When he was 12 years old, Michael Hanrahan decided to run away. For two weeks during the summer of 1907, he survived by selling newspapers on the street, making deliveries at City Market, and sleeping in the hallway of an empty building on Kentucky Avenue. When he was finally apprehended, the sobbing boy told a juvenile court judge that he ran away from home because he was afraid he would be sent to jail for not attending church.
As The Indianapolis Star later reported, Hanrahan’s plan to avoid prison backfired when the judge ordered him to spend two weeks at the Juvenile Detention Home. And this would not be Hanrahan’s last brush with the wrong side of the law. A quarter century later, he would be hauled away from his glitzy tavern in handcuffs to become the first and only person ever prosecuted in Indianapolis for serving whiskey in a glass.
Hanrahan made headlines in July 1934 when he was charged with violating a 1933 state law that prohibited the sale of “spiritous beverages” by the drink. While taverns were permitted to serve patrons a mug of beer or a glass of wine, the only way a thirsty Hoosier could lawfully consume a shot of whiskey was by going to the corner drugstore and purchasing an entire bottle.
Restaurants and taverns openly ignored the ban, which was widely viewed as unconstitutional under the recently adopted 21st Amendment. However, after the state attorney general issued a contrary opinion, local officials became determined to bring a test case before a court for a definitive ruling on the law’s constitutionality.
In the morning of Friday, July 13, the Star reported that bartenders across Indy had “the jitters” in the wake of rumors that an arrest was imminent. Before the day ended, these same bartenders would breathe a collective sigh of relief when they learned Mike Hanrahan had been singled out for the dubious honor of serving as the defendant in the test case.
The selection of Hanrahan should have been no surprise to anyone who followed the local political scene. Mayor Reginald Sullivan was a Democrat, while Hanrahan was a prominent Republican and former aide to the secretary of the GOP State Committee. Further, his arrest would draw plenty of news coverage, because the newly established Indianapolis Press Club was headquartered in the basement of Hanrahan’s tavern. And Hanrahan had openly flouted the liquor-by-the-glass ban, publishing a glossy “Wine List” that featured seven pages of exotic cocktails such as the Bird of Paradise, Merry Widow, Night in Paris and the brandy-spiked “Hospital Special,” which was billed as an “Overseas Favorite.”
On the evening of Hanrahan’s arrest, Charles Silk from Bainbridge, Indiana came into the Pennhoff Grille and ordered a straight whiskey. Hanrahan poured him a glass of Old Ironsides. A few minutes later, Edward Hunter of 518 Taft asked for the same order. Two plainclothes police officers who were sitting nearby drinking “several beers” (as noted in the official police report) leaped from their seats and arrested Hanrahan. They also confiscated Hunter’s glass and even his dollar bill, which the Star reported was serial-number C21335313 for “those want their details minute.”
Police officials announced that the Hanrahan arrest would serve as the “test case” of the law’s constitutionality, and that no additional arrests would be made until the case was disposed of. Hanrahan was then released from the city prison on a $500 bond and promptly returned to the Pennhoff Grille to continue serving liquor by the drink. When a reporter suggested to Hanrahan that his arrest could have been politically motivated given the fact that several Democrat gin joints were closer to the police station, the tavern owner just smiled and chalked up his bad luck to “Friday the 13th.”
The Star — which then had a sufficient number of reporters to cover the important news of the day – dispatched a reporter to various downtown taverns to investigate whether Hanrahan’s arrest had slowed the river of liquor flowing into patrons’ glasses. The reporter found that Old Fashioned cocktails were still available at the Pennhoff Grille for 30 cents, and “were no harder to procure than before the arrest.” A whiskey sour cost 30 cents at a bar around the corner, while down the alley from the Pennhoff a straight shot of whiskey could be obtained for a mere 15 cents.
Hanrahan’s trial was delayed for months as attorneys for both sides filed voluminous briefs. Meanwhile, the doors to the Pennhoff Grille remained open, with Hanrahan even receiving permission from the City Council during a specially called meeting in December 1934 to install a taxi stand in front of his tavern.
The issue facing the court in the Pennhoff case became moot in early 1935, when the General Assembly passed a comprehensive liquor licensing law that authorized “high grade restaurants, hotels, and clubs” with a “high and fine reputation for decency and law obedience” to sell spirits by the glass.
The newly enacted law included a number of safeguards aimed at preventing the return of the “open saloon,” including a prohibition on issuing permits to “night clubs” or “roadhouses” outside of the city limits and a requirement that to the fullest extent possible, all licensed premises offer a “full, free and unobstructed vision” of their interiors to passerby on the streets. To that end, high-backed booths were banned, and all patrons were required to be seated.
It’s unclear whether Hanrahan’s funds ran dry during the protracted litigation, or whether his tavern failed to pass muster under the new licensing law, but the Pennhoff Grille closed its doors in 1935. However, other taverns had sprung up across Indianapolis. Samuel Barringer received a license to serve spirits in his confectionary at 2535 S. Meridian. Edward DeBaise opened at tavern in a former feather store at 433 Massachusetts, and Richard Duke established a tavern in a former furniture store at 5170 N. College. While Barringer’s closed unexpectedly last year after an impressive 80-year run, the drinks are still flowing nightly at the latter two establishments, which were later named the Chatterbox and the Red Key Tavern.
In the months following the repeal of Prohibition, other neighborhood taverns opened across Indianapolis, but were later closed as the surrounding neighborhoods changed. For example, when the Kollege Keg opened at 1601 N. College in 1934, the street was still largely residential, with single-family homes and apartments standing alongside a drugstore and an A&P grocery.
Although more commercial establishments were opened over the next two decades, including a dry cleaners, a laundromat, and two package liquor stores, the corner was still hopping in 1951, when Billboard magazine reported that Smoky Wallace and the Western Playboys were headlining at the Kollege Keg. But by the mid-1960s, the Kollege Keg had been demolished and replaced by a gas station. Today, spirits are once again available at 1601 College, but only by the bottle for patrons of the Community Spirits package liquour store.
Last year, a seller on ebay offered a cache of matchbooks from 1950s-era Indy bars. Although I am not a matchbook collector, I was curious to see whether any of the bars featured on the colorful matchbooks had survived the years in one form or another.
Using the matchbooks as my guide, I put together a list of 53 different bars and then entered their addresses on Google Earth to see what cropped up. I was dismayed to discover that the Merry Go-Round-Bar at 4825 E. New York (“Famous For Food and Fun”) was now the site of a boarded-up business. Blake’s nightclub at 2326 E. Washington had met a similar fate, notwithstanding the fact that country duo Homer & Jethro (the “Thinking Man’s Hillbillies”) had once called Blake’s “one of the great saloons in Indianapolis” and even based the lyrics of their hit song “Listen to the Gooney Bird” on words they had found scrawled on the wall of the men’s room at Blake’s.
Most of the old taverns on my matchbook list are long gone. Vacant lots are all that remains of the Miror Bar and Alibi Tavern. The land where the Dixie and Huddle Taverns once stood are now parking lots, and the Dew-Drop Inn has been demolished and replaced with a MacExperience. The Step-In Lounge (“You Are But A Stranger Here Once”) is now the site of the OneAmerica tower, and the Sportsman’s Bar (“The Town’s Gayest Spot”) has been replaced with apartments. Only the building where the Old Tunnel Tavern once thrived still remains, the former home of the since-shuttered Ugly Monkey.
Like many HI readers, I have a soft spot in my heart for neighborhood bars, the sort of place that calls to mind the theme song from “Cheers.”
You want to go where people know, people are all the same
You want to go where everybody knows your name
Because I am dedicated to bringing HI readers the most comprehensive research on topics that are of interest to me, last weekend I recruited two research assistants to join me in the hunt for genuine neighborhoods bars that date back to 1930s. Eschewing familiar haunts such as the Chatterbox, the Red Key Tavern, and the Workingman’s Friend, we ventured to places where we had never gone before and were delighted with the people we met and the beer we drank. The Dorman Street Saloon in Cottage Home, the Golden Ace on East Washington, and the Silver Circle in Fletcher Place are all well worth a visit.
Here are some photos of our preliminary findings. Clearly more work is required — much more work — before we gather enough data to publish our study in a respected academic journal. In fact, we anticipate a lot of heavy lifting (12 ounces or 16 ounces) before our project is completed. But no one ever said that historic research was easy.