Monday, October 21, 2019

Campy Horror-Flick Producer Director Bill Rebane Did It His Way

Bill Rebane (L) and Robert Wilhelm III in Superior.
A couple weeks back I had lunch with Bill Rebane and Robert Wilhelm III as they prepared to shoot the first episode of their current project Masters of Valor: Soldiers of Distinction, The Untold Stories. I was told Rebane was a movie producer who made campy, low budget horror flicks on his 200-acre property The Shooting Ranch  in Central Wisconsin. Flicks like The Giant Spider Invasion, Invasion from Inner Earth and The Capture of Bigfoot. More than a dozen films have his fingerprints on them as director, producer, cinematographer and/or writer.

Once we met I felt like there was a much bigger story to tell. Or rather, that there were many stories that could be told. The first is the real life drama of being born in Latvia, one of the Baltic States situated between the Soviet Union and Western Europe. 1937.

For centuries the Baltic states were ruled by outsiders. Russia, Finland and Sweden "owned" the geography like landlords and Germany served to "manage" the property. This arrangement was terminated at the end of World War I when these countries were given their independence, a self-rule that was short lived.

In 1940, Stalin's army took over these countries and soon began abducting the young men to fight for Mother Russia against Finland or work in the mines. I learned about these events through my friendship in the 1990s with an older Estonian man whose experiences I captured in an un-produced screenplay.

In 1942 the Nazis rolled East and liberated the Baltic states from Stalin's iron fist, but after two years the Red Army regained the upper hand and began rolling West for the final pincer action that would end WW2 in 1945.

Bill Rebane in 2010
The horrors of Soviet rule were such that multitudes fled West from the Baltic states. 10% of Estonia fled in a single day as the Red Army drew near. Bill Rebane's family similarly refused to remain under the heel of the Communist powers. His family loaded up a horse drawn cart and headed West "in an effort to escape the scourge of Stalin," Rebane said. "My father had been guilty of pulling down Russian flags when Stalin’s goons ruled."

When the family reached Germany they all sought refuge in West Germany. Part of his family settled in Bavaria, the American zone. Bill's father went on to Hamburg, the British zone. "Hamburg was in flames from the Allied bombing," he said. "We settled in a rural area outside the city. My father traded our horses for an apartment."

After the war, Rebane said, commerce was handled in the black market. Coffee was a luxury item.

Like most who grew up in Eastern Europe, Rebane spoke several languages. Estonian and Latvian, his parent's tongues, as well as German and Russian. Only eight years old when the war ended he eventually learned English by watching television.

He was fifteen when he left Germany for America in 1952, managing to find work at a Chicago radio station sweeping floors. During his four years at WGN in Chicago he gained opportunities to act, produce and direct before returning to German at age 19.

Rebane returned to Germany at age 19, where he met and worked with producer Adalbert Baltes of Hamburg. This would become his start in the film industry. After working with Baltes as a production assistant, assistant director, and director on various 'Cinema Scope Theatrical Short Subjects' for 'Baltes Film', Rebane obtained the U.S. rights to the 'Cinetarium' circular motion picture process.

Rebane returned to the U.S. and introduced the proprietary process to the world film industry through United Film and Recording Studios in Chicago, attracting such notables as Samuel Goldwyn, Roy Disney, Jack L. Warner, Hugh Hefner and Mike Todd, Jr. to the process, along with industry professionals from Russia, central Europe and Japan.

He said that Hollywood had been attempting 360 degree filming but was doing it using 16 cameras shooting out like spokes from an axle. This new method accomplished better results with a single camera. By age 22, he was a millionaire.

Unfortunately, this early wealth was temporary, as costs of patents, legal fees and research into means to manufacture vertical projection systems were at the time beyond his means financially.

The Baltes innovation spawned the Cinemax process and today's Rotascope cameras.

* * * *
Bill Rebane's first film was a short called Twist Craze. The 8 minute film documents a fashionable club getting exposed to the latest dance craze. Thoroughly upbeat, and guaranteed to make you grin, it was shown all over the world. In addition to being executive producer Rebane was also the uncredited narrator for the film.

Using a similar narration form of storytelling he tried his hand at making a full length feature film, releasing Monster A Go Go in 1965. This was the same time frame as Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, and The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews. For context, Lyndon Johnson was amping up the war in Viet Nam.

The story behind the film includes a chance meeting with Ronald Reagan as an actor who might have become affiliated with the project, except that Rebane's financial backers thought Reagan a has-been. The year Monster A Go Go was released Ronnie appeared in three episodes of Death Valley Days, his last role as an actor in Hollywood.

In the later 60's Rebane moved his family to Wisconsin, purchasing a farm in Gleason. Nine years would elapse before the 1974 release of his next horror production, Invasion from Inner Earth, which was followed in 1975 by Giant Spider Invasion starring Barbara Hale (whom we remember as Della Street on the old Perry Mason television show) and Steve Brodie (Brodie, a B-movie actor with nearly 200 credits, played in films starring Mickey Rooney and Robert Mitchum and numerous bit parts in television shows as diverse as The Beverly Hillbillies, The Virginian and, yes, Perry Mason.)

Still from The Giant Spider Invasion
Produced on a $325K budget, The Giant Spider Invasion purportedly grossed 23 millions dollars worldwide, not a bad snatch. It became one of the 50 top-grossing films of 1975.

A string of horror films followed, including one featuring Tiny Tim as an insane clown in Blood Harvest.

IN ADDITION TO FILM PRODUCTION, Bill Rebane pursued his political interests as well. That is, he did more than just vote. He twice mounted campaigns for governor of Wisconsin in 1979 and again in 2002.

A stroke in 1989 resulted in his having to close his studio. This didn't stop him from being productive. His 2008 novel From Roswell With Love is based on facts obtained from government sources and the International Starlight Society. (I placed my order this past week and will offer a review here later.) After recovering from his stroke (and losing his ranch) he lived in the Upper Peninsula for a while where a key spark in this story ignited his imagination and curiosity. The novel draws attention the strange connection between the U.P. and the Roswell crash.

Other books by Rebane include Money For Movies The Formula and Film Funding 2000. Also waiting to be explored is a book by Kevin Scott Collier called Monster A-Go Go Decoded.

* * * *
WHEN WE MET two weeks ago, I asked how the two came together for Masters of Valor and Wilhelm said they were working on a feature film called The Prussian. (In addition to being an actor, Wilhelm is a screenwriter.)

“I connected with Robert about The Prussian,” Rebane said. “As we brainstormed about a screenplay treatment we opted for Masters of Valor because it would be quicker to complete. It was initially designed to be a stand-alone show. It has now evolved. The aim of our visit here (to Superior’s Ira Bong Museum) is to get this opening episode in the can.”

The shoot and voiceover work went great, I've been told. I only wish that Bill still had The Shooting Ranch. I would have enjoyed taking a "studio tour."

Personally, I think there's a fascinating story here that encompasses the pursuit of dreams in a variety of forms. Imagination, determination and tenacity are all part of the equation. What shall we call it? True Grit?

Related Links
Twist Craze 
From Roswell with Love
Monster A-Go Go Decoded

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