Still working at 90, Bill Wellman’s autobiography shares a lifetime of memories
At 90, W.F. “Bill” Wellman enjoys his job as senior vice president of Whiteco Industries. So much so that he is in the office five days a week also meeting with company employees over the telephone or in person on Saturdays to keep them abreast of new developments.
“I think I love the atmosphere of the office and I keep in touch with everyone by coming in,” Wellman said.
Wellman says his Whiteco duties include public relations and overseeing operations of the Lighthouse Restaurant in Cedar Lake.
“I also still have my finger a little bit in politics and legislation,” Wellman says.
Wellman’s entrepreneurial endeavors have included operating the Holiday Inn in Valparaiso, Bridge View Theater, the Court Restaurant, the Chuck Wagon Restaurant, being on the South Shore Visitor and Convention Bureau board, and planning, opening and promoting the Holiday Star Theatre (now known as the Star Plaza Theatre). Wellman pitched Orville Redenbacher popcorn to Holiday Inn President Kemmons Wilson at the 1967 annual franchise conference in Memphis Tennessee, helping to launch a popcorn empire.
“Kemmons was well-known as a popcorn freak and absolutely loved good popcorn,” Wellman says.
Kemmons told Wellman that Redenbacher’s was the best popcorn he had ever tasted.
“And you can tell the fellow from Valparaiso if he can figure out a way to drop ship to my Holiday Inns, I will buy his corn exclusively,” Kemmons is quoted as saying in Wellman’s autobiography.
Memories of these endeavors, Wellman’s childhood, World War II experiences and encounters with many legendary stars are all recounted in his autobiography “It’s Made to Sell Not to Drink!” The book title is based on words imparted to Wellman by his father Guy Wellman Sr.
“I have called his many sayings ‘Guy’s Laws,’” Wellman wrote. “It was during my first week of tending bar in the Palace, Dad told me his theory on drinking. ‘It’s made to sell not to drink.’”
In the book, Wellman candidly recounts growing up in Valparaiso during an era of saloons and backroom gambling. He recalls his experiences during World War II in the South Pacific and Japan.
Well-traveled to such intriguing places as China and Alaska, Wellman says returning to Kauai, Hawaii was one of his favorite trips.
“I spent so much time there during the war,” Wellman says. “I have been back four times. I remember taking my wife back there on my first vacation, a walking tour of the town (Hanapepe).”
Another World War II memory involves the legendary war correspondent and Indiana native Ernie Pyle.
“We saw him on Easter morning, the day we went into Okinawa,” Wellman says. “I saw the press boat. We waved at him and he returned the wave. He had just arrived 18 days before us coming from Europe. 18 days later he was killed on the island of le Shima and is buried in Hawaii. What made him so popular is that he wrote like one of us, lived, slept, and ate meals with us. He was a hero.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt also died that same month.
“At age 22 if you would have asked me if the president was a Democrat or a Republican I couldn’t have told you,” Wellman says. “It was not that important to young people. The president was our man. FDR was a hero. We lost those two guys in two weeks. That made us sad.”
Wellman says he has traveled to Pyle’s hometown of Dana, Ind. to see the museum, which consisted of two Quonset huts containing multi-media exhibits, vintage World War II photos and Pyle’s personal effects. It was a trip Wellman says he thoroughly enjoyed.
Another fond memory involves Bob Hope’s Christmas show.
“Before Christmas we had a chance to come off the rolling hills of Hanapepe Valley Lookout to attend one of Bob Hope’s Christmas shows,” Wellman wrote in his book. “It was a real thrill for all of us to watch Bob Hope and Jerry Colona and the beautiful singer/dancer Patty Thomas. Tears rolled in our eyes as the song 'White Christmas' was sung by the more than 18,000 gathered in a sugar cane field just before Christmas in 1944.”
Wellman says as he watched the great show he had no idea that 34 years later he would have the privilege of interviewing Bob Hope on Dean White’s radio station WZVN in Lowell.
“When I brought my pictures out, he was naming everyone on that stage,” Wellman says. “It was also interesting to see him going grocery shopping in Merrillville pushing his cart around.”
Wellman says his biggest honor was being named to the Indiana Restaurant Hospitality Hall of Fame. He says he was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Dave Thomas, of Wendy’s fame, and Arnie Cohen of Arnie’s Restaurant in Lafayette.
Wellman opened Bridge Vu Theater June 26, 1969 featuring WGN Radio personality Wally Phillips and former Chicago Bear football coach Abe Gibron. Bridge Vu Theater started in a tent and was later moved to a permanent building. The theater partnered with Valparaiso University in its productions.
“I was so young the stars all wanted to help me to be a success and taught me as much as they could,” Wellman says. “It was a thrill for Valparaiso University students to be involved with real pros.”
Many of those former students have gone on to create their own successful theater careers, Wellman says, including Katie Hanley, who created the role of Marty in the original cast of Grease and appeared in movies including “Godspell” and “Xanadu,” and David Rupprecht who hosted “Supermarket Sweepstakes” for many years and appeared in national theater tours including “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” starring Donald O’Connor.
“It is amazing how many kept that livelihood and were successful,” Wellman says.
Other stars appearing at Bridge Vu were Imogene Coca in “Plaza Suite;” Joan Bennett; Jerry VanDyke; Count Basie; Mickey Rooney; Henny Youngman; Morie Amsterdam; Phyllis Diller; and Robert Horton, of “Wagon Train” fame, who stared in “The Odd Couple.”
Wellman says Horton also just turned 90 and he plans to have breakfast with the star in California in December.
“We spent quite a bit of time together in Valparaiso,” Wellman says.
Wellman says Diller, who died about a year ago, would call him annually and each year sent him a hand-made Christmas card which she designed.
“She was a friend,” Wellman says.
Wellman believes it is important to not get down about your circumstances but to forge ahead.
“When I was down as bad as I could be financially, I had to make some real decisions,” Wellman says. “I had some choices. I could open up Court Restaurant in Valparaiso or become 50 percent owner of Phil Schmidt’s. Back then there was no I-65 or 80. It would take one hour and 15 minutes to drive each way to Phil Schmidt’s. I decided to stay in Valparaiso.”
Wellman says Court Restaurant’s menu, made to resemble an authentic 1800’s menu, won national acclaim.
Wellman first met Dean White during Bridge Vu Theater’s prime. Both owned Holiday Inn hotels, which were filled with guests Monday through Thursday.
“He had 120 rooms in Merrillville and I had 100 rooms in Valparaiso,” Wellman says. “I had Bridge Vu Theater so my weekends were filled also.”
Wellman joined Whiteco Industries July 28, 1976.
“We worked on theater for almost a year before we opened it,” Wellman says.
The first Holiday Star show was Four Girls Four featuring Helen O’Connell, Margaret Whiting, Rose Marie and Rosemary Clooney.
“I remember the day,” Wellman says. “I was way up in the balcony when I heard Margaret Whiting say to the rest of them that the acoustics were great.”
On the following Monday, Wellman says, says he received phone calls from Teibel’s, Phil Schmidt’s and Strongbow restaurants wanting to know the theater’s calendar so they could be prepared for the influx of diners on show nights. Wellman estimated 95 percent of the 3400 theater patrons ate somewhere other than at home that night.
Holiday Star Theatre had its Grand Opening on Dec. 19, 1979 featuring singer Donna Summer. One of Wellman’s favorite celebrities was Liberace.
“He was one of the most interesting, friendly, easy to get along with entertainers,” Wellman says. “He was the best showman and could get a crowd in the palm of his hand. He was fun to work with and we worked with him a lot.”
Other memorable Holiday Star Theatre acts mentioned in “It’s Made to Sell Not to Drink!” include Bill Cosby, Tom Jones, Gladys Knight, Kenny Rogers and Englebert Humperdinck.
With such a full life involving travel, celebrities and multiple endeavors, Wellman says, participating in the Honor Flight was one of his greatest experiences.
“I was so surprised at how personalized they made it,” Wellman says. “I didn’t see it coming. When flying home all the lights came on and they yelled ‘mail call.’ Everyone was given a manila envelope full of letters from your family.”
More details of Wellman’s life and experiences with the stars can be found in his autobiography “It’s Made to Sell Not to Drink” which can be purchased at amazon.com.