This article was last modified on November 30, 2014.


Bill Rebane: No-Budget Champion

When he was born in Riga, the capital of Latvia, in 1937, he was named Ito by his Latvian mother and Estonian father. Being an international man from an early age – “I was shuttled around between Reval and Riga for the first few years” – the fate of many of his contemporaries caught up with Bill and his family, forcing them to leave the countries they held dear and being evacuated to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in Prussia.

“I assume the move to Prussia was to get the family out of harms way,” Bill recalls now. His father – a boxer with the Tartu boxing team – was drafted into the German army, and when the bombing of Königsberg began, he wasn’t there. Rebane, with his mother and grandmother and thousands of other people, escaped the war once again – by horse and wagon – first to Poland and then to Germany. Fortunately for the Rebane family, after arriving in the outskirts of Berlin during the fall of the city, they didn’t stay in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany but escaped further west, finally settling in the Hamburg area.

Along the way from Berlin to Hamburg, Bill says a small miracle occurred. “My father found us among the thousands of escaping refugees,” he says. “He had been wounded and shipped to an army hospital in Berlin, prior to the fall of the city.”

Bill remembers his father as “very nationalistic”. “He only spoke Estonian, even in Germany,” Bill notes. “My mother spoke six languages, and I favored German in all communication.”

After Germany had capitulated to the Allies in 1945, Bill says he went to public and private schools until the age of 14. “I participated in school plays, played the accordion and the violin,” he recalls, adding that he “hated the violin”.

“When movie theatres opened, I was riveted to them.” At the same time, he dug into hundreds of novels in German – but interestingly, most of them were American westerns.

“My education was in post-war Germany until the age of fifteen. Then I came to the United States and went to high school and followed that by attending Goodman’s Art Institute in Chicago’s theater classes.”

In 1952, he got his first-hand experience of America – albeit not exactly a western. Having moved to the American Midwest, at the age of 17 he started working at Chicago’s WGN Television. “It was a most rewarding experience,” Bill says. “The opportunities there were great. I moved from Assistant Director to Assistant and Executive Producer roles at WGN.”

At the same time, Bill was taking daily dancing and singing lessons – “prompted and encouraged by my mother”. These lessons came in very handy – he appeared in the courtroom drama series called They Stand Accused, and the musical series, The International Café.

Bill’s nights in the Windy City were filled with going to the cinema. “I was thrilled with the business of entertainment,” he admits – but “performances rather than production”. And when he got an art scholarship for the Art Institute, he decided to go to the Goodman Theatre to study drama instead.

“I had known Lewis for some time. I actually worked for his commercial studio as a kid doing part-time sales in 1959.”

May 1959: Bill Rebane winged back from Germany with a contract to handle Cinetarium, the exciting new European round screen process, in this country. He plans its debut in Chicago by fall.

December 1961, the ten minute short “Twist Craze” debuted. Twist Craze “was shot in one night… The original music and the story were created two nights previous to that. That particular one became quite popular because it was the first twist picture out.” The short film was shot at The Quid in Chicago and debuted at the Oriental with Frank Capra’s “Pocketful of Miracles”. Executive producer Rebane, along with talent coordinator Larry Leverett and director-producer Allan David took this success and decided to form Independent Artists Corp, which would then produce a feature film and a Bob Scobey TV series.

“I was most proud of Dance Craze,” Bill declares, adding that after it had premiered at the Oriental Theater for six weeks, it was sold for considerable profit to American International Pictures. “For its time, the idea and execution was good and I surprised myself… Horror movies were not in the agenda,” Bill states. “It was not until I learned about the business of film while traveling to Germany and Hollywood, that I decided to get into theatrical production.”

“One had to do something that was timely and edgy for cash flow purposes,” he admits. “Sci-fi and horror were a good venue for drive-in cinemas and neighborhood theaters. That was the reason for making Terror at Halfday, aka Monster A Go-Go.” The 1962 production is actually a historic film. “It’s the first feature film made entirely in Chicago after the Charlie Chaplin studios closed there in the 1930s,” Bill points out. “But that’s a story of its own.”

“We couldn’t hold on to Pete Thompson (the scientist in the film) and Doc Stanford came in. Doc Stanford was a music writer, music producer and screenplay writer. He did “Fairy Tales” for Sinatra, and he wrote with Jimmy Van Heusen. To make a long story short, he came in, we rewrote the whole thing, and being short on money, he took the part of the scientist. We wrote him in as the brother of Pete Thompson. And that’s how we changed the story. (Lewis claimed that he had the original actor remove his hair piece and he played his own brother.) We had a lot of good footage,and I mean a lot of good footage, considering the circumstances. When I did look at the picture ultimately, this is years ago that I saw the whole thing assembled, a good portion of it was not there. I mean the close ups, the medium shots, a lot of action stuff that was done in Chicago but was not in the picture. It ended up having to be cut any way possible, I suppose.”

“And that’s how Herschel Lewis entered the picture. I hired him as a cameraman and a production manager, and we finished all the exteriors and everything that I thought we needed to do, except the actual final ending. We never got to that, which was about 10 minutes or 20 minutes of stuff, again running out of money. Herschel Lewis needed a picture for a double bill at drive-in theaters, and I turned the picture over to him for post-production, not knowing what he would do and what he could do.”

“Now, it so happened that at that time I knew the tallest man in the world, quite well. Henry Hight, of the vaudeville act “Low Hight and Stanley.” Henry was six feet eight inches tall and made a perfect monster without elaborate special effects or prosthetics. American International logo It was also relatively easy to take the AIP/Corman formula and attempt to create a screenplay that would have some timeliness and exploitation values. Besides I was itching to make a feature. I put up ten thousand dollars of the sixty thousand Monster A-Go Go budget myself. I only had two other investors. One was Fred Friedloeb, whose brother Burt was a Hollywood producer and whose wife was June Travis, at that time of fading Hollywood fame. As you know, June starred in Terror aka Monster.”

“Now, during pre-production and casting of the picture, I was hanging out on Randolph Street one rainy day in Chicago with my associate and press agent with a lot of guts — Larry Leverett. We were late to some meeting so we were rushing, and practically ran over this other trench-coated man also rushing to get under the marquee and out of the downpour. The trench coat wearing man happened to be Ronald Reagan. Larry and I had few inhibitions in those days. Subsequently we blurted out the whole concept of Terror at Halfday to Ronald Reagan, standing there together under the marquee of the Woods Theater. We not only recited a synopsis but made sure to tell Ronald Reagan that June Travis was committed to the picture and that he would be the perfect star for our picture.” Reagan had a crush on June Travis, which may have piqued his interest.

“He wanted to see a script and asked us to work out the deal with his agent whose name he carefully wrote on a pad of paper for us. He said that if we could work it out he might be interested. What made this such an extraordinary experience, never to be forgotten by myself, is that the man while in the twilight of his acting career but destined to be the president of our country had no problems standing for about ten minutes with total strangers on a Chicago sidewalk to talk about a possible role in yet another B movie.”

August 1967, Chicago restaurateur Mathon Kyritsis and Rebane wrapped up a film called “The Arms of Venus” on the Greek island of Melos. They were expected to return to Chicago with the rough cut shortly.

“I went back to Europe, where I’m from originally, and I was in charge of production for Studio Bendesdorf for close to nine years. We did How I Won The War; Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang; “Dollars” with Goldy Hawn; and The Final Guns for Columbia Pictures. I was involved in that for two and a half years, as the executive producer and director of three one hour episodes. That was supposed to be the first roadshow picture or first mini-series type film. That picture was the turning point because it went on and on and on with lots of problems, and that made me return to the States. I was so sick of the business, I was never going to make another picture again.”

“I was helping my close friend and film mentor A. Baltes, through whom I met half the film industry in Germany at the time. One of those was the owner of Studio Bendestorf Germany, Peter Fink. I was put in charge of all foreign (American) co-production efforts for the studio. Opening offices for them at Goldwyn Studios in L.A., New York and Chicago took me out of the production and into the business end of the picture business for awhile. Some of these efforts resulted in my studio getting such shoots as How I Won the War with John Lennon, The Odessa File with Jon Voight, and Dollar with Goldie Hawn.”

“Wisconsin was not on my mind until 1966. I took a vacation there, found a spot I liked, the price was right, so I took it.”

“Giant Spider Invasion” (1975)

“There were lots of problems between the original writer and Robert Easton, who was hired by the distributor initially, to do a re-write. And they didn’t get along, so they fought like cats and dogs, and I would get two pages, three pages at a time while we were already shooting! I never knew how that picture was going to end or where it should go!”

Richard L. Huff wrote the original story and kept a very serious tone to the first draft of the script. Robert Easton on the other hand lent the film a comical tone, writing most of the colorful dialog for his character and the other locals. The films rather infamous jokes are credited to him as well. Combining both writers material resulted in an odd-ball tone for the script.

“The feature film I’m the most proud of is The Alpha Incident (1978),” he reflected in 2014. At $220,000, it was his biggest budget. Ralph Meeker “was recovering from a stroke when he did that, and we had to write the part for him, actually, to reduce the lines. Because it’s very noticeable, even in the film, that his role was not very strong or very extensive.”

“The Game” (1984) is a film Rebane never liked to talk about, and he considered it one of his two biggest failures (alongside “Monster A Go Go”). Shot for $25,000. “When you’re on these low budgets, you have to get actors from your local area. That’s something that I’m going to try not to repeat too often, because you’re stuck with a certain quality of talent. I think these are the biggest shortcomings. Then maybe the other shortcoming, if any, is that I’m not a blood and guts man for blood and guts sake. Distributors are always accusing me of not putting enough flesh, blood and guts into my pictures. My films are a bit mild.”

“Blood Harvest” (1987)

Tiny Tim was making a personal appearance at a beer carnival in Lincoln County, Wisconsin, in 1985, and Rebane was in the audience. He had an idea for a horror film and decided to see if Tiny Tim was interested in appearing in it. He was. This is the result. Tiny Tim “couldn’t remember lines very well. He was very shy. I was working with him constantly. A lot of coaching, a lot of working things out before shooting and getting him ready. But once he started to sing or started to do something musical, which I think he did twice in the movie, oh, he just shined.”

“Peter Krause! Yes, that was a very, very funny situation. We had cast everybody except that young man’s part, we called the agency in Minneapolis and told them what we were doing and said, “We need a kid right away,” so they sent somebody. I’d never seen him or auditioned him before, but he came on the set, and the first day on the set…the schedule was such that the love scene was right on the first day of shooting for him. So he was kind of taken aback by that, thinking, “What are we making, a porn picture?” He was totally dumbfounded! I had to talk him through, but he got right in there and did it. I think he was on Jay Leno’s show and…he never talks much about it. He likes to forget it! But he was a great kid and a good trooper.”

He twice has run for Governor of Wisconsin, the first time in 1979 and then in 2002, as the American Reform Party candidate. “The 2002 run was very serious. I rebel against bad politicians and bad leaders. My sitting opponent was bad for our state.”

“When I moved to Gleason in 1966, I had no idea I was moving into an Estonian settlement,” Bill confesses. “I visited Albert Sommi, one of the original founders of the church, in the early seventies. His last and biggest wish was that the church would remain as a reminder to all Estonians of the early Estonian immigrants to America.” So, in 1994, Bill Rebane reinstated the 1907-established church in its original founded name – the Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church.

Sources

Hankewitz, Sten. “Bill Rebane – the maker of horror films who’s “never been a fan of horror”” Estonian World. April 13, 2014.

Lyon, Herb. “Tower Ticker”. Chicago Tribune, May 17, 1959.

Lyon, Herb. “Tower Ticker”. Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1961.

Lyon, Herb. “Tower Ticker”. Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1967.

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