SAXON, Wis. - Bill Rebane's turned down Ronald Reagan. He's run for Wisconsin governor. And his biggest partnership: spiders the size of Volkswagens.
"I'm not a fan of spiders, believe me," Bill Rebane said.
This seems unexpected from the director of "Giant Spider Invasion," which was made in north central Wisconsin and released in 1975. The film marks its 40th anniversary this month with a Blu-ray release.
Starring Alan Hale Jr., the skipper from "Gilligan's Island," and a 25-foot spider built on a Volkswagen chassis, "Giant Spider" was a box-office hit, ranking in the top-grossing 50 films of the year.
The film's popularity only increased when the Minnesota-based TV show "Mystery Science Theater 3000" lampooned it in 1997. Panicked residents were turned by voiceover into Wisconsinites rioting and screaming, "Packers won the Super Bowl!"
"At first, I felt kind of strange about it," Rebane said of the episode. "But then, I got with the time and the act, so I decided, eh, everybody loved it." MST3K writers/actors Michael Nelson and Kevin Murphy hosted a festival of Rebane's films in 2005 in Madison.
Now living in Saxon, he aims to produce a musical comedy for the stage about the making of "Giant Spider Invasion" with a rock-blues-rap score written by fans of the movie.
Rebane was born in 1937 in Latvia, of Estonian nationality. He spent much of his childhood as a World War II refugee, traveling by horse and covered wagon. "Sometimes, we went into bomb shelters and the tops would crack and the rubble would fall," he said.
In the 1950s his family moved to Chicago, where he learned English by watching movies. "In those days, they had theaters almost every two blocks on the south side of Chicago, and there were always triple or quadruple features," he said.
At 17, he worked in the WGN-TV mailroom and moved up to become the executive producer's assistant. Since he was fluent in multiple languages, WGN sent him overseas. "I flew the first jet from Pan American, Frankfurt to New York. Before that it was prop planes, took 24 hours to get across. That's a time for drinking heavy," he said.
In the early 1960s, he made two highly profitable shorts, "Twist Craze" and "Dance Craze." With his investors happy, he set out to make a feature film, to be called "Terror at Half Day," in which radiation turns an astronaut into a monster.
He offered Ronald Reagan a lead role as a scientist. Noting Rebane's accent, Reagan asked, "Where are you from, young man?"
"I hated that question 'cause I answered it a million times," Rebane said.
The future president was interested in the role, especially since one of his former leading ladies was in the cast. But when Rebane spoke about Reagan to prospective financial backers, "Everyone I talked to said, 'Come on, this guy's a has-been.' " So, another actor was chosen.
When the production ran out of money, he sold the unfinished film to his cameraman, Herschell Gordon Lewis. A director himself, Lewis was notorious for inventing splatter films with "Blood Feast" and "Two Thousand Maniacs!"
Lewis released "Terror at Half Day" under the title "Monster a-Go-Go!" Rebane calls it "the worst film ever made."
"There's a lot of footage missing," he said. "That's the problem to begin with." It features an actor making the sound of a telephone ringing with his lips, and the story ends by announcing the monster never existed.
Rebane continued working with Hollywood productions in Europe and co-owned a German studio. During a Wisconsin fishing trip, he bought an old farm near Gleason and turned it into a studio.
In 1974, he returned to feature films. His wife, Barbara Rebane, became his collaborator. "She made things happen on time and on schedule and on a budget," he said. Barbara died in December 2014. The movies "definitely not" could have happened without her, he said.
Rebane's daughter, Jutta Rebane Bax, also worked on all of his films. In "Giant Spider Invasion," at age 14, she worked in wardrobe and set design and appeared in bit parts. She was one of seven teenagers, along with her cousin and brother, who crammed inside the spider to operate the legs. "One guy had asthma, and it was super-hot in there, so I took his place," she said.
Two 25-foot spiders were made, the other one lifted by crane. Barbara special-ordered eight bolts of fake fur from Herberger's in Wausau to cover the frames.
Rebane insists that his war experience had no influence on his career making horror films. But while filming "Rana: The Legend of Lost Lake," Rebane found himself unable to enter a cave to direct a scene. "My wife went down there with them, directed that part. You couldn't get me down there for nothing. I think it was the bomb shelter scare," he said.
He ran for Wisconsin governor in 1978 and 2002 as a "nonpolitician." In his first race, when he went to meet the press at a bowling alley in Gleason, "They said, 'What's your platform?' I didn't even know what a platform was." Needless to say he didn't win either time, but he said, "I didn't care much about the results."
A stroke in 1988 put an end to his feature filmmaking. "My left side was paralyzed. It took two and a half years to get back in the swing of things," he said. Today, he continues making documentaries and writing scripts and books. A box set of his films is due to be released this fall.
He is also spearheading a community effort to restore the first Estonian church built in North America, located in Gleason and abandoned in the 1960s. A fundraising concert will take place there July 18.
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Bill Rebane filmography
• 1962: "Twist Craze" (executive producer)
• 1962: "Dance Craze" (producer/director)
• 1965: "Terror at Half Day" (released as "Monster a-Go-Go!")
• 1974: "Invasion from Inner Earth" (aka "The Selected" or "They")
• 1975: "Giant Spider Invasion"
• 1978: "The Alpha Incident"
• 1979: "The Capture of Bigfoot"
• 1981: "Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake"
• 1983: "The Demons of Ludlow"
• 1984: "The Game" (aka "The Cold")
• 1987: "Blood Harvest"
• 1988: "Twister's Revenge!"
• 1997: "The Paulding Light"
• TBD: "Silver Street: The Lotta Morgan Story" (documentary)
• TBD: "Rosemount" (screenwriter)