Little Bohemia Lodge and the filming of Public Enemies

Restaurant owners have pleasant experience with Hollywood

By: Steve Mathie
Staff Writer
Filming Locations

March 31, 2009

MANITOWISH WATERS, Wis. – Late April, 2008 - Film crews from Universal arrive in Manitowish Waters and begin setting up to shoot on-location at Little Bohemia. The project is Public Enemies, the director is Michael Mann, and Johnny Depp is there to begin filming the movie. Depp is John Dillinger 74 years later, but according to local citizens, business owners and the current owners of the lodge, Johnny Depp ‘s off set manner is not that of a bank robber and killer who is America’s Most Wanted criminal.

April 20th, 1934 - A few men sat at a table and played cards in the middle of the northwoods of Wisconsin. The owner of the summer resort in which they sat, Emil Wanatka, agreed to play cards with the guests. When one man reached across the table to collect his winnings, Wanatka noticed what were likely two .38 revolvers inside the man’s coat.

After that, Wanatka noticed that all of the men had guns. Wanatka became uneasy, but went about his business. Later while looking through the newspaper, he was shocked to see the face of the man who had the .38’s in the newspaper. Wanatka had America’s Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, and the gang staying at his Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin.

Dan Johns, owner of Little Bohemia Lodge and Restaurant, sat down with me on a warm September morning at his bar to do an interview with He and his wife were there as Universal Studios used their property as a filming location.

“I’ve been in business my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Dan Johns, owner of Little Bohemia Lodge and Restaurant, referring to the filming that went on at his property.

“They were here for about 7 weeks, and they were very professional and friendly,” says Dan. “We just sat back and let them do their thing. They brought the property back to the 1930s by reconstructing the gravel road entrance so it looked as it did in 1934.”

Dan and his wife Debbie have owned the lodge for three years now, and are not only dedicated about their business, but about the history at Little Bohemia. Dan points out that the lodge has essentially been in the same family for almost a century, and both the Johns and Wanatka families have been an integral part of the community for all of these years.

“I’ve been coming up here my whole life, my family ran a lodge on the other side of the lake that is still there today,” says Dan. “Emil Sr. and Emil Jr., who both ran the lodge were and are very good friends of mine, so it’s nice I can continue to run the lodge. Our families have both been around this area for a very long time.”

In talking with Dan, I found him to be very passionate about preserving the history at Little Bohemia. He and Debbie spend a lot of their time working at the lodge, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the year. While Michael Mann’s movie spent a lot of time filming what is sure to be a major scene in a feature film, Dan mentioned that because of the lodge’s history, other production companies have inquired about filming there in the past.

Rewind again to April of 1934, and Wanatka’s decision to confront Dillinger and tell him he knew who he was. Claiming that the lodge and his family were all that he had, Wanatka pleaded with Dillinger for no trouble. Dillinger obliged, claiming that he and his men would only stay a short time and needed food and a roof.

Let’s fast forward to 2008 and another group of people that needed food and a place to stay. This group, the hundreds of film crew and actors and actresses that are working on the movie, is substantially larger and brings hefty business to the surrounding area. The crew and talent stayed at the hotels and inns of Manitowish Waters, as well as nearby towns. They wined and dined at bars and restaurants when there was time, and some of the crew even found time to go snowmobiling.

“It did a lot for our business, yeah, but I think it did a lot for everyone around here to help during a time of year that isn’t as busy,” says Dan. “Johnny Depp and Christian Bale are both really good guys, they were really nice to us.”

Dillinger and his boys Baby Face Nelson and Homer Van Meter didn’t stay for weeks like Universal Pictures, nor did they plan on leaving the lodge the way they did. Wanatka’s wife was able to speak to someone in town and relay the message that Dillinger and the gang were in town, and a phone call to Milwaukee Police was the start of what would become one of the most famous FBI shootouts in United States history.

J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the FBI, and decided to fly Melvin Purvis (played by Dark Knight star Christian Bale) and other agents to Rhinelander, Wis., less than 60 miles south of Little Bohemia. The agents drove north to Little Bohemia on the shores of Little Star Lake, and planned to raid the lodge in the middle of the night during the light snowfall.

The info about the lodge that Purvis got was somewhat flawed, and he was not informed of the fact that the Wanatka’s had two dogs. They parked at the end of the driveway entrance to block an escape, and slowly crept through the woods with guns and bulletproof vests.

What happened next could be told, and is public knowledge, but would also be a spoiler for Michael Mann’s blockbuster that comes out July 1. All I can tell movie fans and history buffs, is that there are actual bullet holes in the windows at Little Bohemia.

Before sitting down with Dan, I enjoyed a delicious “Little Star Classic” off the breakfast menu, and sat alone on the lodge’s porch looking out the windows at Little Star Lake. I couldn’t help but fall in love with the view of the lake, the warmth of the lodge and its history, and the idea of it being used as a filming location for a Hollywood movie that millions and millions of people will see next year.

This experience at Little Bohemia Lodge was not my first, nor will it be my last, as anyone who walks through the doors there is not only welcomed by the Johns family and the friendly staff, but encapsulated by the history of the lodge and its new connection to Hollywood and the film industry.

By being open to having filming done at their property, the Johns family has put Manitowish Waters on the map and helped to generate business for hundreds of local people. John Dillinger was America’s Public Enemy #1, and I’m predicting that Public Enemies will be #1 at the box office come July.

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