Owner of Woodridge, Naperville theaters shoots for ultimate experience
When porn star Jenna Jameson called in sick for appearances at his two DuPage County movie theaters, Ted Bulthaup did not take the news with a shrug of the shoulders. He tracked down online footage showing Jameson at a Hollywood party.
Then he called his lawyer.
Bulthaup -- the Wonka-esque mind behind the Hollywood Blvd. and Hollywood Palms cinemas -- says he doesn't like getting tangled up in court. Then again, he saw few other options than the lawsuit he filed against Jameson after she backed out of the promotion for her R-rated horror-comedy "Zombie Strippers!"
"When word spread that she was at (celebrity blogger) Perez Hilton's birthday party instead of our event, it was embarrassing," he said.
Jameson's no-show notwithstanding, celebrity appearances are a staple of the ultimate moviegoing experience Bulthaup has been promising since he opened Hollywood Bar & Filmworks in Indianapolis in 1991. Two decades later, his lavishly decorated theaters in Woodridge and Naperville remain a unique draw in the West suburbs, offering full food and bar service, and regular appearances by faces from the big screen.
For Bulthaup, the key to success is a matter of tapping into his own creativity. He says he wants his theaters to be so special that customers can't talk about a film without mentioning the venue, too.
"Those aren't decorations on the wall -- it's advertising," he said on a recent tour of Hollywood Palms in Naperville. "I think we're just marketing gorillas as opposed to guerrilla marketing. Nobody can touch what we do."
A former concert promoter, Bulthaup added Hollywood Blvd. in Woodridge to his portfolio in 2003. Three years later, a spectacularly public flap with Indianapolis officials over downtown parking rates led to him calling it quits in Indiana. He was so steamed that on his theater's 15th anniversary he took out a full-page ad in the Indianapolis Star blaming the theater's demise on two public officials, then he moved all operations to Illinois.
At 54, Bulthaup is slender and soft-spoken with a shaggy gray mop on top. Yet he manages to come across like an entrepreneurial gunslinger -- a born Texan, he's quick to mention, and a history buff who has studied the wars waged long before him.
Asked to define his style, Bulthaup points behind his desk to a painting of Davy Crockett being slain at the Alamo and smiles.
"It's in my personality to do things bigger and better, to try harder and fight harder to overcome obstacles," he says. "I think for people who have that spirit of Texas as part of their personalities, it's a do-or-die thing. And that's paramount to anyone trying to do anything entrepreneurial."
Bulthaup, who lives in Woodridge, says he doesn't have time to watch movies much these days, and he doesn't seem to miss it. He devotes near 'round-the-clock attention to his theaters. He also owns a Chinese restaurant, Formosa Café in Woodridge.
Bulthaup says he draws inspiration from the kind of theaters he used to visit with his grandparents as a child in downtown Indianapolis and from the extravagant first-run "movie palaces" of Hollywood in the 1920s. "The escapism starts as soon as you cross the threshold," he says. "There's supposed to be the magic of movies, and other theaters were not making a contribution to that."
Each auditorium -- seven in Naperville, 10 in Woodridge -- is meticulously decorated according to Bulthaup's own designs and color schemes.
He wanted customers to walk though Dorothy's living room when they enter "The Wizard of Oz" auditorium in Woodridge, for example, so he built a replica at the door. Through it, you come to a tree that Bulthaup cut down and installed himself. Then there are witch's legs poking out from under the building, and oodles of other Oz artifacts looking down from the walls.
When the Naperville location opened in 2009, Bulthaup wanted more of a tribal feel. So he hired a helicopter needed to install a four-story atrium, which he stocked with live palm trees, coffee plants and bamboo. Using carpentry skills he picked up in high school and college, Bulthaup built the box office with support masts from Indonesia and 200-year-old Afghan tribal columns, among other personally selected materials. He also designed a functioning three-story waterfall and put in 16-foot elephant fence doors from India at the entrance to the auditoriums.
Both theaters are brimming with thousands of movie posters and other memorabilia, such as the suit Michael Madsen wore in "Reservoir Dogs" or a Confederate Flag from "Gone with the Wind." Bulthaup embeds subtle touches of humor within the décor and says he hopes it all will appeal to both passive and die-hard film fans.
"Each turn of the corner is like a new 'wow,' which is what I wanted," he said. "I have specific visions and I lay it all out. While I'm not an architect, I have a very strong sense of it. Thinking it through is fun, and being able to build it is fun but a lot of hard work.
"I traditionally lose 20 to 30 pounds when building a theater," he quips.
His seemingly unquenchable pursuit of decorations and memorabilia has left him with enough to fill five additional storage buildings. It used to be more difficult to track down unique memorabilia, Bulthaup says, but he's become so ingrained among collectors and Hollywood types over the years that "things start to come to you."
"I just keep my eyes open," he says. "I'm always looking for stuff."
Bulthaup has also invested a lot in celebrities, who regularly stop in to meet fans, sign autographs and tell stories from behind the scenes.
The theaters have had everyone from contemporary stars featured in the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" franchises to heavyweights such as Dan Aykroyd, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Falk, Burt Reynolds, Debbie Reynolds and Jane Russell.
Bulthaup also reunited the original Munchkins from "The Wizard of Oz" on several occasions and successfully lobbied for their inclusion on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He even grew close enough with Tony Curtis that he walked in the actor's funeral procession and features some of his original artwork in Woodridge.
The stories go on and on.
"I kind of pinch myself at times realizing who's sitting in my office," Bulthaup says. "It's a personal treat for me a lot of times. So I can't imagine what it is for somebody who has never been able to enjoy an opportunity like that. You're really contributing to a once-in-a-lifetime experience they're never going to get otherwise."
Regular admission at the Hollywood theaters is $8, but prices vary from $3 for seniors at weekend matinees to $11 for evening, adult admission to 3-D movies. It costs about $5 for popcorn and $4 for domestic beers, and most other menu items -- burgers, salads, sandwiches -- are less than $10.
Bulthaup, who got his start here with a $200,000 high-interest loan and the help of some investors, employs about 200 people at each theater. The combined draw is about 750,000 customers a year, he estimates.
Bulthaup concedes business has waned somewhat with the economy. But it's "more vulnerable to bad movies," he says.
"We've seen a little backing down in terms of how much people are spending with us," he says. "But we still outperformed the industry. We're used to double-digit growth. It's all a matter of looking at things from a different perspective."
If that includes taking a no-show porn star to court, so be it. Bulthaup's lawsuit against Jameson is pending.
According to the complaint, the actress was to receive at least $10,000 and first-class travel arrangements, among other perks. But Bulthaup contends he ended up losing money on the deal when she backed out.
That bugs him: "It's the same contract ('Exorcist' star) Linda Blair understood -- and she's possessed."