One of the first things you learn as a collector is what constitutes a collection. The rules are pretty simple. If you have two of a kind, you have a pair. If you have two different sets of two of a kind, you have two pairs. But the minute you add a third item to either set, you have a collection.
Last week, I became a collector of vintage Indianapolis tourist guides when I purchased an old book at an antique show in Nashville, Tennessee. Like most collections, it started by accident. Earlier this year, I bought a 1959 copy of This Week in Indianapolis, a tourist guide published by the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. Shortly thereafter, I stumbled upon a 1939 copy of the same publication. I wasn’t thinking about either of these items last week when I bought the Souvenir, Song Book and Official Programme of the 4th Annual Convention of the Epworth League Held in Indianapolis, but as soon I read it, I realized that it was similar in many respects to the old This Week publications. That’s how I became an Accidental Tourist Guide Collector.
You can learn a lot about Indianapolis by poring over old tourist guides, so long as you realize that the glimpse they provide of our city is about as accurate as the snapshot of you that your great-great grandchildren will get when they download your Facebook postings 50 years from now. Tourist guides show only the parts of the city that convention organizers actually want people to see. Still, it’s intriguing to see some of the places that are included in these books.
The Epworth convention guide, for example, has four pages listing addresses and pastors of all 32 Methodist Episcopal churches in the city, along with listings for Presbyterian, Lutheran, Congregational and Protestant denominations. That’s not surprising, given the fact that the Epworth League is a national organization for young Methodists. The guide also provides information about various sites that remain popular with tourists today – the Statehouse, Monument Circle, the Benjamin Harrison home and the canal path. But the guide also suggests convention-goers visit some sites that may seem strange to our 21st century sensibilities, including the “Insane Asylum” which is “equipped in a style unsurpassed by any similar institution in the United States,” and the Women’s Prison and Girl’s Reformatory, where the humane treatment of prisoners is “unrivaled in style and moral results.”
Indianapolis’ street railway system was a particular point of pride for convention organizers in 1899, and the guide listed several “Pleasant Trips by Electric Street Car,” including one which culminated at Manual Industrial Training School, a site described as “well worth visiting.”
Fast forward 40 years to May 1939, and This Week in Indianapolis, a visitors’ guide published by the Indianapolis Convention and Publicity Bureau, brags that “Indianapolis has one of the most modern city transportation systems in the U.S.A.” A map and detailed listing of all street cars, trackless trolley cars and city buses is included, allowing visitors to travel with ease to the various points of interest noted in the guide.
A “Simplified Sightseeing” tour includes stops at the Bates-McGowan house at 13th and Delaware (described in the guide as the inspiration for Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons”), and at the homes of authors Kin Hubbard and Meredith Nicholson. In a “spirit of helpfulness,” the guide also suggests a number of other sites that are “interesting and inexpensive places to go,” including the free clinic at the Indiana Dental School, the State Fish Hatchery, and the Sunnyside Tuberculosis Sanitarium.
This Week was underwritten in part through advertisements for hotels and restaurants. While most of the ads were fairly low-key (“Guaranty Cafeteria – Just Good Food”), the ad for Red Gables (aka “The Gay Spot of Indianapolis”) touted chicken, steak and frog leg dinners, two floor shows nitely, and dancing every night except Sunday. [Click here to see how Red Gables looks today.]
When September 1959 rolled around, Indianapolis was preparing to host annual conventions for the Indiana Burial Vault Association, the Indiana Brown Swiss Breeders Association and the notorious Indiana Association of Hospital Accountants. In order to ensure that conventioneers had a good time in the capital city, the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors’ Bureau packed This Week with 29 pages of advertisements for bars, nightclubs, taverns, and restaurants. A handful of listings for churches were added at the back of the guide in event that a visitor felt the need for religion after a night on the town.
A full-page advertisement for LaRue’s Supper Club enticed convention-goers with descriptions of the exotic Blackamoor Room, the festive Gay Nineties Room, and the tropical splendor of the Penthouse, which featured a variety of musical stars. In its heyday, LaRue’s truly was one of the city’s finest supper clubs, but the mansion fell into disrepair and was later demolished to make way for the interstate.
In an apparent effort to attract tourists who didn’t know the difference, Charles Vandenbork opened a supper club with a similar name to LaRue’s and dubbed it “Indianapolis’ Smartest Supper Club”. LaBee’s Supper Club lasted for a few years at 2250 North Meridian, but was soon replaced by Shannon’s Roaring Twenties. Described in the mid 1960s as a “go-go bar,” Shannon’s Roaring Twenties gained a reputation over the next two decades as a notorious strip club. Its liquor license was finally yanked, and in 2010 the building was demolished so the site could be used as a parking lot for the newly remodeled Sheldrake Apartments.
The Brass Rail at 145 N. Illinois was another favorite spot for visitors seeking good music and risque fun. The tavern featured bawdy blues singer Ophelia Hoy, a big woman who reputedly could pick up 50 cent pieces with various parts of her anatomy. According to a recent biography of Jimi Hendrix, the legendary guitarist ran out of money in Indianapolis in 1962 and tried to get a job at the Brass Rail with Hoy’s back-up band. Hendrix was not hired and the rest is rock-and-roll history.
Jackie’s Lounge also bought ad space in This Week, boasting of its “Cocktail Hour” from noon to 6 p.m. and the “Business Men’s Luncheons” from 11 to 3. Located in an old mansion at 16th & Meridian, Jackie’s was the kind of place where Don Draper would have felt right at home. Jackie’s didn’t aspire to be Indianapolis’ finest or smartest supper club, but as a former manager recently posted “if Jackie’s raised a few eyebrows back then, we were a HELL of a lot classier than Shannon’s Roaring Twenties.”
Other advertisers included the Circle Tavern at 37 Monument Circle and the Fox Burlesk at Illinois and New York Streets. Housed in an old vaudeville theatre, the Fox promised customers that no movies would be shown and that instead they would be treated to “Exotic, Beautiful, Strip-Tease Artists On Stage In-Person!” In the following years, the Fox did start showing porno movies and was eventually demolished.
Merrill’s Hi-Decker was another popular spot for both locals and visitors, featuring a $1.59 steak special that could be enjoyed in the restaurant’s “Two Beautiful Dining Rooms” or in the customer’s own car. Younger patrons preferred the latter option so they could listen to disc jockey Dick Summer playing the newest rock-and-roll hits from the WIBC radio booth on the restaurant’s roof. His show featured a “make it or break it game” where he would ask patrons to honk their car horns to vote on whether a new record should be played again or broken in half.
Little is known, however, about Kim & Maurice’s at 29 W. Ohio. Its 1959 advertisement promised awful music, terrible food, weak cocktails and shoddy service, all accompanied by a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Hard to believe it’s no longer in business.
While the city’s “hot spots” for tourists have changed since 1959, one thing remains constant. Noticeably absent from the September 1959 edition of This Week was any mention of Indianapolis’ public transportation system, which had been touted in 1939 as “the best in the nation”. That’s because the streetcar era ended at 3:10 a.m. on January 9, 1953 when the aptly named “Streetcar Named Expire” finished its farewell run on College Avenue and rolled into the terminal for the last time. Sixty years later, visitors to Indianapolis are still waiting for a ride.