Tonic Ball is the annual fundraiser that takes place the Friday before Thanksgiving. The music part features 30 local bands each playing 10-minute themed sets. This year's thread is The King vs. Queen the songs of Elvis Presley (played for all ages at the Fountain Square Theatre) and the music of the band Queen (next door at Radio Radio, a 21-and-older club).
"We've had a lot of people thinking 'Queen' meant Aretha or Elton John," Nora Spitznogle, chairwoman of the Tonic Ball organizing committee, says with a laugh. "But no, it's Queen."
The art part a free event called the Tonic Gallery showcases local artists, who donate their work for a limited silent auction at the Big Car Gallery. The maximum bid on each piece is $500.
Proceeds go to Second Helpings, which rescues surplus food from grocery stores, wholesalers and restaurants and sends out 2,900 meals a day at no cost to 50 social-service agencies around the city. Second Helpings, where Spitznogle is director of operators, also offers job training for unemployed and underemployed adults.
The idea for Tonic Ball came from Ken Honeywell, co-owner of Indianapolis' Well Done Marketing. Honeywell knew people in the local music community and he'd heard about a New York event called The Loser's Lounge, where bands play the songs of one particular artist. With that in mind, he put together a plan, talked to people who could help and picked a beneficiary.
"Feeding people was about the most important thing I could think of," Honeywell said. So he approached Second Helpings, which so far has received more than $100,000 from the annual benefit.
The first year, 300 people came out to hear the songs of Gram Parsons. The event raised $4,600. Tonic Ball II added the art show and took in more than $17,500. After playing the music of musicians' musicians (Elvis Costello, Neil Young) in years two and three, Tonic Ball IV went more mainstream the songs of the Rolling Stones.
With more fans and bands wanting in, Tonic Ball V Talking Heads vs. Prince expanded to two venues. Last year's Clash vs. Madonna showcase attracted 1,000 people, and brought in a record $34,000.
"This event has grown so far beyond me or any individual that now it's something everybody kind of knows," Honeywell said. "It has a life of its own, and that's fantastic."
Many of the city's best musicians are among supporters. Jennie DeVoe plays almost every year, as does Dale Lawrence of the Vulgar Boatmen. Otis Gibbs has been there every year, but he'll miss VII because he's on tour in the UK with Billy Bragg. Vess Ruhtenberg tries to be there every year, too, either as a solo act or with one of the bands he's played with over the years.
"What's not to like," said Ruhtenberg, who'll be playing Queen songs this year. "What's not to like? You know the songs will be good, the cause is top-notch, and always loads of people will attend."
"It's one of those under the radar, underground things that's wildly popular," Spitznogle added.
For Honeywell, Tonic Ball has turned out to be a life-changer. Early on, he and fellow organizer Becky Hopewell bonded over their work on the project. They fell in love and married a year and a half later.
It's also given him one particularly memorable laugh. During Tonic Ball III, he recalls walking out of Radio Radio and seeing a gigantic line of people waiting to get in on what was a damp and chilly night. "Several of them, who I'd never seen in my life, were claiming they knew me so they could get in," he said.
But on a more serious note, Honeywell said this: "I've been blessed with a lot of great opportunities in my life, and I think that's one thing Second Helpings does for a lot of people give them another chance to make something of themselves."