G.B.'s Brother, Joe, Carries on the Tradition
by Kim Rush, John Russo, and Martin Starr
Curiously, during the last month that Russo Café advertisements appear in the Grand Rapids Press, G.B. posted a battery of advertisements spanning fourteen days. Five months later, his youngest brother Joe opened a nightclub named Indian Village. It was located at 3854-62 Division near Bigelow Field, at Loraine and Division.
Joe had played drums in his high school band, competing in state band competitions in the late 1920s. He was a close friend of Gerald Ford, having played football with him at South High School. He performed for Roma Hall engagements and became very well connected with the local jazz music scene, and was also a drummer in the Grand Rapids Italian band. Jennie Russo recalls Joe playing with a trio at Roma Hall consisting of piano, sax and Joe on drums.
Joe ran newspaper ads for his Indian Village nightclub beginning in January 1936 through May of 1937, though it was operational as late as 1938. When G.B. quit advertising for Russo Cafe in late July of 1935, it may have had something to do with the revocation of his beer and wine license. He hired a lawyer named John VanderWal to settle his problem with the city commission.
Furthermore, Russo may have chosen to support his brother by choosing not to compete against Joe’s new club. Jennie Russo provides yet another explanation as well as some additional information about Indian Village, “It got to be too much for my father. He had the store and a delivery business. There were not many Italian food stores at that time and his products were in high demand. Indian Village was similar to my father’s café. My grandmother cooked Italian cuisine for Joe’s restaurant.”
It is also likely that G.B. was negotiating a deal with “Club Indigo” founders, namely attorneys Floyd Skinner and John Shakelford and mortician Milo Brown. They sought to secure Roma Hall as the location for their new nightclub. With some business being lost to Buzzitta’s rental hall across the street, G.B. was probably looking for new customers. Aside from his café business, much of his previous rental hall income was from Italian weddings and dances.
Joe Russo was the last person to reside in the apartments of the Russo complex before it was torn down in 1991.
John Russo: “The Roma Hall was seldom used in the 1980s, and then mostly for African-American dances. But there was so much deterioration of the property that it no longer passed city codes and we eventually couldn't use it anymore. The building seemed pretty solid until the last few years. Then I could see sagging in the front rooms upstairs. The floor in the dance hall had always sagged under weight of dancers.”
Numerous ethnic groups used Roma Hall, one of G.B.’s business inventions, for a plethora of purposes during five decades. G.B.’s second wife, Giovannina (Jennie) had saved quantities of old memorabilia, some of which likely related to bookings at Roma Hall. Family collectibles were preserved as well, and many of these items were stored in the vicinity of the Roma Hall. After the roof collapsed over the dance hall, no one was allowed access.
A wrecking crew worked for a few days to tear down and haul away the ruins of the Russo complex. Nothing from the buildings was salvaged, including Jennie Russo’s Roma Hall ledgers.