The story of the The Old Town Portrait Gallery would not have been a story at all if not for one man, John Howard Thompson.
It started out as a college thesis at the University of Northern Iowa about the creation and operation of an old time portrait business. It turned out to be the largest and most detailed thesis that university had ever seen from a student and it still is to this day. In 1976, John was travelling around to different state fairs in the region, setting up his portable studio and taking portraits. This "trial by fire" was to be instrumental in his plans for the future and why he turned out to be such an innovator in this industry. His first cameras were enormous 8x10 view cameras just like the ones you see in western movies.
By the early 1980's John was a veteran at what he did and he learned of a new shopping, dining and entertainment attraction that was going to open near Disney World in Kissimmee, Florida. The name of this new property - Old Town. He was very excited about not having to travel from fair to fair anymore if he could just make a go of it in Old Town. He and his future wife, Charlotte and her son Derrick lived in a motor home behind Old Town while it was being constructed and sunk every penny they had into the new studio.
In December of 1986, Old Town officially opened and things started out slowly, but Old Town began to build a reputation for a fun place for families to come and enjoy and before long, the Old Town Portrait Gallery was on it's way.
It only took two years for John to realize that the studio that he had so tirelessly built and filled with elaborate sets, replica weapons, props and period costumes was not going to be big enough. So he eventually landed a corner store right in the middle of Old Town and started over, improving every facet of the business along the way. By this time, he was using what is known as a "diffusion transfer" system of developing photographs, cutting edge at the time.
John excelled at looking at challenges from a sideways view and from the start, he knew there had to be a better way to process photos in a speedy but quality fashion while being able to offer more variety to his customers. The answer was a 1 hour minilab system. These huge machines offered the ability to shoot photos in 35mm format which allowed the ability to shoot several photos of a family instead of just one. And the prints were able to be printed on a much higher quality paper than that of the diffusion transfer process. One problem however, was the prohibitive cost on such large, complex machines. But John believed that he could make it work and make the machines pay for themselves. We all had our doubts. You see, nothing like this had ever been done before and he was talking about using a machine in a completely different way than for what it was designed. Add to that that the minilab itself cost as much as the entire studio had cost to build and supply. But what John's true gift was in proving skeptics wrong. And boy were we wrong. Not only was it a success but we still use a similar system today although we have moved on to the digital age. And prints are still printed on the finest photographic paper that you can get.
The idea worked so well that by the year 2000, even this studio wasn't big enough and as luck would have it, the space next door became available. So we knocked down a few walls and started on John's dream studio. With so much space we were able to create more sets, larger costume rooms and a much larger lobby. It all came together beautifully. That is how we got the gorgeous studio that you see today!
Tragically, we lost John to cancer in 2005. He battled the disease for two full years. He was only 50. He loved life. He loved to laugh. He loved his family, and he loved Old Town. He loved the look on people's faces when he showed them a portrait that he created. He loved to make people laugh and would sometimes come in just to "play" with the customers for a few hours. He was a fierce friend and had many of them. He was respected and loved by his peers. So much so that you will find the studio in Old Town at the corner of Deac Hundley (Old Town's Founder) Ave. and John Thompson Way. That's right, they named one of the streets in Old Town after him. We miss him so much.
John used to joke with his friends in this business that he who dies with the most props and costumes wins! And if you have been to our studio, you know that we declared John the winner by a landslide a long time ago. He never lost his excitement about it.
By John's example, we will continue to look at things sideways, provide a superior product and have a lot of fun with you folks along the way.