In His Father's Footsteps, Phil Miller Did the Best That He Could Do

June 15, 2011

Phil Miller jokes about his father, Bill Miller's, No. 1 rule: Don't follow him into the family business.

"I broke it. I broke my Dad's No. 1 rule," he says.

Phil took over the management of the Elco after his father was killed by a former employee in 1987. The Miller family later sold the theater that Bill had invested 30 years in, but not before the tragedy gave his son a legacy that reached beyond the theater's walls.

Growing up at the Elco

Miller possesses all the proper memories of a kid whose dad ran a historic Elkhart theater.

"If you look at that wall, behind it is a ladder attached to the cinderblock between the two walls. It leads up to a catwalk, way up there in the ceiling, that runs just above the plaster ceiling and over to the mushroom. It's completely dark in there, and super high.

"Did I climb it? Yeah. Of course I climbed it. I just didn't look down."

Bill Miller took over management of the Lerner - which had become the Elco in the 1930s - in 1961, adding it to his collection of successful local movie houses.

He remembers when people would line up for tickets at the box office. Bill would grab a set of tickets and hand them out, he said, holding the dollar bills in each of his fingers and making change as he went.

"He'd glad-hand them and get them in the entertainment mood before they ever walked in the door. And always in the tux. God knows, Dad had more tuxes than most people have polo shirts. He believed in giving them the full show."

Bill and the business were inseparable. The time Bill spent at work created some distance between father and son, but never estranged the two.

"That was Dad's thing and he was fantastic at it. He had his thing, and I had mine."

Phil's "thing" became flying U.S. Air Force planes at Mach 5. He obtained a master's degree in business, but kept his head in the clouds as a fighter pilot and an Air Force officer. The status afforded him what he describes as an "upper echelon," international lifestyle that he had planned to enjoy for some time.

The plan changes

Area residents were shocked to hear that Bill was found shot to death in another of his theaters, the Concord Cinemas, in 1987. Phil made a beeline back to Elkhart, to his mother, Ruth, and sister, Cheryl.

He immediately perceived a need to protect his mother from the fallout of Bill's sudden absence both from the business and from their lives.

One of several things that weighed on Phil at the time was that Ruth had planned on the theater providing her with retirement income. How that was going to happen now was a difficult question.

"My take was that there was nobody who could take over (the theater). I looked at it and said, 'This is my responsibility.'"

From 1987 to 1990 Phil received a crash course in all things related to theater management and to doing business in Elkhart. The first thing he discovered, he said, was that he was no Bill Miller. Although he made an effort to run the business exactly as his father had, he came to realize that their skill sets weren't identical.

"There were some things I had to learn to do over again. And I just don't have the same personality he did. I tried, but I had to throttle it back a bit," he said.

It turned out that the two did share a devotion to the place, however. Phil's business skills resulted in a 43 percent increase in revenue between 1987 and 1990 and greatly improved its profitability during a time when national ticket sale numbers remained flat.

But what made the effort worthwhile was obviously the new relationship it forged with Bill's memory. Phil smiles when he talks about his father's legacy at the Elco and about the unfortunate incident that forced him to discover it.

"I really got to discover Dad's pulse. I learned why he did what he did. ... It was a bad situation, but so much came out of it for me."

But Ruth Miller still struggled with the responsibility of her husband's legacy and at her request, the family divested themselves of all of their theater holdings, including the Elco, around 1990. Phil opted to remain in the area He developed his business career and helped birth a project that came to be known as the Elkhart Jazz Festival.

Just like when he was a kid, Phil says his test of what do when faced with a decision is still to ask himself what Bill Miller would do. His dad would have been proud to see the extensive renovation project, he thinks. So he agreed to give it a sort of Miller-family send-off into the future by serving as head of the reopening celebration.

"One of the original thoughts was that I would do this as a tribute to Dad, and for me it would be the capstone of the three years I ran it," Miller said.

Phil also wanted to do his part to remind Elkhart residents of the historical significance of the reopening.

"It's really the capstone of a path that began 88 years ago. If nobody lays that out ... then I think we've really missed an opportunity."

It's unlikely, though, that he'll be involved in any critical way in the road the Lerner takes from here on out.

"The new Lerner needs to be something more than "Miller 2.0, It's not my building, it has to be Elkhart's building."