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Producer shoots pilot for reality TV series at Black Bear Casino Resort

Rick Gibson moved from Arkansas to rural Carlton a couple of years ago so his wife could pursue a business interest. Coincidentally Gibson - a former police officer who was disabled by a back injury - experienced a dramatic turnaround in his diab...

Photo by Lisa Baumann
Greeter Don Thompson gets wired with a microphone by cameraman Scott Hoffman Tuesday at Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton. Twin Cities film producer Doug Hajicek of Whitewolf Entertainment is in town this week to film a pilot called "Nowhere Near Vegas," featuring casino employees like Thompson.

Rick Gibson moved from Arkansas to rural Carlton a couple of years ago so his wife could pursue a business interest. Coincidentally Gibson - a former police officer who was disabled by a back injury - experienced a dramatic turnaround in his diabetes after leaving the hot climate of the south behind.

Cloquet resident Glenn Krause and his wife have enjoyed an ongoing relationship with an ever-increasing population of bears around their summer cabin in Ely.

Greeter Don Thompson of Superior grew up in the family restaurant business, knows the value of customer service and loves to make people happy.

Maintenance man Ken Southerland, an Elvis impersonator from Las Vegas, met his wife while performing at a show in Minnesota and moved here to be with her.

Kathy Setterquist of Cloquet spends several days a week playing bingo with a circle of close friends, surrounded by her collection of good luck purses and - always - the tattered photo of a very dear, late friend.

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These kinds of "ordinary folks" with extraordinary tales to tell are the stuff everyday life - and reality shows - are made of. Twin Cities film producer Doug Hajicek intends to do just that.

Hajicek, of Whitewolf Entertainment, is in town this week to film a pilot including all of these stories and others against the backdrop of the Black Bear Casino Resort.

"A casino is like the center of a spider web," said Hajicek, "where the undercurrents of humanity are at work because it brings so many together in one place."

Hajicek, a 20-year veteran in the journalism field and an award-winning producer, has been going to conventions in Las Vegas for many years, and along the way he began to notice not so much the glitz and glamor of the casinos but the "amazing cross section of people" who go there, he said.

During his time working on film projects around Minnesota, he said he often found that casinos had the nicest hotels in town, complete with restaurants that are open 24 hours a day.

"When the crew ends up filming at midnight," he said, "that sort of thing gets to be a big deal."

He discovered Black Bear Casino a number of years ago when he was working in northern Minnesota to film his "Man Who Walks With Bears" series with bear expert Lynn Rogers for Animal Planet.

"Black Bear is about midway between the Twin Cities and Ely, where we were shooting," Hajicek said, "and each time we came upon it, the casino was like this glowing spot in the night that made it very appealing."

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And so it was that when Hajicek, with the idea of making a reality series out of life at a Minnesota casino percolating around in his mind, began scoping out a location for the series, he decided on Black Bear because he found it the friendliest.

"For being located on the edge of the immense forest that is northern Minnesota, I found that though the location was somewhat remote - the people here certainly weren't. I've always liked hanging out around casinos and seeing all the interesting people there, but by doing a project such as this, it gave me an excellent reason to step up and get to know them."

Hajicek said he initially spent some time "trying to get the vibe" regarding how the staff, management and clientele at Black Bear Casino Resort would embrace the idea of having a reality series filmed in their midst.

"I pretty much started at the grassroots and worked my way to the top," he admitted. "There are a lot of issues and matters of trust that go into something like this. It's not something that happens overnight. First, the people here needed to get to know me and assess my sincerity."

Hajicek said he plans to concentrate on wholesome programming in this proposed series, as he has with all of his previous projects.

"I don't plan to take any low or cheap shots at the casino or the people who go there," he affirmed. "Black Bear is not just a casino but a resort as well and a social hub for the people who come here. Along with the gaming, there are many other good aspects of all this, and the up sides are fantastic! I want it to be more about people stories - something heartwarming that viewers can sit down and watch with their 10-year-old and not be ashamed of."

Though Hajicek has gained industry-wide acclaim for many of his wildlife specials, he said they have always been more focused on the people who interact with the animals than the animals themselves, so the current project is merely an extension of that same sort of thinking.

When he and his crew came to the Carlton County area this week to shoot the pilot for the proposed reality series, to be titled "Nowhere Near Vegas," he said the extreme weather the area was experiencing actually became one of the themes of the pilot, focusing on its affect on the people of the area as well as the staff who work at the casino.

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The series, if picked up, will likely be part of a worldwide cable network, so that means each episode will be played 30-40 times a year.

"This stands to be a classic win-win situation," he said. "Not only will it be entertaining for the viewers and participants, but it should help bring in guests to Black Bear - possibly from around the world."

Following this week's filming, Hajicek said the production group will start writing the script for the pilot, which he said should take about a week, followed by approximately a week and a half of editing. After its completion, he plans to premiere the finished pilot episode at the National Association of Television Producers convention in Las Vegas in January, where it will be viewed by many network producers. He anticipates that a deal to pick it up will probably be closed within a week or two, at which time the crew will return to the casino to shoot episodes two through 26 - basically two years' worth.

Hajicek said his best guess would be the series is most likely to be picked up by A&E, who is currently airing his popular "Masterquest" series as well.

"I have never been more confident in anything I've done," he stated.

Though the exact length of each individual episode has not yet been set, Hajicek said he's leaning toward a one-hour format.

"There's really no more shooting or editing involved whether you go with half an hour or an hour," he explained, "and the hour format gives you the chance to be a lot more creative."

He said animators are already at work to create the lead-in to the pilot episode, which will have as its theme song, "Teddy Bear" by Elvis Presley. Each episode will conclude with Sutherland, the casino's Elvis impersonator/maintenance man, sweeping the floors or plowing the parking lot - humming an Elvis tune as he goes along.

Hajicek anticipates the series could launch as early as May 2009, and he is hopeful to be able to complete successive episodes within three to four days each. He said he has to think globally for the networks he's shooting for.

"It's not just about what the people of northern Minnesota would enjoy watching, but what people in California or Great Britain would enjoy watching. A lot of the success of these shows depends on the overseas market as well. By this time next year," he chuckled, "chances are people around the world will know who [Black Bear Marketing Manager] Rocky Wilkinson is!"

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