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History of the Red Key Tavern

and 5170 N. College Avenue, Indianapolis

By Mike "Zephyr" Dalton, Red Key Tavern Historian


     Years before 5170 N. College Avenue was ever home to the Red Key Tavern, it opened its doors as a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in 1927. Although predominately known as a Southern supermarket chain, Piggly Wiggly had eight locations throughout Indianapolis in the late 1920s, advertising the “lowest prices consistent with quality.” The location at 5170 N. College Avenue was doing quite well its first couple years before the stockmarket crash led to the Great Depression in 1929. Faced with customers spending less ongroceries and the fierce competition of nearby stores, Piggly Wiggly downsized itsIndianapolis presence in the early 1930s. Among their outgoing locations was the one on 5170 N. College Avenue which closed its doors in 1932, remaining vacant for some time. It was not until Prohibition was repealed that a new vision for that now well-known piece of real estate was put into action.

     The ratification of the twenty-first Amendment on December 5, 1933, not only

ended the need for clandestine speakeasies, it created a demand for legitimate bars and

taverns to once again unabashedly adorn city streets. Two young British brothers,

Richard and George Duke, recognized this opportunity and quickly opened the Old

English Tavern at 5170 N. College Avenue. Having invested all they had in their new

establishment, the Duke brothers had no money left to decorate their new saloon. In light of

this predicament, they turned to their mother for help. A local artist, she painted scenes from

the English countryside as she remembered them from her long ago studies abroad. These

murals still grace the tops of the Red Key Tavern’s interior walls and have been admired

by countless customers for over eight decades. Throughout the brief venture of the Old

English Tavern, patrons enjoyed listening to the music of a three-piece combo weekend

evenings. By July 5, 1934, the Old English Tavern was in need of a new employee.

They placed an ad in the Indianapolis Star asking for a waitress who “must be neat

appearing.” While the ultimate fate of that particular sever position remains unknown,

one matter is certain: the Old English Tavern would be no more by the following year.

Whether it was due to the incredibly challenging economic climate, or if had something

to do with the fact that Richard Duke had recently married Janet Jaqua at the Highland

Golf and Country Club on March 24, 1934, for whatever the reason, the Duke Brothers

decided to sell their business to Alva (Jack) R. Buening and his wife Marie T. Buening in


Jack Buening, originally from Brownstown, Indiana, was an ambitious young

businessman in 1930s and his first order of business was to change the bar’s name to its present title: Red Key Tavern. In the summer of 1936, Buening joined several other

local tavern owners in an aggressive marketing campaign to promote their stock of Patrick Henry Beer, which was brewed by the Kiley Brewing Company from 1934 until 1942. Patrick Henry Beer was truly ahead of its time as it was marketed as a “special light” beerwith an “ale base.” By comparison, Miler Lite, largely credited as the first mainstream light beer, was not nationally introduced until 1975. This “special light beer with an ale base,” known as Patrick Henry, brought many curious malt beverage drinkers into the Red Key, and business began to boom. Buening parlayed this financial success into an extravagant New Year’s Eve party held at the Red Key on December 31, 1936. This gallant soirée was billed as “loads of fun” with “special entertainment” and “dancing to good music.” It was also made clear that “mixed drinks of all kinds” including beer would be served at the gala. An untold number of exuberant party-goers rang in 1937 that evening at the Red Key Tavern. By all accounts, the evening was a huge success.

     Throughout the remainder of the 1930s and 1940s, the Red Key continued to

feature entertainment every night and dancing every Saturday night. Clyde Grant, an

accomplished pianist, was hired by Buening to play the piano at the Red Key on a full-

time basis. His music not only captivated all who entered the small tavern on College

Avenue, it began a tradition of having a full-time professional pianist play at the Red Key

that would last for more than three decades. While many pianists would go on to play the

famed piano at the Red Key, perhaps none of them had a sadder ending than Samuel

Parker. Despite overcoming his blindness to achieve musical prowess, Parker was a struggling

musician doing everything he could to raise his four also-blind children in Louisville,

Kentucky when he got his big break to go play piano at the Red Key Tavern. Tragically,

however, Parker suffered a massive heart attack and died on a city bus just two weeks

into his tenure at the Red Key. He was on his way to work. Other problems beset the

Red Key in 1940s. With the onset of WWII, Buening began to lose many regulars to the

service, many of whom never coming back, having given the last full measure of their

devotion overseas. Shortly after the war’s end, Buening lost his mother-in-law who

died in his own home at 5145 Guilford Avenue on Wednesday December 12, 1945.

Nearly three years later in September of 1948 a Red Key customer became distraught

when he discovered that he had lost his gray suit coat with an airplane ticket in the pocket

at the tavern. He went to great lengths to recover his lost belongings but it is unknown if

he ever found them. Furthermore, in November of that same year, Buening’s retail permit was

suspended by the Indiana Alcoholic Beverage Commission for sale to an intoxicated

person. Finally, in 1949, after guiding the Red Key through a Great Depression and a

World War, Buening decided it was time to sell the establishment that still bestows the

name he gave it. Still wanting to stay in the bar business however, the Buenings would

go on to own the Hi-Neighbor Tavern on West 10th Street before retiring in 1966. Nine years after celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1974, Jack Buening died in 1983 at the

age of 82. His wife Marie would follow him in death five years later in 1988 at the age of

88. There is no doubt; they left an enduring legacy.


     Unlike Buening’s fourteen-year reign as owner of the Red Key Tavern, the next

proprietor’s tenure would not last nearly as long. By the Spring of 1951, Mike Tamer was

ready to sell the Red Key once again. He hired the real estate and business brokerage

firm of Roberts and Pruitt to handle the sale to Russ Settle and Fran Gasper, both of

whom formerly owned the Corner Crossroad Tavern on the south side. Settle and Gasper

were ready to reopen the bar on April 1, 1951 but waited an extra day to do so for fear of

an April Fools’ Day opening serving as a bad omen. Gasper retired in 1970, making

Settle the sole owner which he remained until the day he passed away in 2010, having

owned the Red Key fifty-nine years. Today, the Red Key remains in the Settle family under

the ownership of Jim Settle (Russel’s son) and his wife Dollie. Among their several

employees is their daughter, Leslie Ann. The Red Key Tavern has endured at the same

location and under the same name for more than eighty years now. With its jukebox still

playing 45s, and WWII era model airplanes hanging from its ceiling, many have

described it as a “throwback” bar. “Chic” and “contemporary” are certainly not

adjectives often used to describe the Red Key. It is not the sort of place where one might

find intoxicated twenty-somethings dancing atop bar stools or a long list of novelty shots

with profanity-laced names.   It’s just the kind of place where some lost, woebegone

stranger might stumble beneath the glow of neon, and take comfort in that warm illusion

of having somehow gone home again…if only until last call.



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