through your horses and put them on your roses.’”

Vonnegut felt he would never be as gracious in prose as Phoebe Hurty. I am not about to try.

Read Kurt Vonnegut’s review of Going All The Way here.

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A Vote for Courtesy

Kamala Harris. Photo by Gage Skidmore
Kamala Harris. Photo by Gage Skidmore

Early in the assembling of the Democratic candidates for President, I remembered Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that we are no longer a society, but rather an “audience.” Who among the Democrats could challenge the Entertainer-in-Chief? I put my hopes on Senator Kamala Harris, who first came to my attention when she questioned Bret Kavanagh with razor-like precision. I could imagine her twisting the polemical knife in debate with the Twitter-man. Her retort to Joe Biden in the first debate showed she was quick, and her comment “I was that little girl” who benefitted from school busing earned attention and sympathy.

I had donated $5 to her campaign, but when the stakes were raised to a minimum of $10 I had to retire to the sidelines. When her campaign asked for volunteers to get signatures to put her on the primary ballot in Indiana, I was happy to offer my help. A few days later I got a call from Maya Rodriquez from the Harris campaign, who came to my house with petition forms. Ms. Rodriguez was a pleasant, professional young woman who gave me instructions. Those who signed the petition to have her name on the primary ballot were not required to vote for her. Signers had to list their name, address and the county they lived in. A separate sheet was required for each county.

I decided to begin at The Red Key, where I was most likely to know people and be known. I got the permission of Jim Settle, the owner-bartender, to ask fellow customers to sign the petition. (Jim carries on a gentler version of the strict Rules established by his founder-father, the legendary Russ Settle.) There were a handful of customers I knew who readily signed, and maybe others who saw them figured it must be OK; I emphasized that signing did not mean voting for the candidate, but only insuring her a place on the primary ballot in Indiana. Two pleasant women admitted they had never heard of Senator Harris, but signed in the spirit of giving her a chance.

After The Red Key, I hung out at the Cornerstone coffeehouse at Moe and Johnny’s, where owner Chuck Mack himself signed the petition and others followed. In the second and third debates, other candidates got more attention and publicity than Senator Harris, but none of the people I approached mentioned the debates, and I didn’t bring them up. I even got some of my pals who work the cash registers at the check-out lines of a local grocery to sign,

I took my petitions with me whenever I went out, and on a Saturday night I carried them to meet a friend at Fat Dan’s delicatessen. I arrived early and saw a table outside with about ten people, a potential coup for my petitions. I smiled and made my pitch, assuring that signatures didn’t mean votes, but offered an opportunity to take a small part in our democracy. Most of those at the table looked at me blankly, but one woman turned toward me with a kind of wince of disdain and said, as if explaining to an alien –
“We’re from Carmel.”
“Oh,” I said.
I wanted to ask “Is that in the United States?”

There were better times ahead. I was asked to speak to a meeting of a book club at the big back table of The Red Key, and after discussing a piece I had written, I closed my remarks with a pitch for putting Kamala on the primary ballot. A perceptive bunch, they all signed.

Maya Rodriguez came by to pick up my petitions, and I was proud to contribute thirty-six signatures. I later learned it takes 500 signatures from each country to qualify for the primary ballot. My well-intentioned efforts were a drop in the bucket, which made it all the more surprising and gratifying when a week or so later I received a handwritten “Thank You note” from Maya Rodriguez, with return address in Senator Harris’ national campaign headquarters in Baltimore.

I tried to remember the last time I received a “Thank You note” from anyone. I have covered a lot of people and events for magazines, local and national, and in the nine years I have been back in Indianapolis I have given dozens of talks to clubs, libraries, schools, universities, and religious groups. Many people told me of their appreciation and thanked me, but to the best of my memory the only “Thank You note” I’ve received was from Maya Rodrigues of the Kamala Harris campaign.

Senator Harris has been outshined in the last two over-populated debates (Please. if you’re a Democrat and want to be President, try to control yourself!) I wish her well in the round-table, free-for-all discussion and the ones to follow, but no matter what promises others may make, I am voting in favor of a quality that I feared was lost in our national politics. I am voting for courtesy. I am voting for it in our in our politics and in our everyday dealings with one another.

I emailed Maya Rodrigues to ask if she was related to Kamala Harris, whose sister is also named Maya. Ms. Rodriguez said no, that was only a coincidence. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Senator Harris hired a young woman who writes Thank You notes to volunteers who collect only a handful of signatures for their cause.

Maybe Senator Harris asks all her organizers to write Thank You notes to anyone who helps. I am voting for that as long as I have the chance. I am voting for courtesy.

Thank you, Maya Rodriguez. Thank you, Kamala Harris. You have elevated this campaign.

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Going All The Way Back

After many years of exile I was lured back to Indianapolis in 1987 by Ophelia Roop, the colorful events-planner back then for The Central Library. She assured me it was “safe” to return now that seventeen years had soothed angry reactions to my novel Going All The Way – and the once-controversial work was read and discussed in book clubs at The Library. (Kurt Vonnegut had predicted in his review of the novel in Life magazine that “Having written this book, Dan Wakefield will never be able to go back to Indianapolis – he will have to watch the 500-mile race on television.”)

Having a great time on that return and meeting old friends, I came back a year later when a New York publisher issued a new edition of the novel. [I still had no idea back then that I would ever come back to actually live here, as I did in 2011.] I was interviewed by Will Higgins, the young editor then of an alternative publication called The New Times, a kind of pre-cursor to Nuvo. In the course of the interview, Will proposed that we plan a Going All The Way Bus Tour, stopping at some of the sites I wrote about in the book, like The Red Key Tavern, The John Herron Art Institute, and Crown Hill Cemetery (where the young anti-heroes of the book go to muse on their future.) Now a star reporter of The Indianapolis Star, Will recalled “You and I met over breakfast at the old Stouffers Hotel, on the top floor of their dining room. The idea of the tour hit me then and there and I blurted it out and you liked the idea. The rest is history.”

Thanks to Will Higgins, history repeated itself last November, when he revived the idea of the Bus Tour, organized the whole thing, announced it in The Star, and the next day had enough responses to fill the forty-eight seats on the bus (plus a waiting list.) When the first tour was held in 1988, when my lifelong friend Ted Steeg, the former Shortridge and Wabash football star who served as the “model” for the character “Gunner Casselman” in Going All The Way, came down from New York to join me on the tour. The two of us passed the mic back and forth as we joked and reminisced and shared memories of high school days and “Indy in the ‘50s,” when the action of the novel took place.

The irreplaceable “Gunner” died last year, and I wondered if I could bring off a running commentary by myself. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, but I had the support of Will Higgins as co-host, and I enlisted the aid of friends who read appropriate passages from the book as we stopped or slowed. Travis diNicola, founder and director of IndyReadsBooks; Karen Kovacik, IUPUI professor and former Poet Laureate of Indiana, and Judy O’Bannon, widow of the former governor, were eloquent in their readings when we stopped at some of the featured sights.

As we had before, we began and ended the tour at the legendary Red Key Tavern,   where “Sonny” and Gunner” meet up in the novel. This time we added a stop in front of the house I grew up in at 6129 Winthrop, where I sat on the roof of the porch and looked for enemy airplanes as a “Junior Air Raid Warden” on The Home Front in WWII, just like the character “Artie” in my novel Under The Apple Tree. From there we went down Meridian Street and stopped at Shortridge High buy soma us pharmacy School. We went inside to the first floor hallway, where Judy O’Bannon and I and another Bus Tour traveler, the Pulitzer Prize photographer Bill Foley, have our plaques on the wall of The Shortridge Hall of Fame (along with Kurt Vonnegut, and my classmates from the Class of 1950, Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher and Senator Richard Lugar (he and I wrote sports columns for the Shortridge Daily Echo. )

We stopped outside the former Herron Art Institute, which is now one of the leading high schools in the state, and Karen Kovacik read the passage in Going All The Way when “Sonny” and “Gunner” go there in hopes of expanding their minds by “looking at art” and trying to figure out the appropriate comments and stances and length of time spent at each painting to appear to be aficianados. Instead, they spot an attractive young woman, who they find it far easier to appreciate.

Will directed our bus to The Riviera Club, which was one of the havens of summer for neighborhood kids in Broad Ripple when I was growing up, and we got out to stand by the November-empty pool with a gracious host from The Club. I read a passage of the novel when Gunner recalls a dark memory from high school of him and his friends being turned away because one of the boys with them was Jewish (based on an incident with me and some of my Shortridge friends back in the ‘forties.) Such an incident couldn’t happen now in the Club that identifies itself as “a place for everyone, a truly inclusive and unique club representative of the many diverse neighborhoods and individuals around us. Today the Riviera Club is a welcoming family-friendly environment for people of any background.” Some things do change for the better.

Our intrepid driver took us next to the top of Crown Hill Cemetery, which still affords the best view of the city. It was there that “Sonny” and “Gunner” went to contemplate their future, by the statue of James Whitcomb Riley, “The Hoosier Poet.” Everyone got off the bus to stretch and enjoy the view, when a cache of beer, soda and mineral water was found, with a note attached that said

“Hey, Bus Guys – As you’re contemplating your future, have one on me! – best, Tom Cassleman.”

“Tom Casselman” was the name of the fictional character known as “Gunner” in the novel. Now it can be revealed that the drinks and the note had been cleverly stashed there beforehand by tour organizer Higgins.

For the sake of historical accuracy, I explained when we got back on the bus that Crown Hill was not only visited by high school kids who went to the top to exchange deep thoughts, but also by those who found its darkened, winding pathways good places to “park” at night with a date, and not be interrupted by the intrusive beams of prowling police.

Back at The Red Key we told more stories, renewed acquaintance with old friends and made new ones, played old favorites on the legendary jukebox (surely no other jukebox in town or maybe in the whole country has Benny Berrigan’s classic 1939 recording of “I Can’t Get Started”), and ordered the famous Red Key burgers with Dolly’s home-made potato salad.  I thought of the words of poet William Herschell (often erroneously attributed to James Whitcomb Riley) “Aint God good to Indiana? Aint’ he fellers, ain’t he though?” That epic verse hung on the wall of the old Broad Ripple Branch Public Library, attached to School #80 (now a condo), where I learned to read.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield