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La Crosse man finds doorway into movie history

La Crosse man finds doorway into movie history

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It’s a plot with twists and turns of the macabre, full of threads that connect Wisconsin to Hollywood, one of its greatest film directors and arguably his greatest movie.

Although the ending has yet to be written, the strange storyline full of bizarre coincidences is quite developed.

At the center of the plot is an inanimate object made of walnut, a 9-foot, 3-inch door that is 46 inches wide and 2.2 inches thick, with inset beveled glass windows. It was the door used on the studio set to shoot interior scenes of Norman Bates’ Victorian home in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Psycho.”

Hitchcock based the movie on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name. Bloch was living in Wisconsin in 1957 and was inspired to write the book after murderer Ed Gein was arrested in Plainfield, Wis. Gein was born in La Crosse in 1906 and moved to a farm in Plainfield in 1914.

Today the door is back in Hollywood, a prominent piece that will sell for an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 — or much more — in an online auction Sept. 30. But for many years the door was installed on the front of a funeral home in Rib Lake, Wis. The funeral home was sold and the new owner took the door down. It was advertised online when it caught the sharp eye of Dan Estep of La Crosse in mid-July.

Estep, who is passionate about art and antiques, and has restored his Victorian house on Cass Street, is always online looking for doors and other architectural pieces. He saw the door advertised as the original door to the Bates Motel from “Psycho” and doubted it.

“I contacted them and asked if they had any proof that it was actually the door from the movie and they said ‘no,’” Estep said. But he liked the door anyway and was able to buy it for less than the $1,000 asking price.

Estep said that after he got the door home he started taking photographs and compared them to photos from the movie. It was not the door to the Bates Motel, but it was indeed the door to the Norman Bates house. “I could tell from the wood grains and the differences in the moldings that no way could this be faked.”

Estep contacted Profiles in History, a large auctioneer of original Hollywood memorabilia and historical documents. Brian Chanes told him there was a big auction scheduled for September, and the auction house would need the door as soon as possible.

“This one is macabre. It’s the doorway into a house of death and has a very interesting and unique story behind it,” Chanes said. He said the door is on display at the Monsterpalooza show this weekend in Burbank, Calif., and is drawing a lot of interest.

Estep weighed the costs of shipping and decided to embark on a road trip. He contacted two longtime friends — Chris Faint from Stillwater, Minn., and Barry Roatch from Bayport, Minn. — and they packed the door, put it on a pickup rack and pulled a camper as they headed to Hollywood.

The trip turned into an adventure as the men visited six national parks and did some sightseeing. They also seemed to leave destruction in their path. Shortly after they left Colorado there was a major chemical spill in a river, flooding in Utah and wildfires in California. It was as if mayhem was following the door, Estep said.

The day the door was delivered to the auction house — Aug. 13 — was the anniversary of Hitchcock’s birthday. The men took a tour of Universal Studios and received VIP treatment by being allowed to walk around the set for the Bates Motel and the Bates mansion, posing on the front porch for some photos.

It was when they saw a bust of Hitchcock that they noticed that Roatch bears an uncanny resemblance to the “Master of Suspense.”

“We were riding with Hitchcock the whole time,” Estep said. “Even people who worked at the theme park said Barry looked just like Hitchcock.”

The trip back was not as eventful, but it helped cement the men’s friendship. It may also be their last big trip together.

Estep, 52, has battled pulmonary fibrosis since 2008. He found out a year ago that the scarring in his lungs is caused by a rare autoimmune disease called antisynthetase syndrome that attacks his body’s connective tissue. He has been on a form of chemotherapy for the past six months, and about a week before his trip was prescribed supplemental oxygen.

“My failing health was a good part of the reason my best friends went along on the trip,” Estep said. “It’s also a good part of the reason I’m so excited about the door. When your life is filled with doctors and the prospect of an early death, that door represents entertainment, life and horror. It’s a great distraction and true blessing in my life.”

Estep, who can no longer work, hopes that he can raise enough money by selling the door to pay medical bills, do some traveling and continue to pay for the education of two orphans he supports in the Philippines.

While the preliminary bidding price for the door is set at $20,000 to $30,000, Chanes said it’s quite possible it may go much higher.

“This is a complete wildcard,” he said, “with horror and Hitchcock and the Norman Bates home — the most famous home in horror history. The $20,000 is a presale estimate that is more of a calling card. It’s an invitation to bid.”

To deepen the plot, Turner Classic Movies is re-releasing “Psycho” on the big screen for two days — today and Wednesday. And last week Jamie Lee Curtis — the actress daughter of Janet Leigh, who played the character who was stabbed to death in the movie — recreated her mother’s iconic shower scene for a new TV series.

Estep said he was never a big fan of the horror genre, but he won a contest at age 9 and got to visit Disneyland and Universal Studios. He remembers buying a postcard of the Bates mansion and sending it home to his parents.

Estep is enjoying the moment and plans to watch the movie on the big screen at Marcus Theatres and will buy extra tickets for his friends.

“There is a point at which you must say this is much more than coincidence,” Estep said. “I needed the door and it came to me. Nothing else can explain it.”

“My failing health was a good part of the reason my best friends went along on the trip. It’s also a good part of the reason I’m so excited about the door. When your life is filled with doctors and the prospect of an early death, that door represents entertainment, life and horror. It’s a great distraction and true blessing in my life.” Dan Estep, La Crosse

“My failing health was a good part of the reason my best friends went along on the trip. It’s also a good part of the reason I’m so excited about the door. When your life is filled with doctors and the prospect of an early death, that door represents entertainment, life and horror. It’s a great distraction and true blessing in my life.”

Dan Estep, La Crosse

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