When Utah auto magnate Larry H. Miller was a young man, he dreamed big, according to his widow, Gail Miller.

Once, when they were walking in Salt Lake City, they saw a Shelby Cobra racing car for the first time. “Larry was saying, ‘Someday, I’m going to have one of those.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, right.’ That was way beyond our capacity,” Gail Miller said Thursday.

Success in the car industry eventually allowed Larry Miller to buy a Cobra. “The first one we bought,” she said, “we drove home from California, through a snow storm, with no top on and no windshield wipers, and me reaching over trying to keep the window clean so he could see where he was going.”

The event that prompted Gail Miller’s reminiscences was a celebration of one of the companies the Millers founded, the Megaplex Theatres chain, which marked its 20th anniversary on Thursday — with a party that connected the movies with cars.

“The things that touch almost everyone would be cars and the things we do to entertain ourselves, such as movies,” Gail Miller said.

By a happy coincidence of the schedule, Megaplex is celebrating with a movie about cars: “Ford v Ferrari,” director James Mangold’s drama about the effort of car designer Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale) to develop a Ford-based car that could beat the rival Ferrari team at one of the most prestigious road races in the world, the 24 Hours of LeMans.

“It’s one of the great moments in American history,” said businessman Greg Miller, son of Larry and Gail.

And the Millers own a piece of that history. Years ago, Larry Miller acquired the Ford GT40 Mark II that Miles drove at LeMans in 1966 — the race depicted in “Ford v Ferrari.” That car is now on display in the lobby of the Megaplex 20 in South Jordan.

Also on display is the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe that Shelby designed and Miles drove to victory at 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring races in Florida. Each of the cars are valued in the tens of millions of dollars.

“It’s a pleasure as a family to be stewards of these cars,” Greg Miller said, fighting back tears at the memories he shared about driving with his dad.

The Megaplex Theatres began with one 17-screen location, at the Jordan Commons complex in Sandy. City officials there asked Larry Miller to develop the site of the old Jordan High School, and the theater was built along with restaurant space and an office tower.

The Jordan Commons theater wasn’t a moneymaker at first. “More than once, I heard my dad say that the return we’re getting on our investment in the theaters is roughly akin on what you’d get on a three-month CD at a credit union,” Greg Miller said back in 2009.

In 2006, Larry Miller — who died in 2009 — admitted in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that the theaters were “not my favorite business, just because it’s one I’m not engaged with like the car business and the basketball business. I don’t understand it as much as the others.”

The Megaplex then made up about 0.2% of the revenue of Miller’s businesses, which were dominated by his auto dealerships, real estate and ownership of the Utah Jazz.

Gail Miller was an inspiration for the theaters, because of her and Larry’s dating history. When they were young, she has often said, they went to the movies because they couldn’t afford much else. She always remembered the cramped, broken seating and the sticky floors of the old theaters — and vowed that the theaters her family’s business ran would avoid both problems.

“I hate sticky floors. I’ve hated them since I was a kid,” Gail Miller said in 2011, when Megaplex opened its 14-screen Legacy Crossing location in Centerville.

The chain has grown significantly in the last 20 years. It now owns and operates 15 locations in Utah — from Logan to St. George — and one in Mesquite, Nev. Those 16 facilities boast 182 screens, and a combined workforce of 1,500 employees.

“In the scope of the theater world, that’s very, very small,” Gail Miller said Thursday. “But the impact we have is huge, because we do things right. We make an impact because we care about our customers, we care about our facilities, and we care about our employees.”

Walking into the South Jordan theater building for the 20th anniversary, Gail Miller said, “it still looks brand new.” (The location at The District opened in 2006.)

“It’s wonderful to come into a place like this, and be proud to have your name on it,” she said. “The people who take care of it do it right.”

MEGAPLEX AT 20: A TIMELINE
Significant dates in the history of Utah’s Megaplex Theatres chain:
Nov. 5, 1999 • Megaplex Theatres opens its first location, a 17-screen multiplex at Jordan Commons in Sandy, in the shell of the old Jordan High School. The site boasted a Super Screen theater (converted to IMAX in 2005), an arcade space (now a luxury VIP screening room) and a Mexican restaurant with cliff diving entertainment, The Mayan (which closed in 2011 and was replaced by two more auditoriums).
Nov. 1, 2001 • Megaplex opens a 12-screen multiplex at downtown Salt Lake City’s new shopping center, The Gateway.
Jan. 10, 2005 • Megaplex takes over the Thanksgiving Point Stadium 8 in Lehi. The facility expanded to 17 screens in 2011.
Jan. 6, 2006 • Company founder Larry H. Miller abruptly cancels a booking of “Brokeback Mountain” at the Megaplex Jordan Commons, citing the storyline about two gay ranch hands. He later meets with LGBTQ students at the University of Utah, who, he said, “really gave me a different slant … on my need to be more sensitive to and aware of other people’s feelings.”
May 19, 2006 • Megaplex opens a 20-screen multiplex at The District, in South Jordan.
June 15, 2007 • The Megaplex 13 at The Junction opens in Ogden, at the site of the demolished Ogden City Mall.
Oct. 28, 2008 • Megaplex Theatres rejects director Kevin Smith’s comedy “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” citing its content. The R-rated movie, starring Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, was shown without incident at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, and at Carmike and Cinemark chain theaters.
Feb. 20, 2009 • Larry H. Miller, the company’s founder, dies at the age of 64.
Oct. 14, 2011 • The Megaplex at Legacy Crossing, a 14-screen multiplex, opens in Centerville.
April 18, 2012 • Megaplex Theatres acquires 11 locations from the defunct Westates Theatres chain. The move adds three locations in Logan, two in Cedar City, five in St. George, and one in Mesquite, Nev., to the Megaplex’s roster.
Nov. 30, 2012 • The 15-screen Megaplex Valley Fair opens, in the site of a former Mervyn’s department store.
March 13, 2015 • The 13-auditorium Megaplex Geneva opens in Vineyard, in the former Geneva Steel plant near Orem.
Feb. 5, 2016 • Megaplex Jordan Commons welcomes its 25 millionth customer.
March 8, 2017 • The Megaplex opens the Megaplex Luxury Theaters at Cottonwood, renovating a six-theater facility that opened in 1988 with all luxury-style seating, a lounge and a cafe menu.
May 7, 2019 • Megaplex unveils a subscription service, offering two tickets for $14.95 a month.