The largest independent movie theater company in Illinois prides itself on providing that old-time simple joy of going to the movies.
“Watch the eyes of a child as he enters the portals of our great theatres and treads the pathway into fairyland. Watch the bright light in the eyes of the tired shop girl who hurries noiselessly over carpets and sighs with satisfaction as she walks amid furnishings that once delighted the hearts of queens. See the toil-worn father whose dreams have never come true, and look inside his heart as he finds strength and rest within the theatre. There you have the answer to why motion picture theatres are so palatial.” – Theater designer George Rapp
Willis Johnson grew up just two blocks away from the Tivoli Theatre, a majestic, single-screen motion-picture palace located in downtown Downers Grove. It was at this venerable theater that Willis and his friends spent most of their free time. Even as an adult, he often found himself taking in a movie. “I enjoy the classics, as well as chick flicks,” he says, chuckling. One of his favorites is “Hard Times,” made in 1973, starring Charles Bronson, who plays a drifter who travels to Louisiana during the Great Depression to compete in illegal boxing matches. Another is “The Way We Were,” the 1973 drama featuring Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand.
When watching those films, Willis never imagined that he would one day own the Tivoli, much less preside over an entire movie company with 99 screens in Illinois. He co-owned a printing business with his brother for two decades, before the opportunity arose to purchase the Tivoli Theatre in 1976. Included in the purchase was a residential hotel, a bowling alley, a billiards parlor and several storefronts. He got right to work, making extensive renovations to the grand theater. He and wife Shirley handled the business end of operations, while the theatre’s former manager, Ed Doherty, agreed to stay on and book the films. The Tivoli reopened Aug. 8, 1978, with a showing of a comedy western film called “Hot Lead and Cold Feet,” starring Don Knotts. “It played one week,” Willis says, “and the rest is history.”
Today, The Tivoli Theatre is fully restored. It plays first-run features and is one of 13 theaters under the banner of Classic Cinemas, a Downers Grove-based business, and the largest independent movie theater company in Illinois. The family-owned business is led by Willis, 74. Shirley, 75, handles special events. Son Chris, 43, who started his career by cleaning out the basement of the Tivoli as a teenager, is vice president of operations.
For Willis, who also serves as president of the National Association of Theatre Owners of Illinois, the movie business has always been a labor of love.
“He absolutely loves what he’s doing,” Chris says. “He loves coming to work. I compare it to tinkering with an old car in the garage. That’s his thing – he tinkers with old buildings. It’s not his job, it’s really his hobby. Anything that happens in his life is centered on the business.”
An early riser, Willis often begins his day by attending a business meeting or community function. He serves on many boards, giving freely of his time and other resources.
“I’m always amazed by Willis’s dedication to communities in which his movie houses are established,” says Pat Zubak, executive director of Downtown Oak Park, one of the boards on which Willis serves. “He’s a one-man economic engine. The movie theaters are such an attraction. They’re the anchors of downtown. He’s such a wise business person and we all value his console and advice. When he misses a meeting, it’s rare. He comes the furthest, but he’s always there first, always comes prepared, always reads the packet and makes corrections. He’s a perfectionist.”
Along with the Tivoli, Classic Cinemas has restored downtown theaters including the York in Elmhurst, the Lake in Oak Park, the Woodstock in Woodstock, the Paramount in Kankakee and the Lindo in Freeport. It has also updated existing theaters and built contemporary theaters, such as the Elk Grove in Elk Grove Village and, most recently, the six-screen North Riverside Mall Theatre in North Riverside. Others in the Classic Cinemas family include the Charlestown 18 in St. Charles; Cinema 12 in Carpentersville; Fox Lake Theatre in Fox Lake; Meadowview Theatre in Kankakee; and Ogden 6 in Naperville.
“Having these theaters is a wonderful draw for the communities they’re in,” says Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America. “They generate great traffic on the street. People walk past businesses, window shop, eat at restaurants. They’ve been a tremendous boon for the downtown area, whether it’s Oak Park, Woodstock or Downers Grove.”
The Tivoli Theatre is typical of most buildings in the Classic Cinemas family. It carries the ambience of its old-time self but has state-of-the-art technology. Over the years, all the theaters in the company have seen major upgrades, from the addition of more and larger screens and Dolby surround stereo sound to 3-D capabilities, wider and more comfortable seats, new carpeting, floor title and wall décor in the auditoriums. Improvements to the lobby and concession areas also have been made.
“It’s a wonderful marriage,” Willis says. “I enjoy the renovation and expansion of these theatres, which have significantly contributed to the vitality of the downtowns that we are in. Other merchants feed off that. By restoring the buildings, we’re finding historic elements. And people enjoy the theatres. They spark memories – memories of a first job, first date or first kiss. Back then, going to the movies was one of the few options people had socially.”
Despite the competition of so many other entertainment options, movies still appeal to people of all ages. “The wonderful thing about movies is they are shadows on the walls. That’s all they are,” Sklenar says. “Now 3-D only enhances that experience. It’s pretty amazing. Watching a movie in a crowded theater is a different experience. It’s a social thing for 200 people to be laughing and crying over what’s going on in the screen. You can’t get that sitting at home.”
Like parents, the Johnsons attempt to love all of their theaters the same. “But the Tivoli is Willis’s pride and joy,” says Shirley, who grew up in Elmhurst and often attended movies at the York.
The Tivoli first opened on Christmas Day 1928 as one of the first theatres in the country built to show “talkies.” Much has changed over the years; today, the Tivoli has Dolby Digital sound and an HPS4000 sound system with the acoustic power of 10 symphony orchestras. The building occupies nearly a block, just north of the Downers Grove train station. Along with the movie theater, it also has a bowling alley, game room, a residential hotel, stores and offices.
All of the Classic Cinema theaters, in fact, have their own unique history and charm. The largest is the Charlestown 18 in St. Charles. The Fox Lake Theatre, with its high ceilings, is housed in a space at the Lakewood Shopping Center formerly occupied by a grocery store. In 1986, an Elk Grove resident called WGN radio personality Roy Leonard to complain that there were no theater operators in the village. Classic Cinemas took notice and signed a long-term lease in 1986.
The Lake Theatre in Oak Park features many decorative elements brought in from theaters that are no longer standing. The ceiling fixtures in the new lobby rotunda are from the Will Rogers Theatre in Chicago. The art deco wall fixtures were salvaged from the Colonial Theatre in Margeno, prior to its demolition, and other elements were copied from originals. The custom carpet design was replicated from a fragment of the original 1936 flooring found in the building when Classic Cinemas first acquired it.
The Woodstock Theatre was purchased in 1988. The movie “Groundhog Day,” a romantic comedy starring Bill Murray, used the theater as a film location. Each year, the theater helps the City of Woodstock celebrate Groundhog’s Day with free screenings of the film.
The York Theatre, built in 1924, is Classic Cinema’s second-oldest theater. For theater history buffs, the museum and archives of the Theatre Historical Society of America are located in the building’s second floor. Admission is free to the gallery, which features changing exhibits and artifacts from 15,000 movie theaters from across the country.
“This has worked out very well,” says Sklenar, the executive director. “It gave us a brick-and-mortar address, which for a nonprofit, was a step in the maturation process. Because we had a place, people knew we were somebody.” Willis and Shirley are strong supporters of theater history. They clear their schedules every year to attend the organization’s convention of theater tours, held in various cities around the country. “They just ooh and ahh when they tour some of these theaters,” Sklenar says. “They both love art deco. Their eyes light up at the colors and the details.”
Most of the Classic Cinema theaters are available for other uses, too. Several performing arts groups use the Tivoli for their main venue, including the Midwest Ballet Theatre and the West Towns Chorus. The After Hours Film Society also makes its home at the Tivoli, showing an art or foreign film twice a month. For 18 years, the Tivoli has hosted an annual Halloween movie and costume contest, which always generates fond memories. “I remember one mother who really got creative by dressing her baby in an octopus costume,” says Shirley, laughing. “Another girl came dressed as a Christmas tree. She could even control her own lights.”
Each summer, many of the theaters offer a weekly morning movie series with titles enjoyed by younger viewers. The popular event includes pre-movie games and meet-and-greet sessions with costumed characters. The Lindo in Freeport now has a western movie series. It added pretzels to the menu, in honor of the local high school athletic teams, who go by the same nickname.
The Johnsons carry out these types of marketing maneuvers with the customer’s best interest in mind. “We’re not trying to be the biggest,” says Chris. “We just want to be the theater of choice in these hometown communities.”
And that’s the way it’s been for more than three decades.
“We have always enjoyed the folks we’ve worked with over the years,” Shirley says. “We’ve had so many long-standing relationships with different groups and companies in the various communities we’re involved in. That’s what has made this such a wonderful experience.”
As for Willis Johnson, don’t bother to mention the ‘r’ word. He has no immediate plans to retire, or slow down, for that matter. He’s still having fun, he says, even after all these years.
“This is my life,” he says, “and I enjoy it.” ❚