Small Towns, Big Dreams – Bill Rebane’s Hollywood Midwest Exhibit Opens in Merrill

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By Kathy Cutforth, Correspondent

Bill Rebane c 1960s

Bill Rebane in the 1960s. 

It was a different age for movies in the late 1960s when Bill Rebane, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, moved to the tiny town of Gleason to raise his family. Even then, it was an unlikely place for the first and longest-running feature film studio in Wisconsin.

Bill’s studio, known as the Shooting Ranch, started with a few cameras and a run-down 40-acre farm. During the 20 years it was open, the studio grew and became a fully equipped facility with purpose-built sound stages, mixing studios and guest quarters on 200 acres. The studio produced numerous industrial films and nine feature cult horror classics, beginning with Invasion from Inner Earth (1974) and ending with Twister’s Revenge (1988).

This was a family business. According to Gleason native, local historian and exhibit curator, Brandon Johnson, Bill at first wanted the quiet country life, but film work kept coming his way. Bill’s wife, Barbara, a former model with flaming red hair, moved into the old farmhouse without heat or running water “and was the glue that held that studio together. She learned how to use a wood stove, made sure everyone was fed, paid the bills … kept Bill grounded, and discouraged his more outlandish ideas.” She was a scriptwriter and co-director, and their children and friends served as stagehands and extras.

Together they cobbled together a life of adventure that took them, and images of their small town, around the world.

The legacy of Bill Rebane’s Hollywood Midwest is being celebrated October 22nd at the Merrill Historical Society. A reception with the director and actors will be held from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm at the museum, with a free showing of The Giant Spider Invasion and Twister’s Revenge scheduled immediately afterward at the Northwoods Veterans Post.

The exhibit will remain on display through 2023. It documents Bill’s entire career, which ranges from shorts and documentaries, to prize-winning commercial films and cult classic horror films. Rare posters, film clips and a 22-foot-long model spider will be on display.

According to Brandon, who has interviewed more than 100 people associated with Bill’s films, the whole enterprise was based on the enormous energy, salesmanship and chutzpah that has defined the director’s career.

“Bill Rebane’s successes come from his determination; Bill Rebane’s failures come from his determination,” said Brandon with a chuckle. Grit, charm and wit combined with contacts in Chicago, Hollywood and Europe helped Bill defy the odds, and Brandon says Bill brought something new to Gleason, “a small town of farmers and factory workers.”

Scene from The Giant Spider Invasion

A scene shot in Gleason in The Giant Spider Invasion.

Bill made use of the local scenery, used locals as extras, played a part in the career of several up-and-coming actors and technicians, allowed jingle writers to write film scores and gave some older actors the chance to try something new. In the process, his antics became local legend.

“Drive-ins were huge back in the day,” Brandon explained. “In 1975, you could see Jaws and The Giant Spider Invasion on the same screen. The A-films were the main feature, and the B-films were a time to make out, pause to have a scream or laugh, and for cheap thrills.”

Even small films with tiny budgets could make money, and horror films had a worldwide market. The Giant Spider Invasion was just the right gimmick for its time. Unfortunately, most of the film’s estimated $24 million in gross revenue went to distributors, promoters and resellers. Bill calls his most famous film, “one of the most pirated independent motion picture in cult classic film history,” and has engaged in a bitter struggle over royalties.

His other films met a similar fate and dwindling profits as the industry swung from drive-ins to direct-to-video in the 1980s. Finally, the dream collapsed into bankruptcy after Bill suffered a stroke in 1989. The  studio and equipment were sold at auction several years later.

Brandon Johnson, exhibit curator, poses inside the framework of the 22-foot long “crane spider” on display at the Merrill Historical Society.

The contradictions in Bill’s character and career captivated Brandon since they met in 2019. Like many fans, Brandon first saw The Giant Spider Invasion on Mystery Science Theater 3000, (episode 810), a cult TV series that lampoons old horror films. Brandon says he “wants to clear up some misunderstandings about Bill and preserve his legacy.”

“Small towns have their own stories. You don’t have to go to the big city or anything like that,” Brandon said. “History doesn’t have to happen way back in the timber days, back in the 1880s. What happened 50 years ago is history, and we still have people who remember it.”

The trust built between them, separated by 50 years in age but united by a love of film and the region, has resulted in the creation of the exhibit, a limited edition exhibit catalog, the Bill Rebane archive at the museum, and the manuscript for a Bill Rebane biography titled, More Than a Spider.

Bill continues to reinvent himself, maintaining a blog and collaborating with Monster Model Review for the promotional video for the exhibit. His house is full of photos of himself alongside famous individuals including Tiny Tim, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Prince Charles to name a few, as well as mementos from his long and interesting life.

When asked when he expects to publish his book, Brandon laughed, “I don’t know. Every time I visit Bill, I have to rewrite a chapter!”


Shooting Ranch photos and promotional flyers.


commercial flyers

Shooting Ranch commercial work. Posters and historic images courtesy of the Merrill Historical Society.