By Stephanie Gattman and Jodi Magallanes
ELKHART - "Dad was in the theater and the theater was in him."
That was how Bill Miller's son, Phil, described his father, owner of the Elco Theater from 1961 until his tragic death in 1987.
"Dad was not a timid guy. His laugh was as big as the theater. And he was always on, always, as a showman should be," Phil said.
Elkhart historian Paul Thomas remembers the elder Miller as a flamboyant man who got into the movie business because he participated in a national Mickey Rooney look-a-like contest. "And he won and Mickey Rooney was here and that's why he got into show business," Thomas said.
Miller was shot to death by employee Phillip Keller in 1987 at Concord Cinema I, which Miller also owned.
In 1939, Miller became an usher at the State Theater, which he later purchased in 1951.
A World War II veteran of the U.S. Army, Miller worked in Hammond and eventually returned to Elkhart. He bought the Elco, Orpheum and Goshen theaters in 1961. He razed the Orpheum in 1969 and established Cinema I. He sold the Goshen theater, but built the Holiday Theater at Pierre Moran Mall in 1971 and purchased Concord Theaters in 1975.
Miller also played the cornet.
"He was a trumpeter of some renown. He played a Conn trumpet, was assistant conductor of the Elkhart High School band and during the war played in Patton's Third Army. So when Mr. Hope would stop by ..." Miller got to know him, son Phil said.
Then Bob Hope would visit the Elco later on, where they'd catch up.
His silhouette, while playing the cornet, is famous. It's on a lot of sheet music folders still used by musicians, the younger Miller said.
Thomas also recalled Miller as "very, very much Elkhart, an Elkhartan true and true. Although Pete Sarantos was mayor, he was his assistant."
"I loved him," Thomas said.
Son Phil said, "Dad was the unofficial mayor of downtown."
Many of his activities reflected his love of Elkhart.
Miller was Elkhart County Republican chairman from 1962 to 1966; Elkhart County 4-H Fair Board president in 1965; Exchange Club president in 1972; and chamber of commerce president in 1982. He was national exchange club president in 1972. Miller also served on the boards of Bashor Home, Better Business Bureau, South Side School Building Corp., Boy Scouts, Greencroft Foundation and Simpson United Methodist Church.
Former downtown business leaders credit Miller with clearing the 300 block of Main Street, where the Elkhart Civic Plaza and Central Park is located. During Miller's time, it was developed into the Midway Motor Lodge.
He was a member of the Elkhart Parks and Recreation Board and the Elkhart Downtown Improvements Committee and was one of the founders and board members of Elkhart Centre Inc. According to news accounts after his death, Miller dreamed of the Elco becoming a civic center.
Miller also was chairman of the centennial in Elkhart, a committee which he ran "under his thumb," Thomas said.
Phil agreed to be part of planning committee for sesquicentennial because Bill was involved in planning the centennial.