By Ryan Gueningsman
DELANO, MN Since his first theatre job at age 8, making popcorn and earning 2 cents for every bag sold, Mike Muller has had the theatre industry in his blood.
“Some nights I’d make 6 or 8 cents,” Muller recalled with a laugh. “We sold popcorn for 10 cents and I got 2. I could buy an ice cream cone for a nickle.”
It’s all how you look at it, which is what Muller has found in his decades of ownership of multiple movie theatres, including Delano. Considering himself critical yet fun, Muller has also found the successful formula in owning and operating his 8 movie theatres and 104 screens.
Muller was recently inducted to the National Association of Theatre Owners Hall of Fame, an honor he said his grandfather, AB “Albert” Muller, who gave him that first job popping popcorn, would be proud of.
“It was quite an honor,” Muller said. “I was quite surprised.
The board of directors of the Midwest area of the National Association of Theatre Owners, which is comprised of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, western Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska, unanimously selected Muller for the honor.
Muller said his grandfather began in the theatre business in Maple Lake in 1918 during the silent picture era. When the senior Muller passed away, he owned single-screen theatres in Maple Lake, Annandale, and Monticello, in addition to other business ventures.
“He was involved in a number of other businesses,” Muller said. “He was pretty ambitious.”
The apple hasn’t fallen far from the Muller family tree in Mike’s case. Seventy-three-year-old Mike still puts in about 50 to 60 hours a week overseeing operations at the theatres, including a weekly phone chat with his booking agent who schedules films to be shown at the theatres.
“Every Sunday night from 8:30 to 9:30 or 10 p.m. is my time slot,” Muller said, adding that he talks to the booking agent three or four additional times during the week for other input and strategy.
Another strategy for Muller, who is friends with a man who owns a bait shop, is simply to “pray for rain,” he said with a laugh.
“When it rains at 5 p.m., think of me,” he said. “I’m the one praying for it.”
However, the bait shop owner sometimes counters Muller’s prayers, and the nice weather wins out.
“We have fun with it,” he said.
Several decades ago, it was not uncommon for Muller to put in 100 to 120 hours per week, he said.
“Saturday, Sunday, it didn’t make a difference back then,” he said.
Creating the ‘Muller Monster’
Muller said the recent publicity surrounding his induction to the National Association of Theatre Owners Hall of Fame has brought back many good memories for him.
In 1978, while working for the United States government, Muller and his wife, Jane, who passed away 8 years ago, purchased the Monticello movie theatre from the rest of his family.
Admitting he got a “sweetheart of a deal” for the theatre, it was the beginning of more than 30 years of theatre ownership, operation, and expansion.
A second screen was quickly added to the Monticello theatre in 1981 and, in 1984, Muller formed a partnership with his brother, Bob, to keep growing the business venture.
“Bob was a silent partner, but was involved when we were building,” Muller said.
Thirty years ago, the Mullers built a two-screen theatre in Delano. An additional screen was added in 1987. In 1991, two more screens were added, in addition to an expansion of the lobby.
“We used to put out a calendar that had what shows would be at the theatre for the next month or two,” Muller said. “We drew people from quite a ways around.”
Muller said when he delivered those calendars, he had a 159-mile route he would travel, stretching to Norwood Young America, Winsted, Dassel, Long Lake, and everywhere in between.
Muller said Larry Miller of Red’s Café in Montrose was a big supporter of the theatre, and requested an extra calendar to keep by his phone because people would call him asking what was playing at the theatre in Delano.
“Wherever I thought there was traffic and where people would see them,” Muller said about his promotion process. In exchange for posting calendars in public places, Muller would give the business owners a few passes to see a movie.
“Delano had some tremendous crowds in those days,” he said. “I remember me selling tickets, and I could sell pretty fast I had the line out that door around the side and up that hill.”
Gail Ditsch was a long-time employee at the Delano theatre, as were members of the Diem family.
“For a young person just starting to work, Mike treated you really well and did a great job at teaching you how to be successful at whatever you were doing,” said Tim Diem. “Even if you were just selling candy or popcorn, he took the time to tell you how to work with customers.”
Diem said Muller also provided the opportunity for him to see the “other side,” or the business side, of things when they began the theatre in Waconia.
“It was really the first time I had paid attention to that,” Diem said.
The Mullers continued growing, expanding to Waconia in 1989, and building a six-screen theatre in East Bethel in 1990. Four screens were added to East Bethel in 1993, and two screens were also added to Monticello in 1991. A sixth screen was also added to Waconia around the same time.
An attempt to build a theatre in Rosemont in 1994 was not successful, and led to a court battle between the Mullers and city officials, which Muller said he won.
In 1995, the Mullers built a theatre in White Bear Township with 14 screens and, in 1998, they built a theatre in Lakeville with 18 screens.
In 2001, they leased the Willow Creek Theatre, which had eight screens. In 2002, they purchased the theatre, added four more screens, and expanded the lobby there.
In 2004, the Mullers rebuilt Monticello with 14 screens. In 2005, three more screens were added to Lakeville.
One screen became known as the Muller Monster, which was 35 feet by 80 feet, and had auditorium seats for about 600 people. A “monster screen” was added shortly after to Monticello.
An 18-screen theatre was built in 2006 in Rogers, including another now-famous monster screen. The conversion from film to digital several years ago led to additional renovation of Muller’s theatres, including sound systems.
In his years in the theatre industry he said the biggest film shown at his theatres was “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which came out in 2002.
“We played that 42 weeks in three theatres,Muller said. “I wanted to get it for a year. You can put any nationality you want in that and it would all fit it was a good comedy.”
Personally, Muller said he is fond of a good western. He also enjoyed “The Shawshank Redemption.”
He said, over the years, he’s gotten to know what his theatre’s audiences are going to react to.
“We do extremely well with all theatres, except Willow Creek, with family or animated pictures,” Muller said.
Some theatres have began serving liquor during films, but Muller said that has never been something that has interested him.
“Maybe I’m wrong on this, but I’m a believer that if you want to bring families, then we don’t serve liquor,” Muller said. “When you go in that auditorium, it’s too hard to police.”
Muller was promoted from popcorn maker to running the film projectors when he was in the seventh grade. He grew up in Annandale and graduated from Annandale High School in 1958.
He recalls one of the first films he ever ran was the Elvis Presley flick “Love Me Tender.” Another was “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
He said he did not like to run the “scary” movies.
“Even today, I won’t watch those spooky things,” he said with a laugh.
Muller went to the Minnesota School of Business and obtained a degree in junior accounting. He also did a stint in the United States Army Reserves before going to St. Cloud State and obtaining a degree in accounting.
He worked for the government for 18 years as an auditor, or a self-described “guy in the black hat,” working for the USDA and farm programs.
Muller lived in Kentucky for a year, which is where Jane was from originally, and he said they moved back to Minnesota in 1968. In addition to his work with the government, he also began a tax preparation business something he continued doing until 1991.
“When I quit, I was doing 750 returns all by hand,” Muller said.
Mike and Jane have three children and seven grandchildren.
Daughter LeeAnne works at a hospital in Frankfort, KY.
Son Ken used to work for Mike. Several years ago, he went to White Earth, ND, and started an electrical business. Mike was able to do some pheasant hunting out that way recently.
Son Mike has four children and is the manager of the theatre in Rogers. His wife, Jennifer (Czanstkowski) is from Delano originally.
The elder Muller, who lives in Maple Lake, enjoys spending some time in Florida and said John Rueter visited him one time Muller was in the Sunshine State.
When Muller is in Florida, he said he goes fishing about once a week. He practices catch and release on bass.
Muller and Rueter were fishing, and Rueter kept catching larger and larger-sized bass.
Muller said Rueter caught 19 bass that day, and Muller caught 15. However, one of Rueter’s was over 10 pounds, which is larger than the Minnesota state record.
“He (Rueter) said he enjoyed that fishing more than going to watch the Twins in spring training,” Muller said.
Anyone who knows Rueter knows that’s saying something.
“It was all good,” Muller said.