Often times .. as I’ve wandered around the country .. I’m constantly reminded that the absolute greatest treasures of this country lie in the little obscure towns that few people hear about .. especially when those little burgs have a population less than 1200. As a country boy .. I grew up in the mid-west around those little towns .. so I guess I have a deeper appreciation for what I call the real “heartbeat of America” when I see a single railroad track running through the center of one of these icons of our heritage.
For years, Indiana has been called the “crossroads of America”. The obvious reasons of course, on a grand scale the size of our country .. are so many major highways, interstates and railroads that all converge in Indianapolis .. in the heart of our state. And, in the heart of our country .. this one huge intersection is but a representation of the countless microcosms throughout the world .. each with a life of its own .. seemingly insignificant .. yet each as important and critical to our existence as the blood that courses through our veins. Each having a story to be discovered .. and each with characters I crave to meet.
Redkey is one of those little towns with a big story. It reminds me of a Norman Rockwell painting .. the old brick buildings .. one still adorned with “Chew Mail Pouch”, a working clock tower, Papa’s Pizzeria with it’s “Gold Medal Flour”, the Redkey Antique Mall, the old funnel-top water tower .. and, of course, the railroad track running straight through town. But as far as I’m concerned .. and I’m sure many would agree with me .. the true heart and soul of Redkey is “The Key” .. known worldwide as the Key Palace Theatre.
“The Key” was the brainchild of Charlie Noble. Born in Muncie (home of the Ball jars) and graduating from another one of our tiny crossroad towns, Royerton High School .. his passion for theatre took him to L.A. and Chicago, where he performed at the renowned Goodman Theatre. But it was in the Chicago southside bars that Charlie discovered the blues. Little did he know then the number of lives his newfound passion would impact.
Charlie was a millwright and an iron worker .. and helped construct The World Trade Centers, The Sears Tower, The John Hancock Building and the Alaskan Pipeline. When he returned to Indiana he worked at a local factory and continued his love of theatre while performing at the Civic in Muncie. But his stroke of genius came when he bought the little movie theater near the downtown intersection in Redkey for $1000 and named it Key Palace. He originally wanted to do live plays at “The Key” .. so he personally restored the old 232 seat theatre in his spare time over a period of years. It was literally a labor of love until its birth in 1991 .. complete with Charlie’s own blood, sweat & tears.
Charlie was at a Blues Festival in Memphis when he met Delbert McClinton. Long story short .. Charlie talked Delbert into performing at The Key. The Palace has been “cryin’ the blues” ever since. As Charlie was now totally committed to bringing world-class musicians to Indiana .. he traveled the blues circuit extensively and formed alliances and relationships with some of the top bluesmen and women in the country. And how many bikers do you know who don’t love the blues? Yeah .. same here .. none that I know of. So, for almost ten years now, The Key has been one of my very favorite blues venues .. and I’ve seen quite a few.
“The Slippery Noodle” in Indianapolis is right up there .. but it just happens to be the oldest bar in the entire state. They might bring in a lot of new talent and some well known stars .. but they’ve also got some pretty deep pockets. Charlie started with an old, cold run-down theatre with every dime he could spare .. but added the unmistakable ingredient of his character .. and it left an impression on everyone who drove to the middle of nowhere just to listen to some great blues.
More importantly .. the venue was loved by the artists themselves. Being such a small place, even with a packed house .. it became a “personal” experience to everyone in attendance. Charlie put up stone columns out front with barnwood décor .. an old wooden plank sidewalk .. rustic & real. When you enter the theater it has the same old vestibule with a small ticket window on the right .. and posters on the walls of current or upcoming shows. You can even call in to reserve tickets and they’ll be waiting for you when you arrive.
From the vestibule .. the entry doors are on either side .. once through, someone will take your ticket and you can check your coat on the right. Right in the center of the lobby area is the vintage concession stand. Popcorn, cokes, candy .. just like the old theater used to be. Behind you on the right or left are the men’s & women’s restrooms .. or you can enter the isles on each side to find an original crushed velvet flip-down seat. Most of them still work quite well. I like to sit down front on the left side .. the outside rows are only two wide and right down front the bands set up a table to sell their cd’s or T’s. And this interaction with the band is where The Key provides you that extra intimate experience you don’t find anywhere else.
The whole area in front of the elevated stage is a dance floor .. and everyone dances! Sometimes .. with a packed house .. we’re standing and dancing throughout the house. To the right of the dance floor .. Charlie opened up the wall into the adjacent building .. where he built a bar .. a kitchen .. filled it with fixed wooden tables and beams .. and serves “Zeke’s Monster Burgers”. They’re HUGE .. grilled fresh out back .. a side order of chips and a table of condiments to pile on all the pickles & onions you care to. The walls are incredible murals with huge portraits of some of the world’s music icons .. BB King, Stevie Ray, Jimi, Eric .. too many to mention. Charlie made it a place you want to experience.
It’s a destination ride for many of my biker friends .. and almost any Thursday, Friday or Saturday one would find a string of bikes parked in a row in front of Charlie’s baby. That is .. until the Indiana winter proves too intense for the weak-hearted. Or maybe I should restate that and say “the stupid” .. and admit my “poor decision”. I have heard it said, however .. that bad decisions make for good stories. I’ll let you be the judge.
It was February .. and it was already cold. But the roads were dry and I didn’t want to feel like I pussed out if my friends showed up on two wheels. The prudent mid-westerner would have cut a piece of cardboard to slip in front of their radiators to give their water cooled engines a chance to warm up just about the time they arrived at their destination. Me ..? I took an extra thermal top and a dry shirt to layer under it after a sweaty night of dancing. After all .. I only had 30 miles to ride. Along the way .. and when I arrived .. I discovered I was the only bike on the road that night. Charlie thought I was insane .. we laughed .. and I got some hot coffee to warm up.
After another incredible show .. it was well after midnight as Bosco warmed up and I put on everything I had in my bags in preparation for the crisp night air. I even wrapped a big scarf around my neck .. put on some insulated ski gloves .. and snapped a face shield on my helmet. Did I say “crisp” .. ? Fucking COLD was an understatement! My breath froze under the face shield and I was constantly sliding my left hand up under it and using my knuckles to scrape a spot to even see through.
It was seventeen degrees out .. and if you know anything about speed and it’s correlation to wind chill .. I’m guessing the more I hurried to get home the closer it got to forty below zero! I couldn’t put my nylon gloves on the hot jugs to warm up .. and before long I couldn’t even feel my hands. I had to stop about half way home just to move my joints .. as my knees were frozen and I had to rely on the mechanical knowledge of operating the control levers because I couldn’t feel them at all.
My nuts crawled so far up into hibernation I can’t even remember how many days it was before they came back to life and made me a man again.
For me .. that night scribed a new definition of “cold”. My nuts crawled so far up into hibernation I can’t even remember how many days it was before they came back to life and made me a man again. It seemed as if an eternity had passed as I fumbled to undress and soak in a hot tub to thaw out .. and I always wondered how close my digits actually were to frostbite. Too close .. period. Even now, as I’ve ridden at high mountain elevations with snow on the ground .. I always remember that one night. And that’s my benchmark for “cold”.
Unfortunately, Charlie died last month. Though our small part of the world may be saddened somewhat by the passing of our dear friend .. we are, in turn, so blessed for the smiles, the laughter, and the many memories that are forever etched into our very own characters because of him. Because of him .. my signed cd collection has grown as I’ve had the privilege of talking and sharing drinks with the likes of Shirley King (BB’s daughter), Ronnie Baker Brooks, Chris Beard, Howard & the White Boys, Delbert McClinton, Stacy Mitchart, Eddie “House Rockin'” Shaw .. the list goes on and on. Much like the love that came from one man .. from one little intersection in the middle of nowhere ..
“A giant is as a giant does” .. and in the world of blues .. Charlie was a giant. We’ll miss his signature bad jokes as he introduced his guests .. but in our hearts, we all know Charlie fulfilled his dream. His idea came to life .. and “The Key” lives on .. as well as his energy. I know that every time I hear a great blues tune .. I think of Charlie. His family will keep the Key Palace alive .. and if you ever get the chance .. go experience what he gave us.
And as the old saying goes .. “if I only had a dime” for every soul he touched and every life he made his indelible impact upon … but for now, Charlie is on another “adventure” of his own .. and I can only imagine what a story that will be.
Until next time .. ride smart .. ride safe
and the Adventure continues …