In 1933, George and R. H. Duke opened the Olde English Tavern in a new building at 52nd  Street and College Avenue, which previously had been a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Since the Dukes could not afford to decorate their new establishment, they asked their mother, a local artist, to paint murals on the walls. The pictures, painted from memories of scenes from her studies in England and Europe, can still be seen in the Red Key. The Olde English was known as a neighborhood tavern for families. Local residents listened to a three-piece combo that played every Friday and Saturday night.

A strip of businesses. Key Tavern is in the middle with a red awning.
Red Key Tavern, 2021 Credit: Kara Chinn

The Dukes sold the tavern in 1935 to Jack Buening, who changed its name to the Red Key. Buening continued the tradition of featuring live music. He made live entertainment available daily at the Red Key, hiring a full-time professional pianist and providing a venue for dancing on Saturday nights. The Red Key attracted patrons with its live music for more than three decades.

Buening sold the tavern to Mike Tamer in 1949, and Russ Settle and Fran Gasper, who had owned the Corner Crossroad Tavern on the southside, purchased the Red Key in 1951. Gasper retired in 1970, and Settle became the sole proprietor until his death in 2010.

Settle was known to be cantankerous—a curmudgeon—who had rules for the Red Key: “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.” Infractions of Russ’s rules could mean that a patron would be shown the door. Yet the Red Key has had a loyal following, having attained the status of being a historic “quirky” bar. Hoosier author Dan Wakefield, a regular patron of the establishment, mentions it in his novel, Going All The Way.

Following Russ’s death, his son Jim took over the tavern’s ownership and its operation. The physical character of the Red Key remains unchanged. It retains a jukebox that plays 45s, and World War II-era model airplanes hang from the ceiling.

A booth inside a tavern. The wall is lined with mirrors and framed paraphernalia.
Red Key Tavern interior, ca. 2000s Credit: Copyright by Lee Lewellen. All rights reserved View Source

The Red Key also has been known locally for its unique method of collecting charitable contributions from patrons. A donated dollar bill, wrapped around several silver dollars and a tack, is thrown upward, attaching it to the ceiling. Several thousand dollars are transferred from the Red Key’s ceiling to local charities annually.

In 2021, Indiana Humanities featured Wakefield’s Going All the Way and the Red Key Tavern in its Bookmark Indy, Literary Tour.

Revised February 2021

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