Phil Potempa’s “Making Headlines” shows connections between people who made headlines and people who wrote them
by Melanie Jongsma
MUNSTER, Ind. (June 29, 2018) – If you grew up with Ann Landers columns taped to your refrigerator, you’ll want to see The Lady With All The Answers at Munster’s Theatre at the Center. And you should arrive at least an hour early to take in the companion exhibit in the atrium— “Making Headlines: From Ann Landers to Walter Winchell.” The exhibit is an impressive display of photographs, autographs, personal correspondence, and personal effects once owned by advice columnist Ann Landers, radio commentator Walter Winchell, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and an impressive variety of celebrities.
All the pieces are from the personal collection of Phil Potempa, journalist, columnist, author, and now Marketing Director for the Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Munster.
A connection collection
Potempa didn’t set out to become a collector. But as a young journalist, he began meeting interesting people and learning from seasoned veterans. Potempa met Ann Landers toward the end of her life, and she kept up a correspondence with him. “She was very, very nice,” remembers Potempa.
After Landers’ death in 2002, her daughter decided to sell parts of the estate, and Potempa had the opportunity to purchase some items that were meaningful to him—particularly the manual typewriter Landers traveled with, and part of her collection of “keys to the city” she had been honored with throughout her career.
Ann Landers’ top competitor and twin sister, “Dear Abby,” is also included in the exhibit. In fact, Potempa loves pointing out how interconnected all the exhibit items are. A display of Barbara Hutton clippings includes a photo of third husband Cary Grant, who also appears in the Howard Hughes display. And Barbara Hutton’s fifth husband, Porfirio Rubirosa, dallied with Zsa Zsa Gabor, who appears on the cover of a society magazine in the Elsa Maxwell section of the exhibit. With hyperlinks that exist as physical objects rather than clickable words, “Making Headlines” is a web of collected connections, and Potempa is linked to them all.
When you realize all these images and artifacts are from one man’s personal collection, it’s natural to wonder, “Where does he keep all this stuff?” But Potempa explains, “Think about it, I mean, if you took off all the paintings and things from all your walls, the bedrooms and living rooms, and everywhere, it would look like about this much. So it’s not really that much. Just,instead of other stuff on the walls, I have these things.” Potempa has a personal connection to the people represented by the pieces, so it makes sense for him to have them hanging throughout his home.
For example, he says, he never had a Phyllis Diller “display” in his home— “because she was just someone who felt more like family to us.” She was his first celebrity interview, and “over the years, she would always stay in touch,” says Potempa. When she was performing in the area, Potempa and his family would come see her show, and she would invite them backstage afterward. “She was just very nice and down-to-earth, a good person through and through—not at all like her stage persona, with the cigarette holder and the jokes about being a terrible housewife!” When Potempa put together his first cookbook, Diller contributed some of her recipes, and she wrote a prayer that was included in the front of the book. She was also something of an artist, and two small Diller paintings are included in the “Making Headlines” exhibit.
Enjoying the exhibit
“Making Headlines” is more than a journalism exhibit. Potempa sums up the theme as, “People who made headlines, and people who wrote them.” The items are in displayed in logical groupings, and the groupings surround the atrium. Visitors can start anywhere, working their way around the circumference, or hopping from one section to another. A Charles Dickens grouping is closest to the main entrance to the Center, and the Hugh Hefner display is farthest, in the hallway to the right of the main theater entrance.
But Ann Landers is the anchor of the exhibit, not only because she is someone Potempa considered a friend, but also because she represents the power of the written word and responsible journalism. Potempa recalls that Landers was once ranked the most influential woman in America. “She could change public opinion,” he says. “If she put something in her column saying ‘write your congressman,’ bags of mail would come in. Laws would get changed because of what she wrote.”
And having the exhibit available during the run of The Lady with all the Answers provides some tangible context for theater-goers.
Something to look for
Among the dozens of celebrity signatures included throughout the Making Headlines exhibit are only three from people who are still alive today—Hollywood film actress Olivia de Havilland (who is 102 years old), entertainer Ann-Margret (who is 77), and writer Margo Howard (78), who is Ann Landers’ only daughter.
About the exhibit
“Making Headlines: From Ann Landers to Walter Winchell” is a free exhibit running in conjunction with Theatre at the Center’s summer run of The Lady with all the Answers, a play about the life of syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers. Because the exhibit is in the atrium, it is open for viewing anytime the Center for Visual and Performing Arts is open.
About the play
Previews of The Lady with all the Answers begin July 12 with an Opening Night performance on Sunday, July 15. The production continues through August 12. Performances are 2:00pm Wednesdays and Thursdays; 7:30pm Fridays; 3:00pm and 7:30pm Saturdays; and 2:30pm on Sundays, with select Thursday and Sunday night performances.
Individual ticket prices range from $42.00–$46.00. Group discounts are available for groups of 11 or more. Student tickets are $20. Gift certificates are also available. For purchasing information, call the Box Office at 219-836-3255 or Tickets.com at 800-511-1532.
Theatre at the Center is located at 1040 Ridge Road in Munster, Indiana.