by Todd Moen
A self-described workaholic, Mike Muller has spent the majority of his life in the movie theater business.
Muller is the president of Muller Family Theatres, which operates the Delano Theatre and the Waconia 6 Theatre, and he was recently honored for his “outstanding leadership, dedication and service” to the industry by the National Association of Theatre Owners — North Central States, which inducted Muller into its hall of fame.
According to Jeff Logan, president of the association for the North Central states, Muller’s selection was unanimous.
“We were proud and enthusiastic to nominate him for this honor and thrilled that he received this award,” Logan said. “We all know Mike not only as an astute and successful businessman, but more importantly as a genuine, nice guy who gives back to his community and his industry.
“We know that Mike is so quiet and humble, he would rather help people quietly from behind the scenes without recognition,” Logan continued. “But if anyone deserves to be recognized, it’s Mike. In these days of focus on profits and a tight economy, he demonstrates what it is to be a good corporate citizen.
“Mike is one of the few local businessmen in our industry who is able (to be) successfully competing on a large scale with the large national chains in a major metropolitan market,” Logan added. “This is a tribute to him and the talented people he has attracted to his organization.”
“It’s a great honor,” said the 73-year-old Muller, who lives in Maple Lake and operates the Muller Family Theatres chain with his brother, Bob, who is vice president. “If my grandfather was living, he’d be mighty happy.”
The cinema life
Muller was always close to his grandfather, A.B. Muller, who operated single-screen theaters in Maple Lake, Annandale and Monticello. The eldest grandchild, Muller went to work for his grandfather in Annandale.
“My grandfather thought I would stay out of trouble by working at the movie theater because I would be occupied. The labor department would frown on it, but I started making popcorn when I was 8 years old in the second grade,” recalled Muller, who made a 2 cent commission on each bag sold.
On his best night, Muller made $4.28. Many nights, however, Muller would earn maybe 10 cents, but that was still more than enough for Muller to treat himself to a scoop and a half of ice cream at the local drug store.
Muller learned about the movie theater business from his grandfather, who was not afraid of being something of a maverick. In the 1930s, for example, A.B. Muller sued one of the major movie studios regarding block booking, a practice where theaters had to show less popular pictures to be able to show the blockbusters. A.B. Muller ended up winning the case, which eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Under those early beginnings, Muller developed a thirst for the industry that remains unquenched.
And although Muller earned an accounting degree from St. Cloud State and spent many years working as a government auditor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, retiring from accounting in 1991, he never strayed far from the movie theater business.
In 1978, he and his wife, Jane, who passed away eight years ago, purchased their first theater, a one-screen theater in Monticello. Three years later, they added a second screen. In 1984, Muller and his brother, Bob, became partners and they opened a two-screen theater in Delano, later adding a third screen in 1987.
“In 1988, we decided we wanted to build another theater,” Muller said. “We had a big map of the Twin Cities area and the pin ended up on Waconia. We opened on Labor Day weekend in 1989, and boy, did we draw the crowds.”
At the time, the Waconia location featured five screens and an ice cream shop, a space that was converted into the theater’s sixth auditorium in 1991. Initially, Muller was interested in locating the theater off Highway 5 but ultimately chose the downtown location, which has proven to be a successful decision.
“We helped create a busier downtown and we still draw very good crowds,” Muller said. “We would like to have more screens so we can show more pictures, but we’ve still done tremendous business.”
Adding more screens is a challenge for the theater, which is situated on a busy downtown corner lot. Over the years, Muller has had a couple of conversations with owners of properties adjacent to the theater, but nothing has ever resulted, meaning the theater will likely remain at six screens for the foreseeable future.
Also in the early 1990s, Muller Family Theatres added two screens at both Delano and Monticello and opened a theater in East Bethel, which would feature 10 screens by 1993. In 1995, the chain opened a 14-screen theater in White Bear Township. The chain opened an 18-screen theater in Lakeville around 1998. A 12-screen theater opened in Willow Creek in 2002 and a new, 14-screen theater replaced the existing theater in Monticello in 2004. To top it off, Muller Family Theatres opened an 18-screen theater in Rogers in 2006.
An industry leader
As Muller reminisces about the history of Muller Family Theatres, there is a sense of pride, much like a father listing off the accomplishments of his children. But Muller Family Theatres can take pride in more than just its own success. For example, the chain is notable for a number of movie theater firsts in Minnesota.
Muller Family Theatres was the first in the state to feature Dolby Digital sound in its auditoriums, he said, and it was also the first in Minnesota to include cup holders on the seats of its auditoriums. In another accomplishment, Muller Family Theatres created the “Muller Monster,” a screen that is 35 feet wide and 80 feet tall, which is equivalent to three normal screens and is the biggest in Minnesota, he said. The Muller Monster can be found at Monticello, Rogers and Lakeville, which incidentally, now has 21 screens and is the largest movie theater in the state of Minnesota. For Muller, being on the cutting edge has helped keep his chain from being on the cutting room floor.
“I never look at it like we’re doing something first or the biggest. … We’re just surviving,” said Muller, who also was among the first owners to convert to stadium seating, which is now a staple for movie theaters, and in recent years, completed the switch from film to digital projectors at all of the chain’s locations.
Dale Haider, the director of operations for Muller Family Theatres, has worked with Muller for 15 years. He said the chain has always focused on customer service and been on the forefront of new technology.
“When it comes down to spending money, if it’s something that will benefit the customer, it goes right to the top of the list,” said Haider, who described Muller as a well-liked, respected boss. “His philosophy and belief in running the theaters and overall operation of the theaters is to lead by example.”
Given Muller’s dedication to his craft, Haider said Muller was deserving of the hall of fame honor.
“He just loves the movies,” Haider said. “He’s always seeing the positives in the movies, the business they can bring. His enthusiasm for the business (is admirable).”
Haider noted the low turnover that is prevalent among the chain’s full-time employees.
“It’s not always common in theaters, but this is an example of how well-liked he is by the staff,” he said.
A love for the business
Muller mused that he has worked with 20,000 plus employees over the years and prides himself on hiring good people. In the past, Muller has put in 120-hour workweeks and has performed every job in the theater, from selling tickets to scrubbing floors. Muller has even spent many a night sleeping at one of his theaters, whether it was out of necessity — like when he couldn’t go home after the 1991 Halloween blizzard hit — or convenience.
Although he doesn’t watch every single movie shown in his theaters anymore, Muller used to watch all of them. He disliked watching horror movies the most. One time, Muller decided to spend the night at the theater. After waking up to use the restroom, he walked out of his office, turned the corner and found himself face to face with Hannibal Lecter, who was prominently featured on a lobby poster advertising “The Silence of the Lambs.”
“Oh God, that scared the devil out of me,” said Muller, who had to lock the door to his office before going back to sleep that night.
The record run for a movie for the Muller Family Theatres chain is “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which ran 42 consecutive weeks at a couple of the locations.
In his 65-year career, Muller said the biggest change he’s seen is the arrival of the multiplex. Some multiplexes, like the one in Lakeville, can show up to two dozen movies by doubling some of the older shows in the same auditorium — a far cry from when going to the movies meant visiting a theater that had only one screen.
Muller, who described himself as “young at heart,” enjoys different types of hunting (another activity he used to enjoy with his grandfather), walking, fly fishing and supporting organizations such as Pheasants Forever and the Delta Foundation. Of course, the movie theater business will always be important to Muller.
“To see young kids come to the movies for the first time … they get so excited and I love watching their faces light up,” he said. “I really love the business. … That’s why I’m still in it.”
Contact Todd Moen at [email protected]