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'Schmidt' DVD recalls a most excellent adventure

Director Alexander Payne, a Nebraska native, restores home turf clips on new release of Jack Nicholson film.

August 09, 2003|Mike Conklin | Chicago Tribune

KEARNEY, Neb. — Ever since the movie's release last winter, Phil Kozera has gotten questions about scenes in which Warren Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, rode an enormous escalator to view pioneer exhibits at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument spanning Interstate Highway 80 here. But questions don't boost attendance figures.

"Right after the movie came out, we had a couple of college kids call us up and ask if we were for real," said Kozera, the archway's manager. "When I assured them we were, they drove straight here before the day was over."

Other than those curious college kids, the "About Schmidt" effect on Nebraska tourism was negligible, at least until now.

Maybe it's the weather, maybe it's a blip in summer sightseeing. But with the help of the DVD, released in June, Kozera believes "About Schmidt" has brought people to the archway and given a boost to annual attendance figures for the struggling attraction.

Kozera said visits were off by 15 to 20% this year from 2002, but healthy numbers in June and July -- the peak months for interstate traffic -- provided an overall lift.

"We averaged 910 visits per day in July," he said, "and that's a little better than we averaged last year. So we're climbing back, and, from the comments I get, it's safe to say the movie's had an impact."

Privately owned by a nonprofit educational foundation, the eight-story cement and log archway and its elaborate displays commemorate the settling and development of the American West. The escalator Schmidt rode from the archway's lobby is the longest in the state at 70 feet.

It's a ride he almost didn't take. Director Alexander Payne, a native of Nebraska, originally planned for Pioneer Village, another tourist stop 12 miles south of here in Minden, to get the lion's share of shooting with Nicholson. But Payne grew enamored of the archway, and it joined the state's landmarks and landscapes immortalized in films, starting with the Spencer Tracy-Mickey Rooney smash "Boys Town" in 1938.

Other movies shot at least in part in Nebraska include: "Airport" (1970), "Paper Moon" (1972), "Terms of Endearment" (1983), "The Indian Runner" (1991), "My Antonia" (1994), "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" (1994) and two other Payne films, "Citizen Ruth" and "Election."

In "About Schmidt," the title character comes to the end of a seemingly disappointing and unfulfilling career as an actuary at Woodmen of the World Insurance Society, a company that does exist and does have a tower in downtown Omaha, as shown in the film -- probably the state's second most identifiable icon after the archway.

Payne's approach was almost documentary in its use of landmarks and real people. For example, a speaking part for Omaha mortician Tom Belford, of John A. Gentleman Mortuary, in a scene in which Nicholson picks out a casket for his wife; and waitress Melissa Hanna in a scene shot in the Dairy Queen.

"Every day in the paper you'd read, 'Where's Jack today?' " said Sue Agnew, publications director for the highly regarded Omaha Community Playhouse. "It got kind of embarrassing, but everyone who worked on the film -- and there were some from our company -- had a ball."

But as time has taught so many, Tinseltown can be cruel. In theatrical release, "About Schmidt" showed no hint of Harold's, an Omaha restaurant that hosted a day of shooting. Scenes shot in the Woodmen of the World tower were chopped. Speaking roles were silenced; extras vanished.

Nebraskans tried to bear up gracefully, finding solace in the knowledge that the University of Kansas didn't show up in the movie either, as any Cornhusker (or Jayhawk) would instantly detect. But when "About Schmidt" came out on DVD in June, it contained a gift from the director. Scenes using local residents as extras were restored and packaged in a special feature.

"It was classy," said mortician Belford. "A lot of people were disappointed they didn't get in the first time, but now they can say they're in the movie."

Scenes shot at Harold's now can be viewed on the DVD, and in the restaurant itself diners can see an autographed picture of Nicholson draping an arm around manager Nancy Bohnenkamp. A plaque marks the booth used by the actor.

"I call it my most excellent adventure," said Bohnenkamp. "Everyone's talking about the movie. I was kind of disappointed when it first came out and we weren't in it, but this helps. Everyone talked about it here when we weren't in it, and now they're talking even more now that we are."

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