In March, 2007, Dan Bickel purchased the old theatre and opened it later that year under the Uptown Cinema name.
Several updates were made to the building, including removal of the old stage and replacement of the seats. He also
sought to involve the site in a broader range of cinema-related offerings, including for a few years the Lake Maxinkuckee
Bickel revives Uptown Cinema >
Friday, 16 November 2007
Plymouth Pilot News
By Jeff Kenney Editor
Culver —It’s late afternoon on a Friday, and Dan Bickel is in the projection room at the Uptown Cinema on Lake Shore
Drive in Culver, working with a massive machine that looks as though it stepped out of the 1950s.
In fact, says Bickel, the machine, which allows Culver residents to watch movies on the big screen there, is only about
10 years old. Bickel is preparing tonight’s movie to be projected by snipping out one frame from each of the m ultiple
reels on which movies are shipped, and splicing the separate films together manually, a process that wo uld have been
familiar to projection room operators 75 years ago when film work was strictly manual and long before today’s digital
technology was even considered. Not surprisingly, Culver ’s theater does not employ a digital projector. Perhaps more
surprisingly, less than 10 percent of America’s approximately 40,000 movie screens are digital, says Bickel.
The Uptown’s projection room in many ways is a throwback to the past, not only of Culver , but of America. In the early
days, moviesused nitrate chemicals in their film processing, making the film itself immensely flammable and even explosive.
The walls around Bickel’s projection room are thick concrete, typical of older theaters which had to be fire-conscious.
“Some of the bigger theater houses had little showers off the projection booth,” says Bickel, referring to the danger of fire.
And working with the film projector was quite involved in earlier days as well. “I talked to the Hoesels, who owned the
theater from around 1936 to the Early 1980s, and they had a full-time person that just worked this machine, on staff.
(It was) so labor intensive.” Bickel points to an ancient-looking device used for splicing left over from the days of nitrate
film, and beckons to a dark corner near the once-functional balcony of the theater, where a small patch of the building’s
oiginal tin ceiling – having survived a fire in the mid-1940s – is still visible. The climb to and from the projection room, which
involves narrow, metal-runged stairs reminiscent of a lighthouse or submarine, is not for the claustrophobic, and is another
facet of the theater that is virtually unchanged from its early years.
The early history of cinema in Culver is somewhat mysterious. A handful of movie theaters appear to have at least tried
their hand at the business in the early 1920s and just before, with the theater on Lake Shore Drive operating by the
early 1920s, though an exact start date remains unclear...
Dan Bickel notes that the early days of his theater included vaudeville as well as movies. When Evert Hoesel bought the
place in the 1930s, he changed its name to the El Rancho. “It looked like a fort,” says Bickel. “The exterior had wooden
slats and diamond windows.”
“It was owned for one year by the Colfax theater people, who owned the Colfax in South Bend. E.T. was shown here when
they owned it.
Then Jim Baker bought it around 1982. He had it for 15 years.
Frank Stealy bought it in the mid-1990s. I bought it from Frank on April Fool’s Day (of this year). I like to joke about that. It
was the last day of March, actually.”
Dan Bickel was born and raised in Culver ...
“I went to Ball State (University), which is the strongest film-related school in the state. I met my wife Bonnie there. I went to
California and shot a film and showed it to my professors at Ball State. They said ‘go west, son!’ I thought, ‘oh great.’”...
Dan Bickel, meanwhile, was back in Hollywood. “In 1985 or 1986, a friend was working on a movie called Kiss of the Spider-Woman,
and he called and said they needed production people in the office. After that I stayed there and went into another film called
Iron Weed. My end of it would have been making sure that things were taken care of (in) wrapping up the production, the
paperwork side. There’s a whole host of other films and production companies that we kicked around with. I’m on the Internet
Movie Database (www.imdb.com).” Bickel moved around, working with various film-related projects, and found himself back in
Indiana, this time in Bloomington. “We had kids,” he says. “And the whole dynamic of our life shifted. Surprisingly, I was able to
find a lot of film work out of Cincinnati, Ohio, which was one of the first cities around to offer tax incentives to studios to film
there. I started doing art direction work for a lot of different companies. That’s where I made inroads into Walt Disney (Studios),
making “Movie of the Weeks” for Disney. Eventually, I starting working out of Orlando (but) it was really hard on our life. I was all
over the place and Bonnie had the girls in Bloomington and eventually back in Culver .”... Dan Bickel shifted gears in Orlando, and
eventually became involved heavily in Habitat for Humanity. ...“A friend of mine was involved with (television sitcom) Home
Improvement. Tim Allen and a whole group came out and we shot their highest-rated show for the whole year (which) involved
Habitat Challenge: NFL players versus Tim Allen’s wife…That got the ball rolling again back into film. I decided it was time to move
on from Habitat, and went deep into independent film.”
Bickel became involved with a film called Swimmers, which made it to the Sundance Film Festival and earned him an award there
that recognized the humanitarian content of the film, which dealt with the diffic ult life and alcoholism of fisherman on
Chesapeake Bay. He expects to work on a new production starting in February. “I have thought about bringing a production
here to Culver. If Indiana was more conducive to tax incentives, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
“It’s a hard balance between still making films and running the theater,” he notes. “We can’t support hiring people to run it,
except in the summer.”
And Culver ’s movie theater is important to Dan Bickel, who grew up watching movies here and was inspired to work in film when
he saw the Australian film Walkabout at Culver ’s theater in 1972. He says he knew running the theater would be rough going,
financially, though summer attendance was good. “July was just fabulous,” he says. “One Sunday we had 146 people come
through the door, which was huge…we brought tables and chairs outside so people could come and talk afterwards. But once
Labor Day hit, it has been dead…we’ve had two Fridays in a row where not a single person showed up.”
Bickel reasoned that improving the theater, bit by bit, might improve attendance numbers, so he and his family cleaned and
freshened the place, painting, removing old carpeting, and adding a number of additional showings of films. “We’ve added 1:00
pm weekend shows and changed (our) 3:00 shows to 3:30. This way, the Academy students can come see the movie and get
back to campus, which I think is important. This is the only outlet they have to let their hair down.
We have shows seven days a week, one show a night at 7:30, Monday through Thursday. For the winter, we’re experimenting
with half-price tickets. In summer, we run two shows each night.” “We wanted to make (the theater) more accessible for people
to come in. It sho uld be a cheery place.
We engage people in conversation.” Bickel is community-minded in his approach. “We want to do more stuff for the community
school. We have events coming up for the first grade and the seventh grade. In December we’ll pick a date for a morning movie
for the kids, and they can go next door to see Santa at the fire station. We’re doing Culver Academy fac ulty and staff movie
nights. Next year we’ll probably shut the theater down and do a haunted theater (around Halloween)…eventually I plan to do a
film and arts festival here. When I finally do p ull that off here, it will be pretty good because of my contacts in the film world.”
“We plan to extend the (theater’s) balcony out and make it a lounge effect, (with) overstuffed leather chairs, a nice little area to
hang. I’m removing the old stage; there’s nothing historic about it. We’re going to put in a single-riser stage. I will (also) eventually
upgrade the sound to digital.”
The logistics of the theater industry dictate some of the possibilities in Culver . “I was asked, ‘let’s do a midnight showing of The Rocky
Horror Picture Show,’ but that would cost over $500,” he says.
Culver , as most residents know, is not able to showcase brand-new movies. “I’ve tried to narrow that window anywhere between
two and five weeks from when (a movie) comes out nationally. I try to get them in two to four weeks. Sometimes they’re not
available, and sometimes studios just will not send them to a single screen theater…each week I have to negotiate a percentage
and delivery fee. It’s very expensive to bring a film in. Concessions are the lions’ share of what I make.”
Bickel is wistful about small-town theaters in America, most especially Culver ’s. “I hope (this theater) never disappears,” he says.
“This property is worth more as a condo unit than a theater, but too see it disappear now would really be a shame. There still is
enough diversity in town that it will…maintain itself.”
Note This article also appeared in the Culver Citizen.
What was not updated was the old analog projection equipment, which Bickel cited as one of what would become the
nails in the theater's proverbial coffin, as more and more studios raised prices to provide non-digital movie offerings
Back to Movie Theater Index