Lighting Up Darkened Downtown
A marquee moment: Classic Cinemas celebrates 30th anniversary
By: Chad Greene
When Classic Cinemas President Willis Johnson threw the ceremonial switch that brought the 680 chasing bulbs on the restored vertical sign of the Lindo Theatre to life on November 28, it wasn’t only the marquee of the 85-year-old establishment that lit up. The downtown of Freeport, Ill., did, as well.
“They’ve come in and invested over $1 million into the community,” Freeport Mayor George Gaulrapp says of Willis Johnson, his wife Shirley and his son Chris. “The Lindo is one of the entertainment hubs downtown. And that affects all the other businesses, too. People will come down and grab a sandwich before the movie, or a beer or a drink after the movie.”
For 30 years now, Classic Cinemas has specialized in lighting up the darkened downtowns of communities in Northern Illinois by restoring older theatres such as the Lake in Oak Park, the Paramount in Kankakee and the York in Elmhurst. In addition to nine state-of-the-art auditoriums, the Johnsons also carved out enough space in the York Theatre – which opened in 1924 as a 1,100-seat single screen-and the surrounding storefronts for the headquarters of the Theatre Historical Society of America, and THSA Executive Director Richard Sklenar says the local landmark has become a beacon for a revitalized downtown.
“The neon on the front of this building, it shouts, ‘Come look at me.’ It shouts, ‘There is something going on here,’” Sklenar says. “Anywhere you walk in the downtown, you can look up and down York Street and see the neon flashing on the York Theatre. It’s a wonderful beacon. It generates lots of street traffic – lots of people coming and going.”
Another Classic Cinemas champion, Elmhurst Mayor Thomas Marcucci, couldn’t agree more. “Willis Johnson almost single-handedly redeveloped our central downtown business district,” Marcucci says. “A movie theatre is a great draw. For a while, Willis had eight movie screens over there. Now he has nine. So it kind of screwed me up, because I used to call it ‘an eight-cylinder engine which drives foot traffic for all of downtown.’”
However many cylinders they’re firing on, Johnson understands that the 12 theatres in the Classic Cinemas chain are engines of downtown redevelopment. “There is no question,” he tells BOXOFFICE. “We don’t want to make it sound egotistical, but there is no question about the fact that a theatre absolutely plays an important role in the revitalization of a downtown. What really started the renaissance of downtown Elmhurst was the restoration of the York Theatre. And that’s what we have repeated – in some cases to a greater degree or a lesser degree – in the towns that we’ve gone to.”
But Johnson never even intended to become an exhibitor, let alone an expert on the role of theatres in downtown redevelopment. It’s ironic, but the 30-year career in exhibition of a man who loves neon signage so much that his favorite vacation destination is the Las Vegas Strip began with an unlit marquee displaying the words “closed for remodeling.”
Started with his own hometown theatre
Johnson grew up in Downers Grove, Ill., only a couple of blocks from the Tivoli Theatre – the 1,392-seat single-screen motion-picture palace that he acquired in 1976 along with the rest of the historic Tivoli Building, which was also home to a residential hotel, a bowling alley, a billiards parlor and several storefronts.
The then-operator of the Tivoli Theatre had a lease running through 1994, so imagine Willis and Shirley Johnson’s surprise when “we woke up one morning in June of 1978, and across the marquee it said ‘closed for remodeling.’ We knew enough about real estate and the theatre business to tell that something was afoot,” Willis Johnson recalls. Facing increased competition from a new multiplex up the road, the tenant had “closed for remodeling” in order to void his lease. The Johnsons interviewed other prospective operators for the Tivoli, but ultimately agreed to go into business with its former manager Ed Doherty, who offered to run the theatre and book the films if Willis and Shirley would handle the business side of the operations. “That sounded like a good fit to my wife and I,” Willis Johnson says.
It proved to be such a good fit that that Johnsons began to expand within a couple of years, taking on the operation of – and eventually purchasing – historic theatres such as the Lake, the Lindo, the Paramount and the York in the ’80s. Working in close collaboration with THSA stalwart Joseph DuciBella, an interior designer and theatre historian who passed away in 2007, they began restorations that balanced a respect for the architecture of the past with a recognition of the economics – and audience expectations – of the present.
“From an architectural standpoint, a number of our theatres are rooted in the past, but technologically, you get anything out of theatres that are being built today,” Johnson says. Classic Cinemas was an early adopter of advances in video preshow, digital sound and digital projection technologies. In 2005, its Lake Theatre was one of the 84 screens across the country that showed Chicken Little in 3D.
Johnson’s reputation for identifying nascent technologies with the potential to improve the presentation of the movies inspired his peers to tap him to chair the technology committee of the National Association of Theatre Owners. He has also served as the president of NATO of Illinois since 1995, and his leadership within the industry has earned the modest Midwesterner the admiration of recently retired NATO Vice President and Executive Director Mary Ann Anderson.
“I think he is the most wonderful man in the world, next to my husband,” Anderson raves. “He is caring. He is dedicated. He has worked so hard on behalf of the industry at both our national meetings and the state meetings. He is not afraid to state an opinion that may not be popular, but is right. And he is very straightforward.
“He is a good theatre man – and that’s a real compliment in my view, because he really loves the movie theatre business,” say Anderson. “Willis Johnson is the epitome of what has made our industry special over the generations.”
Speaking of “generations,” Willis’ son shares his commitment to balancing tradition with innovation at the Classic Cinemas theatres.
“I think it’s a given that you have the latest equipment – sound and projection. So we never sacrifice that,” says Chris Johnson, who literally started out at the bottom in the family business by hauling seven dumpsters’ worth of junk out of the basement of the Tivoli. He’s since earned an MBA and worked his way up to vice president. “But we try to do all of the old-time service things, like giving out a mint as people leave or offering free refills on all sizes of popcorn and drinks – that throwback customer service.”
Classic customer service isn’t the only way that the Johnsons honor the past, however. “Anything that they’ve ever done, they’ve always been respectful of the original historic fabric of the building. If they can keep something, they will. If they can put something back, they will,” says Sklenar, who sees shades of older showmen in Willis Johnson. “He’s a very intuitive businessman. I’m reminded of the entrepreneurs of the ’20s. I’m reminded of Balaban & Katz, Finklestein & Rubin or any of the other ones that built up chains. They had an intuitive sense of where the public wanted to see for entertainment. And I think Willis is in the long progression of that line. He can see where there is an opportunity to make money doing what these theatres used to do. And that’s entertain people. And that’s the amazing thing about older properties: They’re still, three generations later, doing what they were built to do.”
And, three generations later, moviegoers still treasure those local landmarks.
“People gravitate to their hometown downtown theatre,” says Shirley Johnson, who serves as the corporate secretary of Classic Cinemas. “They feel it’s their theatre. We may own it, but it’s their theatre. It’s where they saw their first movie, it’s where they had their first dates, where they had their first kisses, where they proposed to their wives.”
And because of three decades of efforts on the part of Classic Cinemas, they will continue to do so for years to come.