James Joesph Billek, 66, of Phillips, WI, passed away at his home on July 27, 2023. James “Jim” was born on June 15, 1957, at Lapham’s Maternity House (the bank parking lot according to Jim).
Jim grew up on the family farm in Phillips. He loved business and being self-employed. His first business was Clover Lane CB sales when he was just 16.
Jim attended high school at both Rhinelander and Phillips, graduating from Phillips in 1975. While in school Jim was involved in the CB/Ham radio club, wrestling, and FFA (Future Farmers of America). Jim did not drink milk, but he went to state finals for milk tasting (identifying what the cow was fed by flavors in the milk) with FFA. After graduation, Jim moved to Tomahawk working for Tomahawk hardware and part time at the Tomahawk Cinema. From 1983-1988, Jim leased the Villa Venice Restaurant, he quickly moved the hours to a 24-hour restaurant. In 1988, Jim revived and reopened a closed resort, bar, and restaurant in Harshaw called the Hideaway Lodge. In 1990 Jim left the resort to become an admissions counselor at Petersen Health Care in Rhinelander. This new position, although still sales, involved assisting families and individuals to receive short- and long-term care at Taylor Park Nursing and Rehabilitation or Friendly Village Nursing Home.
In 1992, Jim and Kathy Kehler were married and purchased a small farm in the Gleason area. Throughout this time, Jim remained a casual employee at the Tomahawk Cinema, started multiple at home businesses, and continued to work full time in nursing home admissions. In 1996, Jim and Kathy sold the farm in Gleason and returned to the family homestead in Phillips. They purchased their first theatre in June of 1996, with the Park Theatre in Park Falls. The theatre had been closed for 10 years, and with the help of friends and many community members, the theatre was renovated and reopened. They removed over a ton of plaster on floors and seats, repainted, hung a new silver screen and refurbished the 1950’s film projector system. The first movie on the screen was “The Phantom” on June 16, 1996.
Jim continued to grow his small business ventures adding theaters in Ladysmith, Bruce, Tomahawk, and Phillips. He expanded his portfolio with the purchase of a Pizzeria, Grandma Zavattaro’s Pizza and a small commercial rental property, the Park Mall. In the National Association of Theatre Owners, Jim and Kathy were jokingly referred to as “the King and Queen of the single screens” as all of the theatres we owned were single screen movie theaters. Jim sold Ladysmith and Bruce theatres and purchased his first multiplex theater with The Grand Cinema Theatres in New London. Choosing to reduce his workload, Jim later sold the pizzeria building, the Park Mall building, and the Park Theatre.
Jim was a certified Firefighter 1 and volunteered with both the Harshaw and Nokomis volunteer departments from 1988 until 1992, when he moved to the Gleason area. Jim was a Lions Club member in the 1980’s and at one time had the title of tail twister.
Jim joined NATO (National Theatre Association of WI and UP) in 1996 with the purchase of his first theatre as a general member and was named to the board of directors in 2010, he remained on the board until his death.
Jim was always known as “Smiley” to his friends in High School because he always had a smile and positive thoughts. Jim will be missed by everyone he touched, his smile and joking attitude will be remembered by many.
He is preceded in death by his grandparents, Joseph and Francis Billek and George and Anna Sophia Molnar; his parents, Joseph E. Billek and Anna Mae Billek Bates; his father-in-law, Gordon L Kehler; and two brothers-in-law, John E. Kehler and Robert F Dehli. Jim is survived by his wife, Kathy; sister, JoAnne (William) Christensen, Dolores Kehler, Rose Dehli, and Juliette Wegner; nieces and nephews, Michelle (Adam) Moore, Stephanie (Christopher) Ziegler, Michael (Amanda) Dehli, and Alyssa Dehli. He is also survived by many grandnieces/nephews and extended family and friends.
…And in the words of showmen before him Jim would say “the show must go on!”
A Celebration of Jim’s life will be held at 1pm on August 9, 2023, at the First Presbyterian Church, 144 N Avon Ave, Phillips, WI 54555, with a visitation beginning at 10am and continuing until the time of the service at the church. A private family burial will follow.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Jim’s memory to the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, 6767 Forest Lawn Dr UNIT 303, Los Angeles, CA 90068. Heindl-Nimsgern Funeral Home is assisting the family.