DRUMMER FEATURE DECEMBER 8, 2013
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Multi-Theatre owner Mike Mueller is honored with award
By Ed DuBois
Upon being inducted into the Midwest Hall of Fame by the National Association of Theater Owners, the first thing Mike Muller thought about was his grandfather, A.B. "Albert" Muller, who started the family movie theater business in Wright County around 1918, "in the silent picture days."
"I thought about my grandfather and how happy he would be," Mike said in regard to the induction event, which took place in early October at a resort in Lake Geneva, Wis. The honor recognizes outstanding leadership, dedication and service.
When Mike was growing up, his grandfather owned and operated movie theaters in Annandale, Maple Lake and Monticello. Ambitious and talented, Albert was involved with other business ventures, as well. He owned a funeral home, and the Maple Lake movie theater had a four-lane bowling alley in the basement.
"His mother was the first licensed embalmer in the State of Minnesota," Mike mentioned. "He was a carpenter, a plumber, a mortician, and he had a sawmill for a while, too."
Albert once took 20th Century Fox to court in the late 1930s, Mike also mentioned. The issue was block booking. Back then, movie theaters often had to agree to pay for several not so popular movies to get a movie everyone wanted to see. As an example, to get a movie like "Gone with the Wind," a theater had to pay for as many as 20 other shows from the same studio company, Mike explained. Many of the movies were never played, but a fee was paid for them just so a popular movie could be presented.
The practice was discontinued long ago, but negotiating with movie distributors continues to this day. Mike said Ed McAlpine, who was the postmaster in Maple Lake, worked as the negotiator for many years and booked all the shows for Albert's theaters.
Mike was eight years old when he started working at the movie theaters. In Maple Lake, he worked at both the theater and the bowling alley.
He recalled his dad (Bob) was a plumber, and Uncle Ray was a mortician. Many others in the family worked at the theaters.
When Albert passed away in 1956, the movie theaters became a family corporation. A fire in 1962 closed the Maple Lake theater. The site is now the Maple Lake Library. The Annandale theater was closed in about the 1970s, Mike estimated, due to a decline in business.
He became the owner of the Monticello theater, and his brother, Bob, was his silent partner.
Mike said his late wife, Jane (who passed away seven years ago) was involved with purchasing the Monticello Theater. That was in 1978.
Second largest chain
The addition of a second screen in 1981 was the beginning of a gradual expansion that mushroomed in recent years.
"In 1984, Bob and I built the Delano Theater," Mike recalled. "We have eight theaters now, and a total of 104 screens."
Muller Family Theatres is now the second largest movie theater chain in Minnesota, he said.
The movie theater locations now include the new 15-screen Monticello Theater just off Highway 25 on the southern side of town, plus: the 5-screen Delano theater, a 6-screen Waconia theater, 18 screens at a Rogers site, a 10-screen East Bethel theater, a 17-screen White Bear Township theater, 21 screens in a huge Lakeview facility, and 12 screens at a Willow Creek theater in Plymouth.
"The Lakeville theater is two football fields long," Mike mentioned.
The Monticello, Rogers and Lakeville theaters each have an 80-by-35-foot "Monster Screen" with seating for about 600 people.
He was being interviewed just before the opening of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," and he said the midnight shows on opening night (Thursday, Nov. 21) were almost all sold out.
The big blockbuster shows have been the source of some interesting memories over the years.
"We had the most recent 'Star Wars' movie on ten screens at the Lakeville theater," he recalled.
Usually a movie will only be shown on one screen in each building, but sometimes demand calls for a departure from the normal routine.
Sometimes friends, relatives and acquaintances wonder why people are willing to come hours early and wait in line outside in the elements to see a blockbuster on opening night. Mike mentioned talking about it with duck hunting buddies recently.
"Speaking as one of many a movie theater owners, I told them, 'We're not the movie buffs. We're in the movie business, but we're not the people who want to come and see the movies.'"
Speaking as a duck hunter, he added, "But we'll sleep in a car all night to get the best hunting spot."
His point was that various people have different passions, and for some people, being among the first to see an exciting new movie is their passion.
Lined up for blocks
Mike remembers long ago seeing people lined up for blocks outside the old downtown Monticello theater at Highway 25 and Broadway to see "Coal Miner's Daughter."
"They were lined up all the way to the bridge over the Mississippi River," he recalled.
"Lines were good advertising. People would drive by, see the long line and wonder what everyone was waiting to see," Mike commented.
Another long line formed when "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" was opening in downtown Monticello. That time, the auditorium filled before everyone got in and Mike "got chewed out" by people who had driven many miles to see the show, he said.
He told them, "We still have room to see 'Bambi' on the other screen." Unfortunately, that did not satisfy most of the unhappy ones would couldn't get in to see "E.T.," but there was nothing else Mike could do.
Mike was a bit embarrassed to admit "Porky's" was the movie that "put us on the map." The film, which set new limits on risquŽ content, was hugely popular. Mike remembers people standing outside in the rain as they waited to see the show.
Nominated by the Board
Whether it's "Star Wars," "The Hunger Games" or "Porky's," it has always been exciting to show the movies that draw the big crowds. Back in the 1970s, it was happening at one theater, and now it happens at eight theaters.
For Mike, it all began when he was a kid working for his grandfather. He remembers an aunt, Katherine Falk, "ran the business for grandpa." She and her husband, Ken, lived in an apartment above the Maple Lake theater for many years.
After Mike graduated from Annandale High School in 1968 and then studied at St. Cloud State University, he continued in the movie theater business and eventually joined the National Association of Movie Theater Owners.
He was nominated for induction into the Hall of Fame by the Association's Board of Directors.
Now a grandpa
Looking back at his years in the business, he said one of the big changes involves advertising. Today, ad copy can be sent electronically to the newspapers. Before fax machines and email came along, he drove to each area newspaper office in the night and slid ad copy through the mail slots in the front doors.
Another change involves his family. He was a grandson when he started, and now he is the grandpa.
His son, Mike Jr., is the manager of the Rogers theater. His other son, Ken, was the manager in Monticello for a while and now has an electrical business in White Earth, N.D.
Mike's daughter, LeeAnne, has a master's degree and works as a nurse in Kentucky.
He has seven grandchildren.
"They see a lot of movies," Mike commented.
One of his grandchildren has grown up challenged by cerebral palsy and lives in a Coon Rapids group home. Mike said he enjoys occasionally treating the group home residents to a movie at the East Bethel theater.
Grandpa Albert would probably be happy with that.
(Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series about hiking the Appalachian Trail. The first part, which appeared in last week’s issue of the Drummer, followed Ryan Whittaker and Collette DeNet from Georgia to Harpers Ferry, W.V. Collette took a train home after hiking about 1,000 miles. This week, read about the second half of the journey as Ryan hikes all the way up to Maine.)
Where boots go to die
Entering Pennsylvania, Ryan picked up the pace and was covering about 20 miles a day. His best single day distance was 28 miles, he said.
That part of the Trail doesn’t offer the best views, he explained, and the hiking was easier than it had been earlier.
He mentioned that he began the adventure with regular hiking boots. But he and Collette noticed many hikers were wearing lighter footwear called trail runners, which are lighter and breathe better than boots.
Ryan commented that while the hiking in Pennsylvania is easier, many paths are covered with small rocks, which are hard on footwear.
“Hikers like to say that’s where boots go to die,” Ryan recalled.
He also mentioned that the Appalachian Trail is part of the national park system. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), which is headquartered near the halfway point, oversees about 33 trail clubs with volunteers who help maintain paths, signs and shelters.
Ryan had little trouble finding his way and finding places to stay each night, but he did have some unpleasant experiences with mosquitoes in New Jersey. He called this the “low point” of the journey. New Jersey has many low wetlands, and that probably explains the abundance of mosquitoes.
New Jersey also offered a walk along a ridge that was “pretty scenic,” Ryan said.
He saw about ten hikers each day. Due to rest breaks, he and the others kept leapfrogging all day. Ryan said seeing the same hikers over and over leads to conservations and getting to know each other. The casual assignment of nicknames follows. His nickname was Crush, which was a reference to Orange Crush soda pop and the fact that much of his gear was orange.
Notes are exchanged with fellow hikers on “trail logs” or notebooks provided along the Trail. Collette described this form of communication as “an old-fashioned Facebook.”
One of the risks of contact with fellow hikers was possibly being exposed to a virus. Ryan and Collette heard about a virus going around early on the Trail and consequently tried to avoid other hikers when possible. Fortunately, they did not get sick, but they heard about others who did.
In Connecticut, Ryan met a man from Germany whose nickname was Ice Tea.
“We were always seeing each other. We were hiking at about the same pace. He became my hiking buddy to the end of the trail,” Ryan said.
Ice Tea’s real name is Christian Marks. He lives in Berlin.
Ryan said he often saw people on the Trail from other countries.
Christian told Ryan his English had steadily improved as he spoke to other hikers.
Back in forest
Ryan and Christian left the cities and towns of Connecticut and Massachusetts behind and entered the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. Ryan said it felt good to be surrounded by trees again.
The White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire offered an entirely different kind of hiking. On many “straight up” paths, he had to use his hands to grab tree roots and rocks to pull himself along. Metal bars and wooden ladders were installed in some places to assist the hikers.
Ryan enjoyed “phenomenal views” at Franconia Ridge.
“You can see 30-40 miles on a clear day,” he said.
Just before the White Mountain National Forest, Ryan saw someone who looked familiar. “Are you from Buffalo?” he asked. He was talking to 2000 Buffalo High School graduate Erica Miller.
A BWCA with mountains
In Maine, the terrain is similar to the Arrowhead Region in Northern Minnesota. Ryan saw plenty of pine trees and beautiful, clear lakes. You might say Maine is like the BWCA with mountains.
At the Kennebec River in Maine, hikers are taken across in canoes.
The Appalachian Trail ends at Mt. Katahdin, and getting there involves a 4,000-foot climb to an elevation of 5,267 feet.
Interestingly, both ends of the Trail are summits, Collette noted, Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
Ryan suggested that many people start in Georgia so they are in shape for the most difficult part in Maine.
Along the way in-between the peaks in Georgia and Maine, hikers meet many nice people, including other hikers and townsfolk. Ryan said he found the towns to be very friendly. Maybe it’s because of the positive economic impact of so many hikers passing through and buying things. Some people in the towns offer to drive hikers to various places for shopping or sightseeing or anything they want to do.
Collette discovered a very pleasant aspect of hiking the Trail. It’s called “Trail Magic,” and it involves people providing food and beverages for the hikers.
“They are usually people who have hiked,” Collette said. “Sometimes they leave signs telling where to find things like information, restrooms, showers, stores, etc.”
Ryan and Collette said Trail Magic is a morale booster that makes you want to pay it forward for other hikers.
Few make it all the way
Perhaps it takes some magic to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. Only about one quarter of those who start actually make it to the end, Ryan said. He added that about one-quarter of those who start end up dropping out in the first 30 miles.
The Trail is not for everyone, and perhaps it is best not to attempt the 2,000-plus-mile trek unless you are a very serious hiker.
An elite hiker
Ryan certainly qualifies as one of the elite hikers. He said he would like to go on some more big adventures. A journey from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail could be next for him.
The “ultimate goal” for Ryan would be the "Triple Crown," the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.
Accomplishing this feat would involve many new boot purchases, losing even more weight, meeting more people, and experiencing many more stunning views.
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