Red Key's rules will live on after owner's death

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The owner of the Red Key Tavern—the Meridian-Kessler institution that was a backdrop in Dan Wakefield’s famous novel "Going All the Way"—died Sunday morning. Russel Settle was 92.

Settle was famous for “Russel’s Rules.” He insisted patrons take off their hats and hang up their coats at the entrance. They weren’t supposed to swear, prop their feet up on chairs or move the tables around. And the bartender—especially when it was Settle himself—was always right.

“Russ will just as soon ban you from ever coming in as he will thank you for darkening his door,” wrote Tom Chiarella, fiction editor for Esquire magazine. But, he added, “You have to like a little discipline in the mealy heart of a dive like this, where the ancient murals are lacquered with cigarette smoke and grime, and the linoleum is so worn, there are pathways to the only three significant stops in any bar: the men's room, the jukebox, and the exit.”

Such rules countered the “customer’s-always-right” maxim of business, but they made the hole-in-the-wall at 52nd Street and College Avenue a good place for conversation, said Nora Spitznogle, a waitress at the Red Key.

“It made it a pleasant place to be,” she said. Spitznogle was a regular at Red Key for several years—going there to read or write—before Settle offered her a job.

“When Russel asked me to work there, it was almost like an appointment from the governor,” said Spitzbogle, who is also chief of operations at Second Helpings, a local food pantry. “Me?”

Settle co-piloted bombers during World War II. His plane was shot down and he was held as a prisoner of war in Germany.

He bought the Red Key in 1951. Both Settle and the bar were featured in Wakefield’s 1970 novel "Going All the Way." The story about two Korean War vets returning to their hometown of Indianapolis, had enough sex in it to make it and Wakefield controversial.

The book was turned into a movie in 1997 starring Jeremy Davies and Ben Affleck. Some scenes of the movie were filmed at the Red Key, with Settle in the background.

Settle retired seven years ago and passed management of the bar to his son Jim. But Russel Settle was still there regularly, including the night before he died. On Friday night, Settle celebrated his 59th anniversary of owning the bar.

“I think he just ran out of gas,” said Jim Settle, 50. He remembered his dad for his colorful saying, which Jim Settle now uses himself. If someone is talking too much, Settle would have said, “She was inoculated with a phonograph needle.”

Settle and his wife, Dollie, both have worked at the tavern since 1983.

Jim Settle said he’d miss his father as he heads into work at his usual 5 o’clock today. But he intends to keep serving drinks and keep telling customers to follow his father’s rules.

“A lot of those rules should be standard for all bars,” Jim Settle said. “I tell people, ‘Just act like you’re at your grandma’s.’”


  • Three Generations
    Russ and his establishment served three generations of Gradys! Bill Grady, his son Richard, and his son Richard! Besides them he has served Traylors Steven, and Michael ... a landmark of a man has passed!
  • Vicster
    I don't care if he was related to you or not. YOU can get over the fact that there ARE people on this planet who don't know your family members. What entitles you such respect for your "famous status?" Hmm?
  • Nice!
    Such nasty and hostile responses to my post. Wow. All I asked was why do people make such a hype over the death of a PERSON who obviously was famous for something, but WHY... should people do that? Oh, I get it. The "famous" person is more important than your family members and friends. Let's all drop everything and be depressed about someone or something that doesn't affect your life directly or indirectly in any way. Sorry for speaking the truth and asking an honest question. Some of YOU people have no priorities.
  • He was a Classic
    I haven't lived in Indianapolis area for 12 years....the rise of the mighty Bulldogs have brought back some incredible memories of the people and places that touched me so closely for 10 years. I lived 3 blocks from the Red Key and remember Russ as a bulldog on the outside but inside he had a heart of gold....his "bar" rules taught us respect and values from the generation that preceded us. And he had the best juke box in town....my thoughts and prayers to his family...
  • For the Settles, and yourself.
    Do yourself a favor, go into the Key, take a look to your left (south wall by bar) and take a look at the picture on the wall. It's a painting of the same kind of plane (B-17) Russ was shot down on. THEN, do yourself another favor, by ordering possibly the BEST cheeseburger in the world. Or make it two, they're easy to eat.
    See ya Russ. Thanks for the conversations.
  • OMG!
    Shane, how dare you! I am his relative and he has had many famous acquaintances come into his establishment and was honored "Sagamore of the Wabash" by the governor. Keep your rude comments to yourself.
    • Pay No Attention
      Shane cuts and pastes this same post for every IBJ article about someone dying. Just ignore him.
    • Red Key History
      Russ had a big heart for others less fortunate. Look at the money tacked to the ceiling of the bar. Russ could stick the cash to the ceiling with thumb tacks driven in by tossing a silver dollar. That money all went to orphanages to help kids. He was a war hero, a gentleman and somtimes a friend when I behaved.
    • Russ you were the best!
      I speak for myself and the members of the monthly Bored Meeting-Russ was an influence to all of us. he patted us on the back when we needed it and he kicked us in the butt when we needed that-fatherly to the end. Indianapolis has lost one its finest Ambassadors and my prayers go our for Jim and the family. Rest in peace Russ.
    • Well said Chris. This was not just a business owner, but an institution. Anyone who can run a succesful business for 59 years and still going deserves recognition when they pass. Especially for the charity that he provided to this community.
    • ???

      Hey Pinhead, we certainly don't know who you are either. Russel was a war hero. Owner of an establishment that has history in this god fore-saken boring-ass Indiana town.

      What have you done? Besides being inappropriate at best???
    • Mind you manners
      Your statment is rude and inconsiderate. I haent been there, nor do I know the kind man. He obviosly touched a few Indy hearts.

      I wonder if your folks or grand folks ever asked that if you didnt have anything nice or kind to say, dont say anything? Try exercising the directions!

    • Shane, Grow Up
      Shane, this the Indianapolis Business Journal which runs various stories about local businesses in the city. Mr. Settle was a respected local small-business owner, and his bar was well-known and featured in a famous novel. Therefore, the IBJ ran a story about his passing and described why he was beloved by his customers and well-known in his neighborhood.

      If your family members become successful and well-loved business owners, then perhaps they will get a write-up upon their death, too. (Though, if they share your attitude, I suspect they won't be very much missed). So, there's no need to be a jerk and post an insipid comment complaining about the article.

      Also, last time I checked, the headline describes the content of the story, so if you weren't interested in the subject matter, then WHY read it and comment upon it? I guess you have more free time on your hands than you would care to admit.

      • ??
        Don't know who he is so why should we stop for a moment and share sympathy for him? Will my family members get this type of attention in the news?
        • So long Russ
          Had my first legal drink in the Red Key on my 21st in 1970. RIP Russ.

        • So long Russ
          Had my first legal drink in the Red Key on my 21st in 1970. RIP Russ.

        • The Greatest Generation
          I was deeply saddened today to hear of Russ Settle's passing. An Indianapolis icon and genuinely good man that enriched the lives of all he came in contact with. I remember many wonderful chats with Russ over the years, he would ALWAYS tell you exactly what he thought of something! It was an honor every time he served a beer! My heart goes out to the Settle family and the entire crew at the Red Key.
        • Deeply Missed
          Russ will be deeply missed by all who frequented his bar. It was truly the epitome of a neighborhood bar, and he was the epitome of a neighborhood barkeep. I grew up blocks from there and remember going there for my first beer at 21, because you did not dare think of trying to drink on a fake id.

          I am glad that Jim and Dolly have kept it just the way it was. The kind of bar you were not afraid to take your Mom to.

          Russ enjoy your rest Sir, you will be missed.

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