“Everybody Comes to Rick’s”

“Festive haunts of pleasure seekers” date to at least the fifteenth century (or maybe earlier to the Cavern on the Green frequented by the Flintstones and Rubbles) when Parisians sought drink and food — no song and dance — at the Suckling Calf, the Valley of Misery, and the Pomme de Pin. It would be centuries before these cabarets would transform into the classic nightclub depicted in the film Casablanca — Rick’s Café Américain.
Locally, the nightclub evolved from early night spots in and around Indianapolis — the road house. These popular “resorts of sports” were saloons with gambling rooms featuring faro, roulette, and craps. One notorious resort in the late 1880s and early 1890s was Sim Coy’s Hollywood House. Located east of the city limits on a knoll at the northwest corner of Sherman Drive and the National Road, the large two-story brick structure featured a bar and smoking room, wine rooms, an “ample cellar [where] cock fights have been held,” and a beer garden with gambling tables in the backyard. Prize-fights were held on the premises; the place was “obnoxious to citizens who pass it or live in the vicinity.” Few tears were shed when Hollywood House succumbed to a suspicious fire in the early morning hours of November 23, 1893.
Over the next three decades news accounts reported on places like the Brighton Beach road house, along the west bank of the canal at 18th St., where “men and women visit the place [and] drink the liquor sold at the bar and dance to music furnished by ‘the house.’” Unlicensed alcohol establishments — “blind tigers” — in and around the city, were subject to frequent visits by the authorities.
According to Allan Dwan, director of the 1925 silent film comedy Night Life of New York, the modern nightclub “is the last resort for pleasure hungry people who are ‘fed up’ on more unsophisticated entertainment…The cabaret of yesterday is the supper show of today, and the old café is now a nightclub.” Two years after this statement, a new pleasure resort in Indianapolis — the Indiana Roof Ballroom – opened “neath Spanish skies, neath twinkling stars” for dancing and dining. In the fall of 1928, popular singer Dick Powell (who lived in the Helen Louise Apartments in Irvington at the time) became the ballroom’s master of ceremonies and entertained dancers and local radio listeners with music by his own orchestra until early 1929. By the end of the year, Hots Thompson’s Dance Band drew night owls to the Ballroom of the Lyric Theater. Other bands and orchestras followed — Charlie Davis and Eddie Kern & His Egyptian Serenaders.
The Show Boat at Keystone Ave. and Allisonville Rd. invited couples to “Dine and Dance to the Hottest Music in Town” beginning in 1931, and revelers could usher in 1933 to the dance music of Hal Bailey and his “band of a thousand melodies” at Club Orientále atop the Bamboo Inn on Monument Circle. With the end of Prohibition, Indianapolis night life become more vibrant with dining and dancing in the Antler’s Hotel Tally-Ho Room and the opening of Chateau Lido, 4425 Allisonville Rd. with Jack Tilson and his orchestra. Other nightclubs followed — the Red Gables, Wier’s Place, Pop Junemann’s, the Cars, Sky Harbor, Falls City Casino, Tice’s Stube Club, Westlake; Chez Paree, and Crystal Dance Palace — providing venues for local talent and bringing nationally known entertainers to Indianapolis.
In a segregated Indianapolis, clubs catering to African-Americans opened along Indiana Avenue. The Cotton Club, Trianon Ballroom, Sunset Terrace, and the Lido were among the night spots where local talent like Wes Montgomery and the Ink Spots performed before mostly black audiences. Over two dozen clubs along “the Avenue” — “Funky Broadway” — hosted jazz greats Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Josephine Baker, and others.
Night life in the city became so prominent that Indianapolis newspapers included a column on the entertainment page with a brief notice of the featured bands, orchestras, and vocalists appearing at selected clubs. However, the ban on pleasure driving during World War II curtailed this form of amusement except for those nightclubs on street car routes, and during the last year of the war a curfew darkened the night spots “when the midnight hour arrives.”
The Sky Harbor, Southern Mansion, Castle Barn, Red Gables, and the Sapphire Room at the Hotel Washington were among the nightclubs that continued offering dinner and dancing in the post-war years. Following a fire that razed Beech Gove’s Old Inn, Club Emerson was built on the site and opened in the spring of 1949. Several other clubs, however, were closed because of tax issues, gambling (“I’m shocked!”), and other illegal activity.
Johnny Winn’s TV Trio provided nightly dance music in the early ‘50s at Brodey’s Village Inn, 21st St. & Arlington Ave., while Paul Peters and His Townesmen entertained at the Towne House, 7900 Pendleton Pike. The decade closed with the Hollyoke, 3901 E. Washington St, opening on New Year’s Eve 1959 featuring the Eileen Carroll Duo, and a week later one of the most memorable Indianapolis nightclubs, The Embers, opened with Barbara McNair & the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Over the next decade this nightclub at 2034 N. Meridian St. was “nationally known as a favorite stop for entertainers” that included Robert Clary, Gloria DeHaven, Julius LaRosa, Peter Nero & His Trio, the Four Saints, Gene Krupa & His Quartet, and “lovely lyrics from the liquid lips” of Vicki Carr.
By the early 1970s the nightclub scene in Indianapolis was changing. The Embers closed in 1971 in part because the neighborhood where it was located was becoming seedy. The Hollyoke, where national entertainers like Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Wayne Cochran & the C.C. Riders, the Righteous Brothers, Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Drifters, Woody Herman, Chubby Checker, and Johnny Tillotson once performed, struggled with changing musical tastes and named performers asking bigger and bigger bucks. It closed out its days in 1981 as a go-go club.
Although they are not Rick’s Café Américain, large venues like the Old National Centre and smaller venues like Radio Radio continue to enrich Indianapolis nightlife with live music by local and national entertainers.