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Tom Battista: Venture developing with panache

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Tom Battista at R Bistro, located in a section of Mass Ave that he helped revitalize.
  • Tom Battista at R Bistro, located in a section of Mass Ave that he helped revitalize.

Tom Battista is sitting in the courtyard of Bluebeard, the new restaurant that he helped found on Virginia Avenue. It’s a sunny early autumn afternoon. The lunch crowd has departed and the lull enables Battista a brief respite for a sandwich and a little reflection.

Battista is quick to point out that he has nothing to do with running the restaurant — that job belongs to his son, Ed. “I’m the maintenance guy,” he says. But Bluebeard, along with adjoining bakery Amelia’s, are the latest in a series of local endeavors Battista has been instrumental in getting off the ground.

Have you eaten at R Bistro or Black Market? Purchased something sweet from The Best Chocolate In Town, or a bottle from Mass Ave Wine Shoppe? Perhaps you’ve had occasion to peruse the artwork in any of the various galleries that have found an address along the 800 and 900 blocks of Mass Ave.

You could call Battista a venture developer. He’s what all these businesses have in common — the one who acquired and rehabbed buildings no one else wanted, then leased spaces to creative entrepreneurs, giving these folks the chance to take root and make Indianapolis a little more hip.

Even through dark glasses, Battista’s eyes have a twinkle. At the moment, he’s comparing himself to the title character in the 1994 Italian film, Il Postino. “Here’s this postman in a little town in Italy who’s always in the right place at the right time. That’s kind of how I feel,” he says with a bemused smile. “This building was available. A lot of people looked at it, didn’t want anything to do with it. Too much work. I made the offer at the right time.”

If there’s one thing Tom Battista’s not afraid of, it’s hard work. When others have fallen by the wayside, he’s kept going. In a world where, as Woody Allen once famously said, 80 percent of life is showing up, Battista is the guy who’s there, ready to deliver the goods.

A 'C’ student

Battista’s career is, at once, unlikely and extraordinary.

Battista was born in Indianapolis, at St. Vincent’s hospital, Fall Creek and Illinois Street on June 28, 1950. He was one of seven kids; his dad was a pharmacist who owned a drugstore located at 24th and Illinois.

Battista was taught by Jesuits at Brebeuf. “That was back when all the classes were totally separate,” he recalls. “”You never intermingled — and there were no women.”

The Jesuits, he says, “made you inquisitive.” But, by his own account, he was a lack luster student. “I always put everything off until the last minute,” Tom says of his C-student days. “I didn’t mind school, I just never thrived at it.”

It’s not that Battista was lazy. He was otherwise occupied: you could find young Tom helping his grandfather tend the family vegetable garden. Or else he was helping his father at the store. The Battista pharmacy was part of a building the family owned with multiple storefronts and apartments. “We were always remodeling them ... I would help. Of the seven kids, I was the one who was always going with Dad to work.”

When it was time for Battista to graduate from high school, Brebeuf wouldn’t give him a college recommendation. This was serious; the war in Vietnam was in full cry and, without a student deferment to attend college, Tom was almost certain to be drafted. “I had to get that 2-S deferment.”

Battista and his mother went to Bloomington and pleaded for him to be admitted to Indiana University. “They let me in on probation.”

At first, Battista was a business major. But that soon went by the board. “I didn’t think anybody in business interested me. The people that were asking the questions and talking about how history was written by the ruling class, that there was another whole group of people that never got writ- ten about — that interested me.”

When he could, Battista continued to make improvements to his dad’s building. In the meantime, he was also working for “an old concrete guy” named Finn Thornton. “He had a third-grade education but was smarter than most people I’ve ever met. I was working for $2.50 an hour, but I was learning.”

Among the lessons Thornton was imparting were how to set up a job, the importance of being prepared, and the habit of thinking ahead and anticipating next steps.

Foghat at Bush

It all came together during the summer of 1972. Tom was home from college and, as he puts it, “getting ready to drop out from society” on some land he and a friend had recently purchased in southern Indiana.

He had just finished a job for Thornton and was looking forward to a long weekend off when the phone rang. It was friend from high school calling to tell him a rock festival that was supposed to happen west of the city had been pushed to Bush Stadium because the folks in the suburbs decided at the last minute they didn’t want a crowd of hippies descending on them. “He said they got screwed by the establishment. Can you come and help?”

There was no money. Battista wouldn’t get paid. But, in exchange for helping to set up the stage, he and the other workers would get free tickets to see a bill that included Foghat, Chuck Berry and It’s a Beautiful Day. Battista says he wasn’t that into music, but he did want to see how a rock and roll show worked. It turned out that he would be learning from one of the best hands in the business.

Bruce DeForeest was in charge of the production crew. DeForeest had run sound at Woodstock. “He was the greatest guy in the world,” says Battista.

DeForeest was quickly drawn to Battista’s work ethic — that Tom actually knew what he was doing. Battista could set up scaffolding and use a level. Best of all, he could work all day and through the night without a break. “I was way ahead of all these other people who were there for the music. I was there because I knew I could produce what needed to be done in order to have a show.”

Once everything was set up, tickets were handed to Battista and the other workers. “They said to come back tomorrow and we’ll take down the stage and everything else. Well, at noon on Sunday, nobody else showed up. None of the kids that had worked for free to get into the show came back,” says Battista. “I did.”

DeForeest couldn’t believe it. He told Tom he couldn’t pay him, but he offered something even better. He asked Tom if he would help him build a nightclub in New York City. That club turned out to be the legendary Bottom Line.

“Having never been to New York City, I said, 'Sure!’” says Battista today.

He agreed to work for $4 an hour and a place to stay — at the intersection of Bleeker Street and the Bowery. “It’s the hippest area in New York now,” he says, shaking his head. “When I was there it was all bums. I carried my hammer home from work because I was kind of afraid.”

The job took six months. Afterward, the club’s owners flew Battista back to New York from Indianapolis for the opening. “There was Mick Jagger and Edgar and Johnny Winter, James Taylor — all these names I’d known about. They were all in this little 500-seat club that I built.”

Deforeest then asked Battista if he’d sign on as his assistant for David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour. “I didn’t know who David Bowie was,” laughs Battista.

Bluebeard's literary decor — and name —is in homage to Kurt Vonnegut. - MARK LEE
  • Mark Lee
  • Bluebeard's literary decor — and name —is in homage to Kurt Vonnegut.

Bowie and Buffett

Today, Battista describes Bowie as one of the few genuine geniuses he’s ever met. At that time, Bowie was certainly one of the most ambitious artists around. The set for the Diamond Dogs tour was conceived by a major Broadway designer and would be one of the most elaborate rigs created for a touring show in its day. The set involved huge walls, scrims, a catwalk, and a mechanical arm that extended over the audience. There was even an elevator. “It was the biggest show that had ever gone out.”

This was 1974, an era of mind-boggling promiscuity and excess. Battista, though, provided a steady hand. He was the only guy who knew how to set every- thing up. “It was easy to be good around people who do drugs. For a couple of days, someone on coke can stay up with me. But after the third day, they can just hang it up. When I was a kid, I could work circles around people — and still be humane and nice.”

Battista prides himself on not losing his temper with his crew. He keeps things cool in a world full of divas. “When I get a job, I never ask how much [it pays]. I ask can I do the job? Is it interesting? I’ve never asked about the money. I’ve always made good money. I don’t know why. It’s just always worked out.”

With the exception of a 10-year hiatus he took to help his wife, Sherry, a fine art conservator, raise their kids, Battista has gone on the road with rock tours every year over the course of four decades. He has worked as Jimmy Buffett’s crew chief for the past 20 years. As a result, Battista has had a chance to visit and revisit the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.

There have been plenty of opportunities to relocate, but he’s chosen to stick with Indianapolis as his home base. He loves it here, simple as that. “It’s still a very small place,” he says. “People know each other. In reality, it’s very civilized.”

And Indianapolis is where Battista has created a kind of parallel career for himself as what he calls a “small developer.” He and Sherry began by acquiring a vacant building at the end of the 900 block of Massachusetts Avenue, abutting the expressway, in 1983. Their idea was to create a lab for Sherry’s art conservation work.

But it turned out it was easier for Sherry to work from home. Then Tom was approached by a local entrepreneur, wanting to start a gardening shop for city folk. Tom called in architect Jim McQuiston for design help and set to work rehabbing the place; Urban Bloom was born.

Urban Bloom is gone now, supplanted by the restaurant Black Market. In the meantime, the Battistas acquired the retail strip running along Mass Ave’s 800 block. This stretch had been neglected for years. It was in a kind of twilight zone, defined by an old, if historically significant, art deco Coca Cola bottling plant, repurposed into the public school motor pool — and the township trustee’s office, a gray-faced office block.

The Battistas helped change that. After rehabbing their block, they made a point of making spaces available to a variety of creative enterprises. Chef Regina Mehallick, one of the founders of the Indianapolis locavore movement, put her R Bistro restaurant on one corner. Jill Ditmire moved her wine shop there. Then Elizabeth Garber set up shop with her Best Chocolate In Town. The block has also been home to art galleries, like Kuaba, for African works, and the idiosyncratic McFee.

Safe for development

Today, with a major apartment development in the works across the street, it’s hard to deny that the Battistas made this stretch of Mass Ave safe for development on a much larger scale. Tom describes his sense of accomplishment there in a more down-to-earth way: “When we bought the two buildings on Mass Ave, there were three people working in them. Now there’s over 70 people working there. Seventy people have jobs in our city who live here and spend their money here. These aren’t chains that are taking the money to Texas.”

Battista’s impact on Mass Avenue hasn’t been limited to his buildings. In 2003, he solicited a $10,000 grant from Jimmy Buffett’s philanthropic organization, Singing For Change, in order to create the infrastructure for the installation of temporary artworks. “I’m not an artist, and I don’t judge art,” Battista says. “I accept it. If people take the time to do it, it’s fine with me. I don’t worry about it. Something else will come along ... I had grade school kids digging holes to put in pedestals, so if people complain about the art I think, it’s here for a year. It’s gonna change. Get over it.”

Battista raised matching funds to get a grant from the Central Indiana Community Foundation to install 42 bike racks along Mass Ave, predating the creation of the Cultural Trail. At first, says Battista, the city wanted him to install the racks in one place, creating, in effect, a bike parking lot. “I said, 'Are you kidding me?’ They would come up with all these reasons why we couldn’t do something.” In the end, Tom, Sherry and their kids installed the racks themselves.

But Battista may be proudest of his association with the IndyFringe Festival. It started when he attended a public meeting in 2001, a gathering of theater folk and fans, called “Theatre City 2012.” The goal was to envision a livelier performing arts scene in Indianapolis. Battista remembers Butler theater students speaking up. “These students at Butler were saying, “'There’s no reason to stay in our city. There’s nothing here for us as far as theater is concerned.’”

The idea for a fringe festival arose and, his interest piqued, Battista agreed to serve as the festival’s first board chair. He helped focus festival venues on or near the Mass Avenue corridor, making Indy’s Fringe Festival a uniquely walkable happening, and identifying Mass Ave as a theater district in the bargain. In its first year, 2005, IndyFringe drew over 4,000 people. It attracted twice that many the following year; the 2012 festival drew over 15,000 people for 336 shows. “It’s a gift that keeps giving back to the city every year.”

Bluebeard's taps offer a generous supply of local beer. - MARK LEE
  • Mark Lee
  • Bluebeard's taps offer a generous supply of local beer.

Always about the bread

Battista has always had a soft spot for great bakeries.

“As I travel around the country and go to all these cities, I find some great little places to eat,” Battista says. “To me, it’s always about the bread. When a place serves mediocre bread, I know they’re where they could be.”
When, on a trip to Louisville, he was introduced to the renowned Blue Dog Bakery, he began a personal campaign and get them to open a branch of their business in Indianapolis.

Blue Dog declined to open a store here, but their owners offered to help Battista open the kind of bakery he dreamt about. Hence Amelia’s, part of the new develop-ment Battista has created on Virginia Avenue that includes the restaurant Bluebeard, as well as a barbershop and Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company.

Bluebeard’s name is derived from Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut’s novel. The restaurant, in a kind of homage, is bedecked with antique typewriters, including one that is reputed to be a replica of the machine Vonnegut used to write his book.

But the restaurant is really like a museum of found objects, including a rail from the old Virginia Avenue trolley line that Battista has managed to incorporate into the design of the bar. Tables have been crafted from a tree that once stood in Battista’s yard and he’s converted enormous old loudspeaker horns into overhead lights.

As for the food, Battista beams: “It’s unbelievable. It’s all local. It is Indianapolis. It’s these young guys that love our city and they’re here to stay.”

When Tom and Sherry, the restaurant’s majority shareholders, met with the rest of the management team, they asked themselves how the business could give back to the community. Rather than make cash contributions or donations, the group hit on the idea of realizing do-able neighborhood and community projects in the same spirit as those they accomplished on Mass Ave. “We can do more for our city, physically doing little projects than by giving money,” says Tom.

Their first project will be construction of a viewing stand overlooking the nearby interstate, in the no-man’s land between Holy Rosary, Fountain Square and Fletcher Place. “There’s a brow of a hill out there that Lilly has planted with trees,” says Battista.

The plan is to collaborate with People For Urban Progress to build a pergola using seats from Bush Stadium and roofing from the Hoosier Dome. “You’ll be able to go out there and have your lunch and wonder, 'Where are all those people going in such a hurry?’” he says, adding, “We’ll have the greatest view of Downtown.”

Which is perfect for a guy who loves seeing his city take shape. Tom Battista doesn’t just have a sense of place, he actually knows how to build it. He looks around Bluebeard’s courtyard. “When people come here and they say something like, 'Oh, this reminds me of Chicago!’ it’s a backhanded compliment. Our son, Ed, says to them, 'No. This is Indianapolis. This is local. This is us.’”

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