Indianapolis Collected: Play it again, Sam – A tragic tale of love and loss

Written by on August 27, 2011 in Indianapolis Collected - 6 Comments
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It was a dark and stormy night in March 2004, and I was drinking cheap beer in a smoky basement bar, dreaming about a piano. Every collector has a sad tale of The One That Got Away. This is my story.

Sometime in the early 1950s, an unknown person visiting the Indianapolis Press Club decided to take out a pen and scrawl his or her signature on the painted surface of an old piano. This act of vandalism started a tradition that lasted for nearly 50 years. By the time the Press Club finally closed its doors in 2004, nearly every inch of the battered piano was covered with celebrity signatures.

I had been enthralled by the piano from the first time I visited the Press Club in 1982, and on this stormy night more than 20 years later, the piano – along with a treasure trove of Press Club history – was being sold to the highest bidder.

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After more than 70 years of serving drinks and camaraderie to journalists, politicians, lobbyists, and anyone else who wandered through its doors, Indianapolis’ fabled Press Club was finally shutting down. From its humble beginnings in a basement bar to its glory days in a glittering penthouse, the Press Club was ending the same way it started – in a smoky, cramped basement with an alcohol-soaked crowd.

The Indianapolis Press Club was incorporated in 1934 “to promote the social enjoyment among its members, and to encourage and foster the ethical standards of the newspaper profession.” Prominent Republican Mike Hanrahan offered space for “social enjoyment” in the basement of his PenHoff Grill at 23 N. Pennsylvania. Although the club was forced to move the next year after Hanrahan closed his restaurant, the spirit lingers on – literally. The site of the original Press Club is now home to Kahn’s Wine & Spirits.

For the next couple of years, the Press Club was housed at the Pretzel Bell Tavern, a worn-out bar at 117 N. Illinois Street. Finally in 1937, executives at Indianapolis Power & Light suggested that the Press Club move to the 3rd floor of a building it owned at 48 Monument Circle (pictured below in the 1980s).

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The Monument Circle building proved to be a perfect location for the growing club. Aside from its prime spot on the Circle, it was the former home of the Indianapolis Journal, and James Whitcomb Riley had worked on the 3rd floor during his days with the Journal.

How and when the piano-signing tradition began is lost to history, but it likely started during the Press Club’s 16-year run on Monument Circle. Red Skelton spent some time there when he was appearing on the stage of the Lyric Theatre, and other celebrities raised a glass or two with the press, including Walter Huston, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Ernie Pyle, Gene Autry, and Blackstone the Magician.

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Sadly, in 1953 the Monument Circle club went up in flames twice – earning the Press Club a reputation as one of the city’s “Hot Spots”. A fire in early July gutted the front rooms of the club, and a second fire in late December forced the Press Club to find a new location.

One of the more interesting tales surrounding the Press Club piano is the explanation as to why some signatures are so faint as to be barely legible. As the story goes, early in the piano’s history an overzealous new employee thought the signatures were were graffiti. Eager to please his new bosses, he took soap and water to the piano, and tried to scrub the signatures off.

After a short stint at a the Claypool Hotel’s Florentine Room and a tavern on West Market that billed itself as the “Home of the World’s Largest Mirror,” the Press Club moved to the top floor of the new ISTA building. Celebrities flocked to this setting (pictured below) and few refused the opportunity to sign the piano.

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Hoagy Carmichael (below) played Stardust and other favorite songs on the piano (before it was painted white) during a 1946 performance at the Monument Circle club. At a subsequent visit, he signed the piano at a prime spot above the keyboard. Other nearby signatures include Hugh Marlowe, an actor who appeared in more than a dozen films, including Meet Me in St. Louis and All About Eve, and Bing Crosby’s second wife Kathryn.

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The beautiful Dorothy Lamour, who played gal-pal to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their famous “Road” movies, scrawled “Love & Kisses” on the piano’s lid. Lamour visited Indianapolis in 1965 when she starred in “Two Dozen Red Roses” at the Avondale Playhouse, a popular outdoor theater-in-the-round at the Meadows Shopping Center.

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Looking for signatures on the piano is little like playing Where’s Waldo. Where else can you find good-guy James Garner within spitting distance of the Wicked Witch of the West? It’s uncertain when Margaret Hamilton landed in the Press Club, but Garner likely signed the piano in 1975, when he was in town to drive the Pace Car in the Indianapolis 500. Adjacent signatures include Buddy Rogers, an early film star and jazz musician who was married to Mary Pickford, and Joseph Hayes, a prize-winning playwright from Indianapolis who penned The Desperate Hours. In the film version, Humphrey Bogart is an escaped convict who holds a suburban Indianapolis family hostage.

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The Indy 500 has always been a magnet for the stars of bad TV sitcoms. During the 1960s, many TV stars stopped by the Press Club during the month of May and signed the piano. Some of the more notable ’60s sigs include Max Baer (Jethro Bodine), Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily Munster) and Allen Hale (The Skipper).

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I still regret passing up a chance to own this wonderful piece of our city’s history. With a $2,000 starting bid, however, the auction price was a little outside of my comfort zone. Maybe I was reluctant because I didn’t know how I would move the piano out of the basement of the ISTA building or where I would put the piano if I could figure out a way to get it home. And then there is also the fact that I don’t even play the piano. But regardless of the reason, I blinked, and the piano was gone.

That evening, long-time Press Club member Myra Borshoff showed the sort of creativity and initiative that has made her such a success. She simply offered to pay the Press Club the amount they were asking for the piano. Surprisingly, the Press Club leadership initially scoffed at her offer, but two days later they contacted her and told her she could have the piano for $2,000 if she could get it out of the building by the end of the week.

As luck would have it, Borshoff was eating lunch with a friend from the State Museum when the call came through from the Press Club. Recognizing the historical significance of the piano, Borshoff’s initial impulse was to offer to donate the piano to the State Museum after she enjoyed it for few years. Her generous offer was declined.

Borshoff moved the piano to her downtown office. Her $2,000 find was later appraised for $45,000, although Borshoff thinks the price could skyrocket even higher if the right buyer came along.

One such buyer might be Mariska Hargitay, star of the long-running series Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit. The piano could have special significance to her because it bears both of her parents’ signatures – Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay. Mansfield is pictured below at the 1958 Press Club Gridiron with club president Fremont Power.

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When the Press Club opened in 1934, membership was limited to male newspapermen. Over the years, elected officials, broadcast journalists, and lobbyists were added to the membership rolls. Finally in 1969, the Press Club opened its membership to women, and in 2002 – apparently desperate for revenue – the Press Club admitted me.

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During its 70-year history, the Press Club and its members played a central role in the public and political life of Indianapolis. In a subsequent column, I’ll focus on Politics & the Press Club, including the infamous Gridiron Dinners that were modeled after the roasts given by the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Until then, -30-

Libby Cierzniak is a partner at Baker & Daniels LLP and a long-time collector of Indianapolis ephemera, advertising and other pieces of the city’s past.

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About the Author

Libby Cierzniak is a partner at Faegre, Baker & Daniels, LLP, practicing primarily in the area of government affairs. A native of Kokomo, she became fascinated with historic preservation and Indianapolis history in the 1990s while working in the newly renovated Statehouse. She's an avid collector of "old Indianapolis"--books, photographs, advertising and other items--and loves to research and share information with others about the city's rich and colorful history. Libby, her husband and their two chronically misbehaving dogs live in an 1894 home in the Old Northside, where she serves on the board of the neighborhood association.

6 Comments on "Indianapolis Collected: Play it again, Sam – A tragic tale of love and loss"

  1. Evan Finch July 30, 2012 at 10:36 am · Reply

    Great article! Here’s a postcard of Mike Hanrahan’s Pennhoff Grille: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shushmuckle/7670052484/

  2. Fred Myers August 4, 2012 at 11:46 pm · Reply

    Libby . . . .

    I have a copy of “Dateline: Indiana,” the 130-page book published in 1958 by the Indianapolis Press Club on its 25th anniversary. The book contains many good pictures and stories that tend to trace not only the history of the club but important events during those 25 years. The book is in perfect condition and I would very much like to give it a good home. My Dad had it in his collection of books when he died in Lafayette in 1980. He was very interested in politics and actually ran for the U.S. Senate back in the late 1930s. I was barely old enough to remember when he and my Mom attended a political rally and introduced me to Paul V. McNutt who at that time was running for governor in Indiana. I graduated from Purdue in 1957 and am now retired and living in Florence, Alabama. Even if you aren’t interested in the book, please let me know you received this. I will be coming up to Indiana in early October and would be happy to deliver the book in person.

  3. D Wilkins June 29, 2013 at 8:12 pm · Reply

    I have not searched the web in years for pictures but just did and was thrilled to find your article about the Press Club. My husband and I are the proud owners of the 20′ oak bar that came out of the PC when it was in the ISTA building. I would love to find pictures of the bar when it was in the ISTA building but so far to no avail. We had heard from our contractor who ironically did the remodel and was able to salvage the bar about the infamous piano, but he said that and the celebrity photos were all sold at auction. Any help?

  4. M. Frushour March 4, 2015 at 3:56 pm · Reply

    Hello. I have Song Book No. 2 from the Pretzel-Bell when it was located on Illinois St. Do you know of anyone who would want this, a museum, etc…? Thank you.

  5. donna mikels shea August 25, 2016 at 5:01 pm · Reply

    `Wonderful story and more history than I knew about my longtime “home away from home”, the old and then subsequent locations of the Press Club. I first visited the club before I moved to Indianapoliis back when I was still in high school but a full time reporter on the Marion In. Leader-Tribune a.m. daily and a stringer for UP before it became UPI–maybe l942-43. It was considered prestigious for an out-of-towner journalist to have a PC membership–used when regional papers covered the legislature but giving admission to other staff. (The PC always needed the money!) So by the time I took a job at The Indpls. TIMES in l943 I was already a non-member regular at the Club–mostly again because while it was all-male membership it had a lively “family” members group who gathered there almost once a week and I was renting a room in the home of newsman-member Jack Clarke (who had gone off to WW2 leaving wife and children who could use my $10 weekly rent. Mrs. Clarke worked at State House so we gathered at the club after work most every week. Again, even though women could not joined, because I covered the State House and local politics, I was recruited to help write the annual Gridiron Roast–somewhere I still have some wonderful scripts like “Malice in Blunderland” (year uncertain) and those of us who could not afford the Gridiron tab could attend final rehearsals—always a hoot. During those years there was an ordinary wood-colored upright piano–never in tune–and newsman Henry Butler and a couple of others were routinely pressed into duty for sing-alongs and general parties. The Club then fronted onto Monument Circle with a big front room where the couch served many new hires until they could find rental rooms., It had pay phones for out of town journalists phoning in stories–and opened into a larger dining room bar. At the very back there was a small wooden “bridge” which led into another smaller all-male members only bar, the home-away from home for regular fulltime drinkers like legendary statehouse reporter Jep Cadou, Star brown-bag pint in his desk reporter Bob Shepherd. (Someone in later years put a seat belt after he fell one afternoon from his designated Joe-Only stool at the bar.) Even though women traditionally could NEVER cross that bridge, somehow I must have because I could draw a sketch (if I could draw) of how you stepped into the room facing a long bar with equally long mirror over it. (Not the later historic bar mirror from Terminal location which legend says won a prize at the old St. Louis Fair and was brought here by a Germanic restaurant which used to be at the corner of Market-Ill. abutting the Grewhound terminal where the Press Club relocated after fire destroyed the Monument Circle location. Club briefly operated in pro bono space given by Claypool Hotel mgr. Bryan Karr, then moved into dingy room on west end of Greyhound terminal before wheeler-dealer Robt. Wyatt sweet-talked creation building ISTA Building on corner of Mkt and Capitol—giving the Press Club prestigious Pent House quarters which subsequently had to be whittled down in size losing the wonderful balcony facing State House.In successive fiscal crises Club ended up moving to cheap space in basement until its demise. I attended the sale where Myra bought the piano and myself bought the door sign, framed first Sunday edition of the TIMES (where I had a coveted front page byline). These and other artifacts are now being crated as I close my home of 62 years to merge homes with daughter–I WOULD LOVE TO SPEAR HEAD DRIVE TO CREATE JOURNALISM ARCHIVE AT STATE MUSEUM OR HISTORICAL SOCIETY AS TOMB STONE FOR THE DYING FIELD OF LOCAL JOURNALISM–any helpers? But back to the piano and how it got to be what it became. While still in the Monument Circle over famed Canary Cottage restaurant, the Club frequently got sponsors to “re-do” and the piano was an eyesore of spilled drink rings, cigarette burns, carved initials, political graffiti–you name it. I think Ed Sovola, a frugal president who wanted to ration the number of sheets of toilet paper per user, was the guy who said let’s paint it white–probably because they had left over white paint. Shudder to think if the left over had been pink=-or puce! But painted white it was—and it was NOT a new hire but longtime placid bus boy Willie, an African American young guy everybody loved who was blissfully unaware of all the comings and goings in the evenings which is when most of the celeb signing took place (as well as at noon and especially during 500 or big local events which brought stars, VIP;s to the club. Willie just came in one morning and saw writing on the newly painted piano and grabbed the scouring powder until someone stopped him…just smeared some signatures. But also–about Hoagy Carmichael–he came several times, once when his classical suite Brown Co, Autumn I think was being performed at ISO. Few knew in later years he became a talented self-taught artist painting oil landscapes-etc. So his photo at the piano was classic—and many years later at a “Save The Club” benefit his look-alike, sound-alike son Randy Carmichael had SRO performances at the Club performing “Carmichael Sings Carmichael” (and helping make the bar profitable.) I created one benefit where the Ind.Historical Society staffer Tom Krasean recruited young members of the Jr. His. Society who pain-stakingly “inventoried” and itemized signatures with alpha type diagram so that you could locate (example) Pres. Eisenhower, or Liberace or whatever. That was maybe in the late 70;s or 80’s so the clipping from newspaper might ne found at historical society–I remembered it appeared in perhaps the News….and probably have it somewhere among the menus, scripts, events and ephemera I kept–including great history by member Jim Nelund (I think.) Written in haste….

  6. Nancy Papas March 7, 2017 at 10:23 pm · Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful history of the Press Club AND the piano. I loved both and still hope the piano can remain in Indiana. The Indiana Historial Society might be interested.

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